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Mapping A New Governance Space: Managing Water Scarcity In The Uk

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Bettina Lange (Oxford, UK), Bettina Lange, Christina Cook, Christopher Decker
Dr. Bettina Lange & Dr. Christina Cook
Centre for Socio-Legal Studies,
University of Oxford

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 15: Water law,

Mapping a new governance space: managing water scarcity in the UK


Climate change is associated with increasingly severe weather events, that give rise to alternating periods of flooding and drought, with these being significant also in the UK, as witnessed during the winter 2013/4 floods and the 2010-12 drought, which affected in particular the South-East of England. This paper discusses key elements of a qualitative empirical socio-legal research project which analyses the legal regulation of water scarcity and drought in the UK. The purpose of the project is to critically interrogate how environmental science and economics expertise is mobilized when key regulatory tools for dealing with drought and water scarcity are applied. This matters in light of the emphasis on evidence and risk based regulation in current public policy discourses on water resource management in the UK. In analogy to the regulatory framework for flood management in the UK water scarcity may now also become subject to a risk based approached to regulation which seeks to focus regulatory intervention on the most serious hazards. Environmental science and economics expertise is key to developing the 'evidence base' that informs such risk based approaches. But what environmental science and economics expertise currently actually underpins the use of legal regulatory tools for preventing and managing drought?


This paper draws on original qualitative data derived from semi-structured interviews and analysis of public policy and organizational documents in order to map how environmental science and economics expertise is mobilized in relation to key regulatory tools for preventing and managing drought, such as drought planning, drought orders and restoring sustainable abstraction through revocation of water abstraction licences or modification of their conditions. Key examples of relevant environmental science and economics knowledges are environmental impact assessment methodologies, including strategic environmental impact assessments of drought plans, and economic impact assessments, including cost-benefit analysis for deciding trade-offs between different claims to commercial water use as part of drought order applications.

Results and Discussion

The paper will present a number of interesting findings, such as:

* only a minority of water company drought plans in the UK have been informed by strategic environmental assessments.

* the scope of such strategic environmental assessments is disputed. Local business interests in some areas argue for greater consideration of economic impacts of drought on local businesses as part of a wider conception of sustainability assessments of drought plans.

* the current legal regulatory framework requires, somewhat paradoxically, the production in particular of environmental science knowledge in relation to those regulatory tools, such as drought orders and drought permits that the law requires to be a last resort for managing drought.

* the legal regulatory framework currently does not explicitly require the production of environmental science or economic expertise in relation to a currently little used option for preventing and managing drought, that is the reduction in demand for water by commercial and industrial water users.

In discussing these findings the paper will locate the analysis of the qualitative empirical data about the mobilization of environmental science and economics knowledges in the wider regulation literature. The paper argues that in order to understand how environmental science and economics expertise informs the mobilization of key regulatory tools it is necessary to map the governance space for managing water scarcity in the UK. This involves to identify the key relationships of power between the main organizational actors in this governance space, such as the water companies, the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs, economic and environmental regulatory agencies, as well as consultants and commercial/industrial/agricultural abstractors. While there is a generic governance space for dealing with water scarcity in the UK, this governance varies according to specific actor constellations in the four polities of the UK, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.


The search for a regulatory solution to water scarcity and drought is often framed as a matter of understanding how a 'good' evidence base can enable the strategic and instrumental choice of a legal regulatory tool. In contrast to this, the perspective developed in this paper emphasizes the importance of mapping the 'governance space' populated by key organizational actors who are engaged in interdependent relationships of negotiation. It is this configuration of the governance space which shapes whether and how environmental science and economics expertise is mobilized in relation to key regulatory tools.

Assoc. Prof. Bettina Lange Dr. Christina Cook Dr. Christopher Decker Centre for Socio-Legal Studies University of Oxford

Contact information for corresponding author: Bettina Lange,, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Manor Road Social Science Building, Manor Road, Oxford, OX1 3UQ, phone: 0044 131 555 5323, fax: 0044 1865 284 221.

2011 IWRA - International Water Resources Association - - Admin