Cohen, A., & Davidson, S. (2011). The watershed approach: challenges, antecedents, and the transition from technical tool to governance unit. Water Alternatives, 4(1), 1–14.

This article provides a very unique and interesting critique of the watershed governance approach. The authors argue that watersheds, as a governance tool, are often conflated with other governance tools, such as IWRM or ‘integration’. A number of challenges associated with the watersheds approach are identified, namely:
– Boundary Choice: which watershed boundary is most appropriate for purposes of governance or management; watershed boundaries are often incongruent with other natural system boundaries (i.e. ecosystems, airsheds); watershed boundary choices are often a political/social act as much as a scientific choice.
– Accountability: watersheds often not congruent with conventional electoral boundaries; accountability is correlated in the extent to which (the process) stakeholders and participants are involved in decision-making.
– Public participation and empowerment: re-scaling to watershed may fail to meet participation and empowerment expectations, nor is it inherent that re-scaling will achieve this.
– Asymmetry b/w watershed and problem-shed: asymmetry lies in the fact that watersheds impact- and are impacted by – factors outside of their boundaries; watersheds rarely encompass all of the physical, social, or economic factors impacting upon the area within its borders.
– Asymmetry b/w watersheds and policy-sheds: jurisdictional overlap (watershed vs conventional administrative scales); no single set of policies will ever wholly encompass the watershed

This article highlighted a number of important considerations when applying watershed governance as a tool. The authors argue that watersheds can be appropriate for governance, including: clearly defined watershed organizational mandates; powers and governance structures are clearly delineated; watershed organizations are properly resourced.

A point which I thought was fairly obviously incongruent with watershed scale was the setting of water quality guidelines. The authors argue that the watershed scale may be an appropriate scale in which to identify means for meeting these guidelines, but not for setting them. This goes to the issue of 1) resources – which watershed organizations have the human and scientific resources to effectively set water quality guidelines, and 2) enforcement – this goes to the same concern of resourcing.

The conflation with IWRM is also interesting, as these two tools share similar attributes. The authors are careful to note that ‘watersheds may be useful to include in IWRM in some cases, and in other cases, not’. Essentially, it is context specific about whether watersheds as the appropriate scale of governance should be a part of IWRM. It may work in some cases, where the conditions exist (i.e. clearly defined mandates, powers and governance structures clearly delineated, properly resourced).

IN some cases, where watershed organizations do not have these necessary pre-conditions for success, re-scaling to the watershed can do more damage than benefits. This is the big debate about re-scaling of governance, in general. Without the appropriate conditions (see above: i.e. resourcing, mandates), local governance is not always the more appropriate avenue to take. Capacity, knowledge, willingness, resources, are all important aspects to consider when assessing achievability of re-scaling exercises.

This entry was posted in Reading Reflections, Theme 2: Transboundary Water Governance. Bookmark the permalink.

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