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Policy and institutional reform: the art of the possible
Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture. 2007. Water for Food, Water for Life: A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture. London: Earthscan, and Colombo: International Chapter 5

Water Management Institute.
To purchase the full report, Water for Food, Water for Life: A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture (Earthscan, 2007), visit

Lead authors: Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Peter P. Mollinga, and Eiman Karar
Contributing authors: Walter Huppert, Judith Rees, Juana Vera, Kai Wegerich, and Pieter van der Zaag
Coordinating lead author: Douglas J Merrey
International Water Management Institute


Poverty, hunger, gender inequality, and environmental degradation continue to afflict developing countries not because of technical failings but because of political and institutional failings. Current policies and institutional arrangements are often ineffective, and the challenges are increasing. Institutional reform is critical, but many reforms have had mixed outcomes at best.

This chapter proposes a structured, context-specific approach to reforming, negotiating, and crafting effective institutions, organizations, and policies for water management in developing countries based on a careful assessment of experiences. This approach recognizes the inherently complex, political, and contentious nature of institutional transformation. It promotes careful analysis—of the current situation, available options, vested interests, potential costs and benefits, potential allies and opposition—as a basis for a strategic plan to guide reform. The plan should be a flexible guideline, responsive to experience and new opportunities. It recognizes that institutions, organizations, and policies are context specific.

While market forces and communities play critical roles in water management, the state will continue to have a central role because of its responsibility for providing public goods and for ensuring equity and sustainability. It is also responsible for maintaining a macroeconomic environment conducive to developing and using water resources effectively and equitably and for integrating the development and management of water resources into national programs in a way that optimizes the contribution of water to sustainable national growth. This includes, at a minimum, assessing the impacts of water policies, programs, and projects on national development, social well-being, and environmental quality. Policies, programs, and projects not complying with basic threshold requirements should be redesigned. The state is best placed to mobilize resources for large-scale water development and overall regulation. However, the state is not a monolithic entity, and with its often fragmented and even contradictory structures and processes, it is also a core component of the problem.

One challenge is to encourage technical water bureaucracies to see water management as a social and political as well as a technical issue and therefore to prioritize reducing poverty, increasing equity, and enhancing ecosystem services as their overarching goals. Another is to support more integrated approaches to agricultural water management, for example, incorporating livestock and fisheries, encouraging new lower cost technologies, and improving rainfed agricultural production. Meeting these challenges will be impossible in many developing countries without substantial changes in water management policies and institutions.

The state should not be seen as the sole institution for delivering sound water management. Effective coordination and negotiation mechanisms are needed among the various state, civil society, and private sector organizations involved.

Political and institutional reforms are triggered by both internal and external pressures and opportunities, by pressures such as water scarcity, poverty, and food insecurity as well as by changes in global terms of trade and the requirements of development partners. The chapter reviews several major responses to these pressures. An early assumption that farmers were failing to respond to new irrigation opportunities (“blame the farmers”) led to emphasizing training and on-farm infrastructure development. Next came attempts to transfer responsibilities to farmer organizations (irrigation management transfer). More recently, increasing interactions among water uses and users has led to the creation of river basin organizations, with mixed results. Market-inspired reforms including privatization and new water markets remain attractive to many donors, though not necessarily to developing countries. Radical changes in the balance of power in favor of water users and major restructuring of entrenched “hydro-bureaucracies” have not been on the agenda of any developing country. International development partners have not reflected sufficiently on the extent to which they have become part of the problem faced by developing countries rather than part of the solution.

A critical review of these experiences is organized around three themes:
  • The bias toward imposing blueprint solutions rather than critical evaluation of political and historical realities.
  • The need for changes in the larger institutional context, not simply in individual organizations or institutions.
  • The need to create an effective framework for relationships among actors and stakeholders.
Policies are produced and implemented in an institutional context. Therefore this chapter addresses both policies and institutions. The chapter argues against imposing solutions but for basing reforms and reform processes on basic principles such as the need for information sharing, transparency, accountability, equity, and empowerment of poor women and men.

Following from the critical review of experience, the chapter suggests a way forward organized around five propositions:
  1. Institutional reform processes are inherently political, making generalization and advocacy of single-dimensional solutions impractical. Needed instead are insightful analysis of what is possible, coalition building, and effective champions of change.
  2. Reforms do not start from a blank slate, but are embedded in a sociotechnical context with a history, culture, environment, and vested interests that shape the scope for change. These well established conditions are in a state of flux that can create opportunities for negotiating reforms, but outcomes are inherently unpredictable.
  3. The state will remain the main driver of reform for the foreseeable future but is also the institution most in need of reform. The state must take responsibility for ensuring greater equity in access to water resources and for using water development and management to reduce poverty. Protecting essential ecosystem services is also vital for many reasons, including their importance to poor people’s livelihoods.
  4. Knowledge and human capacity are critical to implementing successful integrated water resources management and to crafting institutions and policies for reducing poverty, promoting economic growth, and conserving essential ecosystem services. More reliable data are needed and must be shared widely with stakeholders to empower them through greater awareness and understanding. Further, new skills and capacities within water management institutions are critically important—at a time when various forces are weakening governments’ capacities to attract and hold people with this expertise.
  5. The state cannot make changes alone. Writing new laws and passing administrative orders achieve little by themselves. Investments of time and other resources in public debate based on shared, trusted information pay off by creating knowledge, legitimacy, and understanding of the reasons for change, and increase the likelihood of implementation. Knowledge sharing and debate create opportunities for including and empowering poor stakeholders—those with the most to gain (or lose). Coalitions of stakeholders and political reformers can lead a reform process that will strengthen both the state and civil society to play more effective roles in water management.
Research is urgently needed to support reform processes and reduce the uncertainty of reforms as sociopolitical processes. Paying more attention to ways to institutionalize social equity, poverty reduction, and ecosystem sustainability is critical. Negotiating reforms is the art of the possible, but informing that art with applied professional research will make successful outcomes more likely.

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