2. Theorizing Power and Politics in Water Governance
Defined above, governance differs from government in that the latter is focused on formal government institutions, rules, regulations, and managerial practices while the former involves wider considerations over how, and for whom, water is managed and made available [1
]. This broader governance framework includes focus on the interplay between actors, preferences, and political-economic imperatives [1
], as well as historical, socio-cultural, and legal considerations, and privileging of certain values, preferences, and worldviews. A focus on government and management invites attention to politics as the formal regulation of water, inter-jurisdictional negotiations, or outcomes of policies. Such an orientation also often implies that better information and sharing of scientific data will help mitigate or solve problem x
. Relatedly, such pursuits might also assume that (a) water is knowable and can be managed, and (b) norms and desires are universal and can be put into practice [7
]. The reality is often remarkably different: Water access and rights are often linked to contentious politics of struggle, water access and quality is deeply differentiated, water uses are fundamentally contested, and what water “is” and how water is known, constructed, and lived is variegated and difficult to conceptualize, let alone implement [8
]. Allied with this, Perreault [15
] suggests such calls for “good [water] governance”, often ambiguous and vague, can:
help conceal the political and economic interests that lie behind the institutional arrangements, social relations, material practices and scalar configurations involved in so-called ‘good governance’. If we are to employ this concept, then it is imperative we do so critically, carefully elucidating the political nature inherent in the institutional arrangements and socio-environmental relationships to which it refers.
The diverse understandings, constituencies and interests that surround water can be neglected, further erased, or oversimplified when water governance actors assume what normative and shared understandings of water are [2
]. Feminist scholarship, Indigenous theorists, and political ecologists have contributed valuable frameworks and analytics to extend analysis of politics and governance. Applied to water, we can engage these approaches to understand water not as a hydrological or biophysical system but as a “hydro-social” system, inseparable from politics, culture, and economy [9
]. Offering another important example, Indigenous scholars and allies have foregrounded Indigenous water ontologies and epistemologies, rooted in responsibilities to water as a living entity and suggesting that colonial understandings of water, as a material resource, should be challenged and decolonized to address past injustices and move towards more just and sustainable interactions with, and uses of, water (e.g., [11
]). Ethnographers, including feminist scholars, have re-scaled and re-contextualized water’s access, uses, and governance through a focus on citizenship and racialization, the emotional and affective embodiments of water, and the politics, negotiations and relations of “the everyday” (e.g., [18
]). Examples of wider conversations opened-up include how bodies are enrolled in uneven geographies of water access, the multi-species and multi-actor entanglements that (re)constitute “hydro-social” and infrastructural assemblages, and analytical re-orientations of governance to include intangible
meanings and values of water (e.g., [18
]). From such scholarship, a broader understanding of what governance might entail is brought into view, often contrasting with a narrow managerial perspective on how to “better” govern water [1
]. These provocative entry points invite attention not only to the uneven distribution and access to water for humans and non-humans, but also highlight the wider governing ethics, arrangements, histories, and political-economic systems that give rise to, sustain, and reinforce such patterns (e.g., [20
Approaching “the political” from such a broadened perspective, the purpose of this Special Issue is to offer a set of openings and entry points regarding what politics in water governance might mean, and how we might approach it more meaningfully as scholars (and practitioners). One framing that is helpful in highlighting key elements of power that are likely to be significant for such a task is offered by Brisbois and de Loë [29
]. Highlighted below, these authors extend Lukes’ [31
] elaboration of power as instrumental, structural
in the context of collaborative water governance. Instrumental power
reflects influence over others exerted through expressions of force (e.g., financial, technical and social) [30
]. As one example, Bakker et al. [32
] trace such concerns with respect to regulatory injustices of water governance for Indigenous peoples in Canada. Structural power
refers to the historical, social, economic, and political contexts through which particular water governance arrangements come into being, and (re)produce systems of injustice and inequality [29
]. States serve a central role in exercising structural power because they hold (and claim) the authority to determine the problem-framing and set of possible solutions for how water, or water problems, will be governed [29
]. Structural power further includes broader systems of colonialism and racism that (re)produce uneven quantities and qualities of water [21
]. For instance, systemic inequalities include those constituted through settler colonialism as an economic and political system that structures Indigenous peoples’ ability to assert their self-determination [36
]. As several authors have asserted through analysis of such considerations, these inequities are not necessarily about specific negotiations and interactions, but much more about the uneven playing field of structural and historical relations. For example, Mushkegowuk (Swampy Cree) scholar Michelle Daigle [38
] discusses the ways neoliberal settler colonialism shapes particular types of water governmentalities. She states:
Mushkegowuk water governance, like Indigenous water governance across Canada, is further ruptured through neoliberal policies that secure and stimulate capitalist accumulation at the expense of Indigenous autonomy and environmental sustainability.
In this example, neoliberal governmentalities, structural racism, and racial capitalism coalesce resulting in particular ruptures of water-related decision making—with unjust and unsustainable outcomes. To appropriately highlight these longer histories, and broader relations of power and inequality that structure water governance, it is important to engage multi-scalar lenses, and to embed an analysis of current decisions and outcomes in relation to broader histories and contexts (e.g., of neoliberal hegemony, racial capitalism, and colonialism) (e.g., [21
]). It is important thus to note that structural power is not necessarily the direct interplay among opposing actors or interests, but often more diffuse historical trajectories and systems (of inequality, or political economy) that impinge on water governance and its current instantiations.
is another dimension and refers to the capacity of actors to construct or shape norms, values, and framings, including in ways that prevent actors from recognizing that particular solutions or implements can harm their interests (see [30
]). Such power is often characterized using governmentality
–defined by Foucault as “the conduct of conduct” [39
], or the myriad ways that human behavior is directed and regulated, often in ways that are diffuse, everyday, self-oriented, and implicated in a range of socio-political relations beyond formal spheres of “politics” (at times referred to as capillary power
). Among other examples, Vos and Boelens [41
] examine water justice in relation to the virtual water trade and argue that neoliberal water governmentalities
“aim to organize and direct water users’ behavior by approaching users as rational, enterprising agents who economically benefit from water development…” [41
]. Other examples similarly highlight certain discourses of conservation, efficiency, or even the human right to water that condition particular water-related uses or shifts. Consider, for instance, the argument that a focus on the human right to water can privilege human users over ecosystems, or that this discourse and policy has also served as justification for large water transfers from rural users to urban consumers [42
Political ecologists, human geographers, and anthropologists have more recently scrutinized ontological and epistemological politics or sedimented notions of how water is understood, governed, used, and incorporated into daily life practices [13
]. These offerings suggest that alternative and counter-hegemonic approaches (in relation to epistemologies, axiologies, and ontologies) are of critical importance in re-defining our relationships with water in ways that might further justice and sustainability goals. A related example is the literature on the “post-political”, referring to the intentional de-politicization of environmental crises particularly in service of capitalist accumulation (e.g., geo-engineering or large infrastructure development) [48
]. These processes offer clear examples of discursive power, often working to suggest certain processes are “natural” (e.g., water scarcity), or domains of technology and engineering, in ways that work to evacuate the associated politics.
Beyond these notable examples, there are other contributions that have extended our understanding of water politics and governance, from engagements with the politics of scale regarding the consolidation of notions of the waterscape or particular river basins [50
], to work on hydro-social territories and conflicts between rural and urban users and uses of water (see the recent Special Issue of Water International
]), to interventions that engage with the politics of emotions and embodiment in water relations and worlds [22
]. More generally, there has also been long-standing interest with water inequities and uneven water geographies [53
]. All such contributions provide a basis to affirm the foundational role of politics, broadly understood, as key to any analytical or practical engagement with water governance.
The papers that comprise this Special Issue contribute to these ongoing debates, and also extend the analytical and conceptual terrain to further these discussions. This Special Issue comprises a number of diverse and exciting research articles that met our call for engagement and (re)theorizations with the political in relation to water governance frameworks and decision-making processes. Key themes that emerged included the politics of water infrastructure and insecurity; participatory politics and multi-scalar governance dynamics; politics associated with emergent technologies of water (bottled or packaged water and water desalination); and Indigenous water governance/ontologies. We highlight several, below.
4. Conclusions: Re-theorizing Politics
Water governance practices that elide “the political” do not challenge the direct production and concealment of uneven social-ecological risks, nor do such approaches create opportunities to articulate and redraw water-related decisions, uses, or practices in ways that will be more just and sustainable. As many of the contributions make clear, particular discourses, policies, and governance frameworks too often suggest that certain “solutions”—be it decentralization, PES, participation, IWRM, or nexus approaches—will overcome problems with water governance. Yet, as these contributions demonstrate, such constructs mask the associated “politics”, but politics are integral to such interventions and their uneven outcomes. There is an ongoing need for attention to these politics, as well as new analytics and methods to highlights their dimensions. There has been considerable progress to promote analyses that center and re-theorize “the political” in water governance. Clear themes emerge in this Special Issue, including the need to interrogate purportedly apolitical institutional structures and infrastructural interventions, as well as to investigate the on-the-ground realities as ‘apolitical’ interventions. As such, the themes outlined above help to underscore some of the concerns associated with de-politicized water governance, and further offer insights on what it means to position politics at the forefront of water governance analyses. The contributions also include radical re-formulations of water governance, including a focus, for example, on ontologies, axiologies, and epistemologies within the contributions on Indigenous water governance. Through these contributions, the wider political terrain that enables the production of certain waters—be it desalinated, packaged, or bottled, and their uneven outcomes (e.g., private over public interests, mining industry over domestic users)—come to the fore. Together, the contributions contained within engage with and offer new insights to both re-center and re-theorize the politics of water governance.
There are also new openings made possible by the contributions here. Among them, we expect scholarship to further the types of questions and realities offered by the considerable work on Indigenous water governance. Noted here, there are many political struggles and openings provided by deeper engagement with these realities, histories, and ways of knowing and ways of governing. There are also ongoing political challenges and debates more fundamentally about what societally and politically we want to do about biophysical and water related challenges, such and those associated with climate change or ongoing water related degradation. Thus far, there has often been a reversion to the “technical” (e.g., augment supply by building new dams, the pursuit of desalinization, or compensate upstream users through schemes such as PES). Even if such options proceed with the notion that these are technical solutions, and thus evacuated of politics, this is not the reality. As such, we must make visible and confront these politics head on: Who benefits, who loses, why? In addition, there are options and possibilities such as those associated with narrative water ethics or Indigenous legal frameworks that might offer hope for bringing these contestations and trade-offs to the fore; that is, what do these offer for the future of water governance and what new work, concepts, and governance mechanisms might enable us to do this more adequately, appropriately, and with an orientation towards justice and sustainability?
As technologies and governance practices continue to change and adapt, there will undoubtedly continue to be new and different questions to be addressed and considered. As we do so, we must continue to attend to the politics of such interventions. The pretense of apolitical and win-win interventions must also be taken as a red flag—here, an analysis to understand the politics might be all the more difficult, yet of critical importance. We also see considerable value, illustrated in the pages of this volume, regarding the important learning that can occur across disciplines and geographies, whether from bringing realities of First Nations into conversation with the situation elsewhere, or by linking political ecology with urban studies, planning, anthropology, and other approaches. Here we can break new conceptual and analytical ground, whether that relates to the concept of “unmapping” [54
] or thinking about the implications of nibi
(Ogamauh annag qwe
, see Chiblow) [74
], or through understandings of Indigenous wellbeing as connected to territory and the relationships that are forged with and through water [76
]. We find such critiques and learnings to be of vital importance. Especially when they can be conveyed in ways that highlight the conceptual and empirical lessons, and also that can be read in ways that are accessible and relevant to diverse audiences. We are pleased to offer this Special Issue, with the hope that we have met and maybe even exceeded these goals.