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Systemic Water Governance As Integration: Rethinking Concepts And Practices

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Kevin Collins (Milton Keynes, UK), Ray Ison

MSI, Monash University1

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 8: Revisiting water paradigms,


Despite improvements in technology, current environmental pressures and changes arising from population growth and climate change continue to place greater demands on limited water supplies globally and locally (Rockstrom et al 2014). The report of the UN Rio +20 conference, The Future We Want (UN 2012) emphasises the need for integration of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development in a holistic and cross-sectoral manner at all levels. But progress on many aspects of water governance, such as those enshrined in the Millennium Development Goals has been slow or non-existent (UNEP 2012). Past experience does not bode well for enacting the UN's new sustainable development goals (SDGs; see Griggs et al 2013). At the heart of many of these issues is the sense that there has been a failure to integrate, whether across social, economic and environmental concerns in the traditional, but now questioned, three pillars model, or across organisational silos, and in translating research into policy and practice. This failure, arising from the impacts of complex, non-linear changes in natural processes requires responses that 'need to focus on the root causes, the underlying drivers of environmental changes, rather than only the pressures or symptoms' (UNEP 2012:9). As part of this, new thinking and practices for systemic water governance are urgently needed within the context of the SDGs and emerging critiques of IWRM (Mehta et al 2014).

Although water governance is an ongoing and key concern for policy-makers and practitioners in many different contexts, theories and practices associated with enacting governance (i.e., governing) have yet to be fully explored and operationalised. As our understandings of natural resource management and water governance change it is increasingly apparent that understandings and practices that are 'more of the same' are no longer good enough (Schön 1995). At the core of prospects for integration and new forms of water governance is the need to change the way many environmental situations are conceptualised or framed (Schön and Rein 1994). This paper aims to address a gap about the meanings and practices associated with what we term systemic water governance and its fundamental link with, to date, the most pervasive of all imperatives in water governance: the need for integration.

While debates around resilience and adaptation are important parts of water governance, successful implementation of either is reliant on (1) a systemic understanding of the water governance situation and (2) concepts and practices relating to integration. Integration is generally assumed to be a desired goal of all water governance structures and processes. However while there is some theoretical development about the concept of integration (e.g. Dovers, 2005; Bammer 2005; Mehta et al 2014) there remains, significantly, limited understanding amongst practitioners of the implications of integration for practices. In particular, how can integration be realised in situations experienced as complex, messy and 'wicked' so as to enable adaptation and resilience to be progressed? In attempting to make sense of wicked situations, the relationship between integration and systemic water governance emerges as being of particular importance.

Our paper explores this relationship in more detail and makes clear the fundamental link between a systemic approach to water governance and integration. Systemic, in contrast to systematic, approaches are, by definition, integrative. Developing capacity for systems thinking and practice increases the scope for integration. Our paper explores how this can be done by drawing on a range of theoretical work and case studies to explore key concepts and practices of integration in relation to water governance. A particular emphasis is on revealing ways in which systems thinking and practices combined with concepts of social learning enable new framings of integration that lead to more systemic approaches to water governance. Methods / materials

The paper reports on a meta-analysis of 15 years research undertaken by the authors on different case studies across the world exploring aspects of water governance. Our approach is centred on using systems thinking and practices to design and develop social learning systems capable of realising integrated water governance (Colvin et al, 2015; Ison et al, 2015). We highlight one particular strand of inquiry conducted with the Environment Agency (England & Wales) in which concerns about integration have been a major theme.

Using exemplars from our case studies, the paper discusses how purposeful design of social learning systems can reveal different framings among stakeholders and thus how integration is closely linked to creating initial starting conditions for purposeful action. Various framings are actively explored through conceptualising different systems of water governance in order to develop new collective understandings and practises and thus increase the potential, or otherwise, for more integrated forms of water governance. Results and discussion

The results from our work suggests that there is, as yet, limited understanding among policy-makers and practitioners of integration as a concept and thus what integration means for practices associated with water governance. This stems in part from a lack of skills and capacities amongst researchers, policy makers and practitioners to address water governance situations as systemic situations requiring systemic insights, methodologies and responses. In short, a systemic approach to water governance requires a reconceptualization of the meanings and paradigm of water governance and the critical role systems and social learning approaches can play in progressing more integrated approaches. IWRM as a driving paradigm may no longer be capable of addressing these issues. Conclusions

In the face of complex water situations, systemic water governance is an urgent need. The concepts and approaches in this paper offer new opportunities to reconceptualise the paradigm of water governance and rethink the praxis of water governance so as to deliver what proponents of integration seek. Our paper suggests that a systemic approach to integrate complex water governance situations requires a commitment to systems and social learning approaches. The skills and capacities needed which arise from this commitment have yet to be fully developed and implemented so as to transform IWRM into effective governance praxis or to move on to more appropriate governance framings and praxis.


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