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B1.1 Reforming institutions for better governance


Water governance refers to the political, administrative, economic and social systems that exist to manage water resources and services and is essential in order to manage water resources sustainably and provide access to water services for domestic or productive purposes.

Governance models must fit the prevailing social, economic and cultural particularities of a country, but certain basic principles or attributes are essential. The approach taken to water governance should be transparent, inclusive, coherent and equitable. Similarly, the governance system should be accountable, efficient and responsive. Better governance requires the participation of government, civil society and the private sector, as all are instrumental in different ways in the successful implementation of institutional reforms.

In reforming institutions for better governance, an assessment of existing institutional systems should be carried out first – to understand who does what for whom, and to whom they are accountable. An institutional assessment should identify, for example, conflicting laws, duplication or lack of clarity of mandates for different organisations and jurisdiction of different tiers of authority – local, sub-regional, national and, increasingly, international. Determining what to reform and the sequence that reforms should take is critical to the success of the reform process. A comparative analysis of reforms that have been undertaken, either within a country or with other similar countries, can help clarify needs.

Change can be painful and is often resisted as it makes people feel insecure even if they understand the need. Often good laws or revised procedures can fail as they are not understood or accepted by officials or citizens. Institutional reform needs to be done with a participatory and consultative approach, involving the formal and informal sectors, to develop understanding and ownership of the change process (see tools such as Conflict Resolution, C5, or B2, Building institutional capacity).

A key element is access to information (see C4.3). Frequently, information is only available to a select group of experts or officials leading to “information asymmetry”. Concrete actions are needed to redress this imbalance.

Lessons learned

  • Reforms should be carried out in a coherent and integrative way and suit the broader social and political policies of the country.
  • Not all necessary reforms can be undertaken at the same time – it is important to decide on priorities and a sequence of actions to suit those priorities.
  • Avoid unrealistic reforms that are not politically or socially acceptable.
  • Raising awareness, sharing information and meaningful participatory debate are key elements of any reform process.
  • Reform is a dynamic, iterative process and the only certainty is change itself.
  • Vested interests and special interest groups should be included in debates but decision-makers should avoid being ‘captured’ by special interest groups.
  • In any reform, regulation of service providers, both public and private, is a key element and regulators must be independent and strong.
  • Reforms should avoid confusing the roles of resource management (government responsibility) and service provision (public or privately operated utilities).
  • Governance for water must take account of all sectors which are dependent on water or are key providers of water and must not concentrate solely on drinking water supply.

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