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Towards a Chilean Water Governance: A Study on the Los Batros and Paicaví Wetland Reservoirs

Programa de Magister en Ciencias Regionales, Universidad de Concepción, Concepción 4070386, Chile
Departamento de Sociología, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad de Concepción, Concepción 4070386, Chile
Facultad de Ciencias Ambientales y Centro EULA-Chile, Universidad de Concepción, Concepción 4070386, Chile
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Water 2022, 14(18), 2861;
Submission received: 15 July 2022 / Revised: 7 September 2022 / Accepted: 7 September 2022 / Published: 13 September 2022
(This article belongs to the Section Water Resources Management, Policy and Governance)


The creation of the Urban Wetlands Law has emerged as a promising initiative to address the challenges of urban wetland management in Chile. Concepción, with its urban wetlands, is presented as a relevant case study for the analysis of water management of these ecosystems. The simple identification of the actors involved in the territory is not enough to achieve a clear understanding of the problem, so this article focuses on the networks of actors that are involved in the water management practices of the wetland ecosystems of Los Batros and Paicaví. In this work, the application of grounded theory and semi-structured interviews with key actors were combined. The main results indicate that water management has elements that are close to polycentric governance, such as the aforementioned law, where there are coordination initiatives among actors and power limitations in the analyzed cases. However, this research identifies several areas of improvement regarding decentralization, citizen participation, mitigation, and adaptation actions.

1. Introduction

The world and its different regions are currently facing a great challenge. Despite the fact that Chile contributes approximately 0.22% of global greenhouse gases [1], the country’s vulnerability is significant, as it presents seven of the nine vulnerability criteria according to the Climate Change Office [2]. This is relevant because, by understanding that causes and consequences are not directly proportional, we can adapt and implement better measures. From a socioeconomic perspective, climate change increases poverty and generates new diseases, in addition to the growing tension over access to limited resources such as water, productive land, etc. [3]. The literature indicates that the impacts of climate change will be felt most directly through changes in the availability and security of water, which is the lifeblood of planet earth [4]. Climate change is affecting the onset, duration, and intensity of extreme hydrological events, in addition to climatological processes [5].
For more than 10 years, Chile has been experiencing a drought in a large part of its territory [6]. Despite the fact that water availability in the country represents 10 times the world average, its distribution in the territory is very unequal [7]. The social consequences are wide-ranging and absorb many sectors of the population in different ways and to different extents. Rapid population growth, urbanization, and the economic development model, mean pressures on water use [8]. In addition, water is used in different ways by different parts of society, which generates a necessity for adequate and effective water management policies.
Decisions for action on water resources vary according to regional characteristics related to their productive activities, local actors, and the regional context. However, in Chile, there is a discrepancy between local needs and the decisions taken by centralized political centers. This centralization of decisions has important territorial consequences on the social, ecological, and economic structures of the sector.
Decision-making is related to the term water governance, which has been scientifically studied from various scales and perspectives. This diversity of analysis allows us to understand how social systems are, in fact, a product of diverse and complex interactions. Actors at different scales and their respective visions shape and change the development of models, which greatly influence the way resources are managed and the roles of public and private actors in relation to this topic [3]. To analyze the cases of wetlands in Greater Concepción, the governance debate at the European, Latin American, and Chilean levels becomes essential. Water management practices can be close to or far from the concepts of water governance, which is why it is important to analyze the main concepts of the problem.
In this context, the cases of urban wetlands present in the Greater Concepción Conurbation stand out in this work. The term wetland refers to landscape-dynamic ecosystems that have soils covered or saturated with water for a period of time and in sufficient quantity to modify their environmental conditions and on which predominantly hydrophilic vegetation develops [9]. According to the Ramsar Convention, wetlands are defined as expanses of marsh, swamp, peatland, or water-covered surfaces. In addition, water covers may be natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, stagnant or flowing, fresh, brackish, or salty [10].
In the context of centralized decision-making, there are initiatives that seek to raise actions from the territories in relation to the management of these ecosystems. The Urban Wetlands Law No. 21202 was created to regulate and integrate the concept of urban wetlands into national legislation. The main purpose was to protect the urban wetlands, which have a particularly relevant ecosystemic value in urban spaces.
Wetlands are water reservoirs that are, on a biological level, highly productive and capable of supporting numerous native flora and fauna [11]. Likewise, wetlands stand out for their multiple ecosystem services [12,13]. Services related to flood hazards, rainwater drainage, water purification, bank stabilization, erosion control, storm protection, stabilization of local climatic conditions such as rainfall and temperatures, as well as air quality regulation have been causally diminished due to the filling of wetlands, which generates complex scenarios regarding the resilience of urban communities to the socio-natural disasters such as floods and storm surges. It is important to note that 90% of socio-natural disasters are caused due to water-related hazards, where wetlands tend to play a key part [14].
In the case studies corresponding to the Paicaví Wetland and Los Batros Wetland, different benefits delivered by these ecosystems are consciously and unconsciously relevant, whether it is their value in terms of flood hazard regulation or their great aesthetic and cultural value within the communal and metropolitan context. For example, the Los Batros wetland plays a fundamental role in the mitigation of a possible tsunami impact in populated areas because it absorbs the water avoiding the overflow and affectation of the area [15].
In this context, this paper seeks to study the existing water management modalities in Greater Concepción in the context of climate and institutional change, problems of resource availability, and debates on governance. Specifically, this work seeks to analyze and evaluate the current experiences and practices of water management and whether these have elements of water governance. In addition, it seeks to analyze the dynamics of actors in the current water management of Greater Concepción and to evaluate whether the current water management of Greater Concepción guarantees water security.

2. Materials and Methods

2.1. Literary Background, Methodology, and Research Strategies

Understanding that the research objective is to examine current water management in the context of changing institutions and climate change in Greater Concepción, an analysis of the actors was carried out. For this purpose, we contacted the actors that are involved in the problem; we reviewed the dynamics present among them and what role they play regarding the issue. This research sought to understand and analyze the reality of these wetlands, the dynamics of the networks of actors, and the way in which the groups of actors are articulated in terms of water governance from a constructive, multiple, and holistic interpretation.
It is necessary to mention that a bibliographic search was previously done in order to analyze other research related to the subject of the study. This allowed the creation of a referential framework for this piece of work. In addition, it is important to highlight that this research aimed to contribute interdisciplinary knowledge to the issue of water governance in the case studies analyzed, especially focusing on the relationships between the actors in this specific space. The main research analysis has its origins in the disciplines of political science, sociology, regional sciences, law, and environmental sciences. In order to develop the analytical framework for the concept of governance and its conceptualizations in different regions, a compilation, and selection of recent research was held. Scientific articles published in internationally recognized journals with high academic impact were consulted. The selected articles were published between the years 2006 and 2021. The main publications were rigorously analyzed in order to extract relevant information regarding governance, its characteristics, and main approaches, as well as gaps and limitations detected by scholars.
One of the main analyzed studies was one published by Zurbriggen [16], who focuses on the link between governance and its significance dependent on the region. The author studies the European debates on governance and then contrasts them with the instruments of governance in Latin America. In addition, by means of three case studies, Latin American state reforms related to the privatization of public services, new social policy offers, and decentralization processes are studied. In this work, it is mainly postulated that the particular patterns of governance developed in the region have generated tension within the State.
Regarding water governance on a global scale, we find the work of Gupta and Pahl-Wostl [17]. In this research, a qualitative comparative analysis of fuzzy sets is conducted to analyze the governance systems of 27 basins. This analysis identifies the effectiveness of formal institutions as an important condition for water governance performance.
In the field of water governance within the Chilean context, the work of Budds [18] is a great contribution. The purpose of this article is to analyze how the Water Code has shaped water governance in Chile. Furthermore, how this particular governance has shaped or modified the social relations of control over water and how these social relations of control over water shape the political-economic order in Chile.
The literature is insufficient in terms of the case studies selected, so the grounded theory proposed by Strauss and Corbin [19] was used. Eighteen semi-structured interviews were conducted with key actors in the problem from the private sector, such as sanitation companies in the municipalities, public employees of environmental departments, and politicians on a municipal and regional level. In addition, environmental activists of the previously mentioned wetlands and neighbors involved in the problem were also interviewed. The methodology used to select the interviewees was based on the creation of a list of key actors and the “snowball” system, which allowed the inclusion of other stakeholders that were considered relevant during the preliminary interviews.
After the data collection, it was analyzed, creating different levels of depth based on grounded theory [19]. The recording of the interview was transcribed to perform its corresponding interpretation. The software proposed to analyze the data obtained through the aforementioned theory is MAXQDA 2022. It was very useful due to its capacity to code, recover and analyze small and large collections of documents and images [20]. After the categorizations, the triangulation process took place, where the documents related to the actor’s interaction were studied in the aforementioned case studies and the previously analyzed theory.

2.2. Case Study

The Biobío region is located in the south of central Chile, between 36º26’ and 38º29’ south latitude [21]. The capital of the region, called Concepción, visible in Figure 1, has an area of 2830.40 km2 and represents a defined socioeconomic unit made up of the municipalities of Concepción, Talcahuano, Chiguayante, San Pedro de la Paz, Hualqui, Hualpén, Penco, Santa Juana, Tomé, Coronel, and Lota [22].
The metropolitan area of Greater Concepción is located in an area with varied aquatic ecosystems, which are associated with the Biobío and Andalién river basins [24]. In this scenario, the Los Batros and Paicaví wetlands, visible in Figure 2, stand out as important elements in the complex aquatic system, where important samples of native plants and animals can be found [25].

2.2.1. Los Batros Wetland

The Los Batros wetland is located in the commune of San Pedro de la Paz, which is located in the southern part of Gran Concepción. The most relevant actors related to water management are the municipality, which plays a leading role in the administration of the city, and the citizens. From the citizenry, the most relevant actors correspond to the community organization “San Pedro Sustentable,” which aims to preserve the environmental heritage, promote environmental balance, social justice, and citizen participation in the commune of San Pedro de la Paz [27]. In the economic sphere, most of the commune’s companies belong to the wholesale and retail trade, vehicle and motorcycle repair. The second category with the largest number of actors is construction, which is directly related to real estate activity in the sector [28].
The Los Batros wetland is located in the San Pedro plain, which is considered a coastal area of high natural and heritage value. In addition, the characteristics of the plain have led to the development of coastal environments such as dune fields, coastal wetlands, marshes, and mudflats. From a geomorphological perspective, it is noteworthy that the lagoons of San Pedro de la Paz, called Laguna Grande and Laguna Chica, are located in the same aquatic system [29]. Likewise, the Los Batros estuary, with its associated flooding area, is also located in this area. It is through its set and systems of lowlands, meadows, and grasslands that the Laguna Chica and Laguna Grande drain [30]. The wetland has an area of approximately 505 ha, reaching a maximum length of 6000 m and a maximum width of 900 m. Some areas are approximately 1.5 m deep, focused in the permanently flooded sectors. In addition, it has been identified as an emergent marsh-type wetland in which vega sectors are distinguished [30].
Los Batros wetland has been, since 2010, declared as an IBAS Site, which corresponds to an area of high relevance for the birds [31]. It is precisely in this wetland where the second largest population of the species Cygnus melancoryphus, commonly called Black-necked Swan, is found in the Biobío region. It is worth mentioning that the driest sectors are used for agriculture, livestock, and low-density residential uses [32]. Ecosystem fragmentation and the loss of surface areas are identified as the main threats to the ecosystem [30].
On the other hand, Los Batros wetland is considered an urban wetland, as it is located within city limits, population, and conurbations [33]. Being located in the third fastest growing commune [34], the degradation of this wetland and the loss of its surface area (thanks to filling) can be observed [35]. An example of this is the Bayona sector, which is composed of houses located in the filled Wetland. This urban biodiversity space is heavily pressured by urbanization dynamics and transportation infrastructure [33], such as Route 160, which crosses the wetland and divides it into two main sectors [11].
For these reasons, the Los Batros wetland is presented as a suitable research alternative to analyze water governance in communal and metropolitan dynamics. It has suffered irreversible deterioration as a result of several investments without proper environmental considerations [36].

2.2.2. Paicaví Wetland

The Paicaví wetland is located in the municipality of Concepción. This commune has an area of 221.6 km2 and a total population of 223,574 [37]. Citizen organizations related to water bodies are mainly created due to the rapid advance in the granting of building permits and densification of areas adjacent to the Paicaví wetland. The main community organization is the Paicaví Wetland Defense Committee, the leader of the social movement for the protection of this wetland [38].
The Paicaví wetland, consisting of 33.9 ha, is characterized as a freshwater marsh wetland belonging to the Rocuant-Andalién-Vasco de Gama-Paicaví-Tucapel Bajo wetland system [38]. It is also located on Eocene sedimentary sequences, characterized by sediments such as sandstones, shales, and coal beds [39]. Various species of dominant halophyte plants can be found [40].
The urbanization process of the Paicaví wetland is framed by the actions of various actors such as real estate developers, the municipality, and citizens themselves. The Regulatory Plan of Concepción allows residential use in areas of the Paicaví wetland, specifically defining it as a 14 ha HE3 urban expansion housing zone. In 2015, a large number of constructions were built, which are currently identified as the Aníbal Pinto Valley condominium, the Aníbal Pinto Valley houses, and five-story buildings. The green areas of the wetland were defined as 4.2 ha and 7.13 ha for the protection of the watercourse [37].
Around 2018, an increase in building permits near the wetland was allowed, precisely in the Tucapel Bajo sector, bordering Paicaví wetland, where there is a large concentration of permanent housing type buildings and some non-housing types. This particular wetland is surrounded by residential land uses, unlike the Rocuant-Andalién wetland, where land shows a presence of vegetation or natural areas on the edges [38]. However, citizen participation through different means and ways of expression, such as protests, disclosures, and legal resources, resulted in a municipal-level action, suspending the building permits for 2019 until the new modification of the Regulatory Plan of Concepción was set in 2020. The new modification considered a portion of the Paicaví wetland as an inter-glacial park in the city [38].

3. Results

It is of great importance to study different conceptions of governance in order to approach the objectives of this work. Based on this, different scales were applied to investigate this important term

3.1. The European Governance Debate

Since the 1990s, a new paradigm has been developed in an attempt to explain the transformations of the state in the last three decades [41]. The new conceptions and ideas about the concept of governance were born as a result of a new historical context associated with the crisis of the European welfare state. The State inserted in the process of globalization, strengthening regional integration and democratic deficit [16]. For Sørensen and Torfing [42], there are four main conceptualizations of governance in Europe. The first corresponds to the work of Jessop [43], where governance is defined as heterarchy, i.e., interdependence and negotiated coordination between systems and organizations. Societies are regulated, according to this study, by hierarchical (by authority), economic (by the market), and heterarchical (by self-organized networks and associations). The three mechanisms are constantly coexisting. However, the heterarchical mechanism is to the detriment of the other two, which produces a historical rupture in the way society is governed. In this conceptualization, governance is associated with civil society, and these two concepts are often confused [42]. This concept of governance seeks to provide an answer to the recent transformations of the role of the governments in the complex context of globalization/relocalization, social complexity, decentralization of politics, and the loss of the “self-sufficient” character of the state.
The second conception of governance is based on the work of Scharpf [44], Mayntz [45], Kooiman [46], and Kickert, Klijn and Koppenjan [47]. For these authors, governance excludes political interactions that are not organized in horizontal networks. In contemporary politics, the decline in the potential of the state is particularly noticeable. Policies no longer emerge from a central authority, whether they are executive or legislative. Today, public policies are the emerging form of governance, where they are built by a plurality of public and private organizations. Hierarchies, as well as markets, are no longer considered appropriate formats in a world where interdependencies between the State, private actors, and various civil society organizations prevail.
The third conceptualization of governance was developed by Rhodes [48]. In his work, governance is defined as a network of institutions and individuals collaborating together and united by a pact of mutual trust. Semi-autonomous and self-governed networks are formed, in some cases, with various power organizations acting in space. The State is evaluated as an actor that has encouraged the participation of the private and voluntary sectors in the provision of services, as well as the adoption of strategic decisions. This situation is summarized in the slogan “governance without government,” where all the actors act in an interdisciplinary way since none of them has sufficient knowledge or capacity to solve problems unilaterally. In this piece of work, the different centers and levels of governments at local, regional, national, and supranational scales are important.
Fourth, the work of Pierre and Peters [49], together with that of Meuleman [50], defines governance as the totality of interactions between public agencies, the private sector, and civil society. These interactions seek to solve social problems or create opportunities in society. It is important to note that this concept does include hierarchical governance models. The proposed definition includes an analytical framework that makes it possible to explain the various combinations of coordination based on norms, values, shared beliefs, and patterns of interpersonal relationships in each society. The Table 1 shows a summary of all governance definitions in Europe.
In Western Europe, the literature [51] has visualized different models of governance. From 1950 to 1970, hierarchy-based governance was predominant, where the government was based on authority, and there was a clear division of tasks based on rules, rationality, and objectivity. By 1980, market governance was dominant, where prices, efficiency, and decentralization were the pillars of governance. These pillars were closely related to the principles of the new public management (NPM). By 1990, governance networks were predominant, based on interdependence, trust, and empathy. This new conception was a hybrid made from the concepts of hierarchy and market.

3.2. The Latin American Debate about Governance

In Latin America, studies related to governance have been rather scarce. Academic debates on this subject have been led primarily by international cooperation organizations such as the World Bank (WB), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) [52].
The World Bank’s conception of governance [53] defines governance as the set of processes and institutions through which the way in which power is exercised in a country is determined in order to develop its economic and social resources. Transparency and effectiveness, according to the World Bank, must be applied in the methods of election, control, and replacement of rulers, secondly, in the government’s capacity to manage resources and implement policies, and finally, in respect for citizens.
The second major conceptualization belongs to UNDP [54], which defines governance as the exercise of economic, political, and administrative authority to manage a country’s affairs at all levels of government. The main characteristics of this governance are participation, transparency, public control, effectiveness and balance, and the promotion of the rule of law to ensure that political, social, and economic priorities are based on a social consensus. In this conceptualization, good governance is when the state has an obligation to ensure compliance with the law, to allow for the participation of civil society, and to guarantee the rule of law. The basic assumption in this governance proposal is that there is a State model (neoliberal), which seeks to strengthen the State so the market forces can function. Here there is a need for precision in the scope of the State; in addition, it seeks to increase the participation of the private sector and civil society in areas that are traditionally run by the State. The main argument for this action is that the state monopoly is ineffective in terms of infrastructure, social services, goods, and services [16]. State agencies compete with the market to increase their effectiveness and efficiency, replacing the hierarchical-bureaucratic model with the new public management (NPM) [54].

3.3. The Chilean Governance Debate

In Chile, the import substitution model changed to the neoliberal model in the mid-1970s. The reforms implemented ensured deregulation, privatization, and market liberalization, in which the effectiveness of the “invisible hand” of the market is posited [55]. The 1980 Political Constitution protected private property in all its forms, and the state lost its central role as a decision-maker in the public sphere. Public expenditures were reduced, and attempts were made to improve the return on private capital. The latter reform took place by restructuring social security and labor regulations. The state began to play a subsidiary role [56], which enabled market niches [57].
All these state reforms implemented in Chile and other Latin American countries were called the “first generation reforms,” but they were criticized for their limited results on poverty and inequality. In this context, the so-called “second generation reforms” were implemented, focusing on public administration, the judiciary, labor legislation, and capital markets. All these reforms continued on the basis of a neoliberal state but tried to strengthen the state capacities and generate efficient institutions that would guarantee the functioning of a competitive market [16].
The aforementioned processes have meant a complex and changing political scenario, with multiple actors, where the State has not been able to solve the problems of today’s society [16]. There have also been changes in political regimes, especially related to the changes associated with their democratization. These particular socio-political processes are directly related to the institutional development of the region. The aforementioned democratization process is linked to a competitive electoral environment, as well as to citizen participation in public policies. With these processes, the participation of the private sector and NGOs in the provision of public goods and services increased. The private sector participated especially in infrastructure services, and civil society focused on local programs and social policies.

3.4. The International Debate on Water Governance

For Budds [18], water management and water governance refer to different elements of the same problem. While water management is based on the technical tools that allow water resources to be managed, water governance refers to the organizations and institutions that make decisions regarding water resources. This differentiation of concepts is important to understand the discursive change with respect to water since global trends are pushing for water to be treated not only as a technical challenge worked on by hydrologists and hydraulic engineers but also for the political participation of all the social actors on its bedrock [58].
Pahl-Wostl, Gupta, and Zondervan [59] postulate a typology to categorize governance regimes according to their degrees of coordination and centralization. A two-dimensional classification is configured with four types of ideas: polycentric, fragmented, coordinated centralized, and rent-seeking centralized.
In the polycentric model, the distribution of power and authority is combined with effective coordination among various centers and across spatial levels. Coordinated decision-making centers are implemented, and decisions are made on the basis of experimentation and learning. This process leads to higher performance and greater adaptive capacity to face emerging climate change challenges [60].
Fragmented regimes lack coordination, which means that there are uncoordinated and contradictory actions as a result of the distribution of power and authority and the overlapping of responsibilities of the different decision-making centers. These conditions generate losses of effectiveness and efficiency, according to researchers [61]. In the absence of horizontal cooperation, the process of adaptation to climate change decreases [62].
Third, there is a centralized rent-seeking regime based on hierarchical governance. In this model, power and authority are concentrated in the dominant government actor at the highest level. This model lacks responsiveness and flexibility. It is obvious how government representatives and bureaucrats abuse their power and role in the hierarchy to increase their own benefits. These actors act on a rent-seeking basis, where the concern for the provision of public goods is secondary. This behavior is facilitated by poor coordination [63]. The ruling elite in this model has little incentive to deal with emerging problems, and adaptive capacity is assumed to be low.
Fourth, there is the centralized, coordinated regime, in which the lower-level actors are consulted during the decision-making process. However, this does not mean that the subordinate centers have a high degree of autonomy since they mainly implement the decisions taken at the higher level. Complex and conflicting governance issues are difficult to address and lack context when applied in the regions. These regimes perform poorly in terms of adaptive capacity in the face of climate change.
One of the models that provide more efficient governance is polycentrality. In this model, there is a greater distribution of power, in addition to having effective coordination structures. However, analyses show that polycentric water governance is present in regions far from Chile [59]. European contexts, where conditions are different from the Latin American and local reality of each region of Chile. Gupta’s research proposes that in the case of the Biobío river specifically, a centralized, coordinated regime was present.
It is important to highlight what is understood by polycentric governance, as is the case of the work developed by Arriagada et al. [64], where it is postulated that polycentricity is an organizational property that integrates the potential to coordinate multiple semi-autonomous decision-making centers. To consider that governance is polycentric, the literature suggests that there must be multiple decision centers that consider and engage in competitive and cooperative relationships. However, these decision centers must have access to defined conflict resolution mechanisms. The polycentric system of governance allows a greater understanding among the actors and provides an effective response to effective decisions related to climate change. This same work postulates an analytical framework that allows evaluating climate change governance with respect to certain case studies [64]. In this analytical framework, certain characteristics are necessary to analyze the polycentricity of a governance model. Importantly, attributes of the biophysical world and material conditions are displayed as fundamental, which are subdivided into governance levels and governance actors. Firstly, the levels can be global, where the global framework establishes objectives and goals at the level of nations; secondly, the national level refers to the construction of institutions and norms to meet global goals and objectives, including incentives at the national level. Finally, the regional, local, household, and individual level refers to the representation of the beneficiaries of public policies in support of action formulations and, in addition, the generation of internal rules. With regard to governance actors, it is explained that, by acting independently, they play a role as governmental authorities and increase the number of decision-makers. Moreover, the actors are diverse and may belong to the public or private world; they may be individuals, groups, or more, and vary according to their size and power. It is important to mention that the actors possess various types of knowledge and knowledge capabilities about a problem, which is relevant in different processes.
Arriagada et al. [64] also refer to knowledge production; this is where scientific, bureaucratic, and stakeholder knowledge comes into play. Knowledge co-production occurs when different actors interact with the purpose of generating authoritative knowledge for all within the context of a common knowledge platform. Consequently, socially robust long-term policies are generated that improve governance. In addition, the linkages between institutions and multiple actors at cross scales are an essential part of this governance model, as the different connections between the actors are generated at different levels or the same level, vertically and horizontally, respectively. In this aspect, the diversity of aspects must be considered simultaneously at various scales and in constant interaction.
On the other hand, Skelcher [65] points out that polycentric governance occurs when political authorities are divided into different constituted bodies with overlapping jurisdictions that do not maintain a hierarchical dependence on each other. Meanwhile, Ostrom [66] points out that governance models that seek to address the risks associated with climate change must be multilevel and polycentric. Ostrom [67] defined a polycentric order as one in which many elements are capable of making mutual adjustments to establish relationships with each other within a general system of rules in which each element acts independently of the rest. Elinor Ostrom [68] postulates that climate governance already has polycentric characteristics, i.e., more diverse, multilevel, and emphasizing bottom-up initiatives.

3.5. The Latin American Debate on Water Governance

Governance is considered an alternative tool to achieve substantive improvement in health services [16]. Public-private partnerships for public services are the most efficient, effective, and democratic way to manage public services [69]. The privatization of health services was a process accompanied by the creation of institutions that aimed to regulate and supervise the private sector; these institutions were inspired by European models of regulation [70]. The latter sector was considered the central player in the provision of public services, and civil society was positioned as a secondary actor in this matter [16]. Privatization has not been sufficient to comply with international standards on quantity, quality, and democratic access to water [71]. The provision of water services in Latin America, based on market governance formats, especially inspired by European models, has not considered the political-institutional context of the region. The absence of an institutional market, the inefficiency of the legal and planning systems, the scarce availability of resources, the absence of a regulatory system to limit arbitrary decisions and to increase the credibility of the system, the weak capacity for regulation and control of purchases and contracts with companies in the sector, the limited access to information, the weak capacity for evaluation, supervision, and accountability, are just some of the main characteristics that the mercantilist models of the global north have omitted in their implementation [69,72,73].
In the case of water governance in Latin America, the government has performed weakly in its role as coordinator of efforts for the welfare of society and the functioning of public-private partnerships for water and sanitation services [16].

3.6. The Chilean Debate on Water Governance

The 1980 Constitution established private property rights over water in Article 19 N° 24.e. This law signifies the progressive process of commodification of the common good, where water rights can be sold, bought, or leased in a context of deregulation [74]. This code instituted permanent private property rights over water resources, enabling market mechanisms for water allocation and delegating its regulation to user organizations. The limitation of the State’s role in water management is qualified as efficient by the action of the market. This transfer of power in the allocation of the resource has generated a high level of access inequality. While a small group of landowners has water rights, numerous local, indigenous, and small and medium-sized farming communities cannot access the water resource due to a lack of economic power [75]. The Water Code guaranteed access to permanent water rights, free of taxes and relatively free from state regulation [76].
In addition, the Water Code reflects the political interests of the political-economic elite of the time. From an economic perspective, the code implemented allowed water to be directed to the natural resource export industries. It is important to note that the main extractive industries are related to mining, forestry, aquaculture, and agriculture. To this day, the primary sector continues to drive Chile’s economic growth. However, it is strongly linked to water-related territorial problems, such as water scarcity and inequality in access and distribution [77].
The Water Code and all its modifications between 1992 and 2005 were designed by lawyers and economists, discarding the participation of water specialists such as hydraulic engineers or hydrologists. The progressive updates of the code did not mean integration of elements related to the management and governance of water resources. There are critical studies from political ecology that postulate a profound socio-ecological impact generated by the neoliberation process in Chile [76]. The consequences of this process have been categorized as “socio-metabolic ruptures.” This means that the accelerated extraction and production of basic resources are generating a rupture in the cycles that allow the reproduction of life in Chilean territories [78]. From an interdisciplinary perspective, the Water Code also does not allow for integrated water resources management and also does not consider the watershed as a scale of management [18].
By 2005, global trends on the subject influenced the Chilean Water Code. In the amendment of that year, an attempt was made to solve the problem of hoarding and speculation of water rights, incorporating a system of patents for non-use. The ecological sphere was strengthened to the point that it was visible in the evaluation of the capacity of aquifers when granting groundwater rights. In addition, the issue of climate change was incorporated into the water debate [79]. However, regulation by users, the State, the courts, or an independent body is still absent. In this context, the different actors seek to maximize water withdrawals. Water governance in Chile shows a visible rigidity when analyzing the period of time between the creation of the Water Code and the first modification in 2005. Even with this modification, the problem is not solved since the payment of patents is made on a flow limit, not considering the owner. This situation generates a speculative system with oligopolistic tendencies [79]. The creation of markets that regulate water resources does not allow the integration of the public dimension of shared goods, as in the case of rivers or aquifers [80].
The most widely used management tool in traditional water governance systems has been Integrated Water Resources Management. In Chile, water administration has been structured based on an anthropocentric and market perspective, despite the fact that water is an “ecosystemic resource.” The latter concept considers water as a fundamental part of an actively intervening ecosystem. In other words, water could be considered a vital element since it delivers important ecosystem services. By considering water to. be more than just an economic resource, negotiation processes could be structured on global and local scales [81].
For Budds [18], the literature on water in Chile has focused on water management and its outcomes under the Water Code. However, the nature of water governance, especially in relation to institutional structures, processes, and decision-making practices around water resources and sanitation services, in addition to how the actors and their multiple scales are configured, has not been fully studied in the scientific literature. The lack of information on water resources has repercussions on the reduction of water planning capacity in the medium and long term. The institutions involved in water governance encounter difficulties at both the national and regional levels. In these two spaces, institutional coordination and planning are more reactive than proactive, as observed in drought events [75]. In this case, local governments do not have the power to plan local strategies to increase efficiency in the final allocation of water or its prioritization [79]. At this point is where it becomes visible that there is centralized planning of water resources, where the conditions in each region and their diversities are not taken into consideration [74]. Besides, institutions face multiple challenges that do not allow the participation of all interested parties, especially due to the previously mentioned centralism and various non-binding legal tools related to water and climate change [75]. Institutional system dysfunctions cause or aggravate water conflicts caused by climate change impacts [82].

3.7. Climate Change and Water Security: A Difficult Relationship

Climate change is a complex phenomenon which is linked to the global interdependencies of socio-political and biophysical systems [83].
The demands of climate change in society and politics are growing and urgent. Therefore, the implementation of mitigation and adaptation strategies become desired and necessary attitudes [3]. In Chile, during the last two decades, multiple national and sectoral initiatives have been developed which sought to create climate change adaptation plans that are consistent with the Kyoto and Paris international agreements [84]. In this same context, there is an ongoing bill that aims to absorb the challenges of climate change, which is awaiting its enactment. This law establishes a carbon neutrality goal for the year 2050 among its main objectives; it considers climate change as the greatest global threat and challenge of the current era and proposes to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations, as previously mentioned. The principles that rule this law are its scientific nature, the prioritization of the cost-effectiveness of mitigation and adaptation plans, equity, precautionary, and transversality [85].
The conjugation of multipurpose uses with water scarcity caused by climate change is an urgent issue, where it is necessary to apply a water governance system [86]. Under the conceptualization of water security, societies should have adequate water availability in terms of quality and quantity, capable of being functional for the multipurpose uses of the resource. Furthermore, water resources should be used in a sustainable manner, thanks to the institutional, financial, and infrastructural capacities of society. To this is added the coherent management of interrelationships and externalities. However, the population, the environment, and the economy must also be capable of having an acceptable level of water-related risks [87].
The proposed Framework Law on Climate Change [85] defines water security as the possibility of access to adequate water. Adequate measures are determined according to the specific realities of each basin for its sustenance and use over time for health, subsistence, socio-economic development, and ecosystem conservation. Plus, this proposal includes resilience to threats associated with droughts, floods, and pollution. Within this same proposal, various strategic plans for water resources in the basins where the DGA takes actions based on water security are postulated.

3.8. Lessons Learned from the Case of Studies

The analysis of the interviews also provides valuable results on water management from the case studies. Water administration is perceived as corrupt and irregular, linked to pressures from private sectors such as large-scale agriculture, forestry, and urban real estate. The lack of powers for administration and lack of transparency generate more problems than solutions. Respondents believe that public sector authorities protect the productive sector as they generate jobs and resources for central and local governments.
The application of market rules to water management and its by-products is criticized. Despite the economic vision of nature, there have been improvements in environmental awareness and education about water bodies and their ecosystemic value. However, it is considered that the authorities still do not integrate this perspective into decision-making. The economic vision of water also rules out as a priority, in practice, the guarantee of water for people which is contradictory to the Water Code, which establishes it as a good for public use. This dysfunctionality provokes the demand for a reformulation of water in the Chilean socioeconomic context, where water is denominated as a human right, and in practice, this is made effective. However, it is perceived that the agricultural, real estate, and forestry economic sectors are so powerful that decisions are favorable to them.
An existing criticism is the low integration of other perspectives regarding water management. It is important to highlight how the management of water resources has affected the cosmology of the indigenous peoples in the Biobío region and the sense of belonging that the communities have to the territories. An example of this is the rural communities of horticulturists such as the one in Boca Sur.
Regarding participation, the interviewees consider that citizen participation in water management is carried out through formal or informal organizations made up of young professionals and people from the local territory. The interviewees consider these groups as a force to improve water management. The pressures are considered key for the public sector to make decisions aligned with environmental care and adaptation to climate change.
On the other hand, there is a perceived lack of protection for citizens. One of the main difficulties is reconciling professional, work, and activist life. Meanwhile, participation methodologies are incipient in state agencies, especially in the municipalities of Greater Concepción, so participatory processes are often not regulated and systematic. Consultations have increased during these years; however, they are still not binding in their totality, and citizens do not trust the processes led by the private and public sectors. Another sector of those interviewed considers that citizen actions regarding water bodies in Greater Concepción are circumstantial, radical, not systematic, and not very decisive since they do not offer possible alternatives to be implemented. The academy is perceived as an actor that provides updated information on the territory, which is a benefit for decision-makers. However, the academy is criticized for its lack of knowledge of the local institutional framework.
The interviews conducted in this work can also provide the actors’ perceptions of the problem. The actors interviewed perceive climate change as irreversible. The disarticulation of organizations related to water management does not favor the creation of climate change adaptation plans. Additionally, it is perceived that the necessity to integrate a climate change perspective should be transversal and not only dependent on an agency that lacks the necessary powers. The interviewees state that mitigation and adaptation measures were not sufficient in the past and that they will not be sufficient for the future.
However, perceptions of the levels of adaptation to climate change are different among the actors involved in water management. The reactions of the public sector must respond to the needs generated by the drought present in the Chilean territory. Regarding the measures to counteract the drought by the public sector, there is a deficiency in planning since the agricultural emergency decrees and water trucks do not solve the basic problem. In addition to the implemented measures, the actors perceive that the filling of wetlands and their canalization are opposed to climate change adaptation measures. The actors criticize that the current urban development model is inconsistent with the more sustainable ones.
On the other hand, new protection initiatives such as the Urban Wetlands Law No. 21202 are perceived positively by those interviewed. Likewise, background information is presented in the specialized literature on the need to declare the Paicaví wetland and/or the Rocuant-Andalién, Vasco de Gama, Paicaví-Tucapel Bajo Wetland System as an urban wetland under the new Law 21.2021. However, interviewees criticize that it does not take care of the articulation of public and private actors, especially regarding private property.
Two major perspectives are put forward regarding adaptation to climate change on the part of citizens. Most of the actors interviewed agree that there is no guarantee of access to water in the medium and long term, given the current economic context where productive activities are prioritized over human and ecosystemic supply. The productive activities in the Biobío region that have the greatest impact on water are forestry plantations, agricultural plantations, and real estate activities. The interviewees agree that the agricultural and forestry sectors are extractivist; in other words, a large part of their production is exported to other regions of the world. On the contrary, the consequences and negative impacts, such as the severe droughts produced by this sector, are absorbed by the country’s most vulnerable communities and ecosystems. The agricultural sector is especially criticized for its lack of updating and technologization of its irrigation systems. However, there are differing opinions that consider this industry to be the most adapted to climate change, carrying out a replacement of species and implementing drip irrigation technology. On a smaller scale, Boca Sur farmers have not incorporated technologies for more efficient irrigation, as they do not perceive water scarcity as something that will affect them in the short term. However, there is an awareness that this is a growing problem and that in the medium and long term, they will have to change their irrigation methods by applying for competitive funds that will allow them to carry out modernizations. However, the interviewees perceive difficulty in acquiring funds since priority is given to areas with water deficits and the forestry sector.
The interviewees perceive that water will be accessible only to people and companies that can pay in the not-so-distant future. Future water scenarios are not perceived as advantageous, and water scarcity will increase, generating unequal consequences depending on the economic income of individuals.
On the other hand, it is perceived that there is no interest in the water problem as long as it is not directly perceived as it is in rural areas. People continue to use water to satisfy non-primary needs, such as watering lawns or swimming pools; moreover, part of the population demands from municipal governments that green areas have abundant grass, for example. Illegal extraction in peripheral areas is also considered a problem, but sewage contamination of water bodies is continuous and difficult for municipalities to detect. Correspondingly, risky recreational activities, such as what happened with the flares that caused the fire in the Paicaví wetland, are also caused by the public.
In contrast, the interviewees perceive more citizen participation in organized groups that promote modifications to the Regulatory Plan, the declaration of Urban Wetland, and Nature Monument. These actions, combined with the role of academia, generate new perspectives. Citizen organizations also criticize the discourse of the public and private sectors regarding the environment. Companies and public agencies present updated discourses that seek to care for the environment in order to gain votes, funds, and recognition; however, the reality is the opposite, and many socio-environmental problems are created by the actors who spread the ecological discourse.

3.9. Network of Public and Private Actors in Water Resource Management

In cities, society is highly fragmented, and a strong will is needed to coexist harmoniously and work towards common goals. Therefore, an organization of collaborations between civil society is necessary to achieve a project. Therefore, this organization is called “networks of actors” [88]. Networks of actors have become denser due to changes in transport and communications, densifying the flows of products, people, capital, technologies, information, and knowledge between territories. In the globalized world, these networks are transformed into new forms of territorial organization and articulation, generating an abstract space of flows, which becomes the dominant spatial form of power articulation and a central reference point for interpretations of territorial dynamics [89].
Networks of actors can be studied according to their institutional or urban policy organization. However, both elements share what is postulated as “organized irresponsibility.” This concept raises the question of how politics and institutions recognize the reality of catastrophe and simultaneously deny its existence, conceal its origins, and exclude compensation or control [90]. This “organized irresponsibility” can be linked to the historical invisibilization of community knowledge in various parts of the world, including Chilean territory.
As previously mentioned about decentralization, the actors that are recognized because of this process have been the result of continuous reforms. In 2021, the presidential delegate and the regional governor were integrated into the territorial network, where the first one is born from the designation of the president of the republic, and the second one is the regional governor, a position that is elected in periodic elections [91]. Both replace the work of the former position of regional intendant.
The regional governor mainly has the functions of administration, while the presidential delegate has the functions of governing the region. In addition, the delegate assumes the function of being the immediate representative of the President of the Republic, while the governor is the executive of the regional government and is the head of the administrative service of the regional government, as well as the president of the regional council. The governor has competencies in relevant planning matters since he can formulate policies for the development of the region, as well as budgetary, administrative, regulatory, and coordination competencies. However, the regional presidential delegate has powers in matters of internal government, order and public safety, coordination, and supervision [92].
Another level of territorial organization is the municipality, which has been found in Chile for centuries. The theoretical possibility granted by the legal apparatus to the municipalities consists of being an instance of local administration with continuous citizen participation and coordinating the actors of the commune, working in parallel to other levels of government that are in continuous change.
At present, the central government manages the territory, specifically through bodies that depend directly on the State. Municipal councilors work within the community, in charge of regulating, resolving, and supervising at the municipal level. The Council must give its agreement to the mayor to dictate the municipal ordinances and regulations that establish the internal organization of the municipality; approve the communal development plan, the municipal budget and those of health and education, the investment programs, the communal regulatory plan and the policies of human resources, permits, and bids, provision of municipal services and concessions. These municipal officials supervise the mayor’s management, the fulfillment of municipal investment plans and programs, and the execution of the budget, in addition to pronouncing on the communal development plan and electing the mayor in case of vacancy [93].
Other types of actors correspond to those who make up urban politics. In the first place, political parties stand out as expressions of the pluralism of the institutions analyzed above. Secondly, public workers should also be considered relevant actors since the correct functioning and implementation of the decisions made by politicians depends on them [94].
Companies are considered part of the economic actors within the studied urban networks. The high density of cities allows for continuous innovation of the private sector, turning cities into creative and global spaces [95].
A group of citizens that articulates collective action to achieve specific objectives is the second most relevant group after political parties, according to Sorribes [94]. This is because they generate actions and mobilizations to articulate economic-social interests that influence the political system. Informal institutions are constituted by communities that have the capacity to empower or block the economic development of a region [96]. Citizen participation happens when links and “bridges” are created between people. Bonding happens between similar types of people in terms of class, ethnicity, and interest, for example, while the creation of “bridges” is based on different people grouping together and creating an alternative “we” [97]. The creation of communities and networks of actors are not always directly proportional, as the literature on the subject indicates that there is an opposition or contradiction between them. The reason for this opposition lies in the fact that voluntary participation and civic engagement increase when there is large participation in groups. Still, this group membership is greater when societies are homogeneous. The fact that there are no links between groups of similar people increases the possibility of creating “bridges” between different people, which leads to greater citizen participation and civic engagement. Urban centers have become a pole of citizen participation that provide real opportunities for action within urban projects, decisions, and public management. By enabling citizen participation, it has promoted the administrative action of the actors involved, who can work together with political representatives and public workers for a networked action [94]. In addition, local management makes the actors’ decisions more effective and efficient [98].
Social movements are informal but no less important as actors in the city. They are groups that share an interest and are organized in a hierarchical but less permanent way, so the flow dynamics in terms of their members are mobile and volatile [94].
The media are also another social actor within the networks of actors. They have the capacity to place a problem on a public agenda in the institutional framework or to escalate it if they consider that it goes against their interests. Moreover, problems become public policy when the media expose the situation [94]. Moreover, access to information and knowledge is and will be vital in conflicts over the control of natural resources and the prevention of risks and disasters related to extreme events caused by climate change [99]. The city’s public policies are strongly influenced by the media, being elemental in the actions of the actors explained above by the treatment they must give to the communication mechanisms. Often, the success, failure, pressures, demands, or influence capacity of the city’s actors depend on their relationship with the media [100].
Regarding the relevant actors in the administration of water resources, it is important to consider that they fulfill certain functions, such as investigating and monitoring water resources, regulating water use, regulating services associated with water resources, conserving and protecting water resources, subsidizing, promoting, managing and providing assistance to the country’s water infrastructure related to irrigation and hydraulic works [101].
The main institution in charge of water resources is the Dirección General de Agua (DGA), which reports to the Ministry of Public Works (MOP) [102]. This institution regulates and administers water through the Water Code, created in 1981 [103], and the Ley General de Bases del Medio Ambiente [102]. The Superintendency of Water and Sanitation Services (SISS) also reports to the Ministry of Public Works. This institution oversees regulating urban water supply, such as quality and tariffs [102]. Simultaneously, the Directorate of Hydraulic Works (DOH) and the National Hydraulic Institute (INH) also depend on the ministry.
Other important actors are the Water User Organizations (WUOs), private entities regulated by the Water Code. These organizations are responsible for the collection, conduction, and distribution of the water to which their owners have rights. It is important to emphasize that in this scheme, the Oversight Boards (Juntas de Vigilancia, JdV) are vital, which are made up of natural or legal persons, plus the user organizations that use surface or groundwater [104]. The Oversight Boards are formed around natural watercourses. In artificial watercourses such as canals or reservoirs, there are the Associations of Canal Owners (ASCAN), Water Communities (COMAG) [105], and the Communities of Drainage Works (COD) [106].
Regarding the actors directly related to the formulation of policies related to climate change, we can find the Ministry of Environment (MMA), which coordinates climate change activities at the national level, with regional offices and their respective managers called SEREMI [101]. The superintendence of the Ministry of Environment (SMA), the Environmental Assessment Service (SEA), and the Environmental Courts are also relevant actors in water management [106].
Another actor involved is DIRECTEMAR, under the Ministry of National Defense [101]. Under this ministry is also the Meteorological Directorate of Chile [106]. Another institution involved is the Ministry of Housing and Urbanism (MINVU), specifically the Urban Development Division (DDU) and the Housing and Urbanism Service (SERVIU). The Ministry of the Interior (MI-NINT) should also be considered with the National Emergency Office (ONEMI) and the Regional Government (GORE). Likewise, the Ministry of Mining (MM), through the National Geology and Mining Service (SERNAGEOMIN), is involved in the scheme of water actors [106]. From the Ministry of Agriculture, one can find the National Irrigation Commission (CNR), which promotes and develops irrigation and water infrastructure activities. In the same ministry, there is the Agricultural and Livestock Service (SAG), which supervises and controls water quality with specific objectives [101]. Likewise, one can find the Directorate for the Protection of Natural Resources (DIPROREN), the Institute for Agricultural Development (INDAP), the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), and the Natural Resources Information Center (CIREN) in the Ministry of Agriculture. The National Energy Commission, under the Ministry of Energy, is also a relevant actor in the map of institutional actors [106].
It is even possible to consider as relevant actors the Ministry of Health, MINSAL [101], the Ministry of Economy, Development, and Service [107], the National Fishing and Aquaculture Service (SERNAPESCA), and the Undersecretariat of Fishing and Aquaculture (SUBPESCA) [101].
The Chilean General Accounting Office (CGR) also plays an important role along with the Arbitration Courts (TA), the Real Estate Registries (CBRs), the Court for the Defense of Free Competition (TDLC), the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Judiciary, and the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) [106].
The interviews conducted in the framework of the research indicate that the actors agree on the lack of coordination, communication, cooperation, and delimitation in the water institutional framework. It is noteworthy that non-institutional actors also agree that the same deficiencies apply to their dynamics of action. For example, social organizations also identify a lack of communication, cooperation, and coordination with the public and private sectors. The General Water Directorate of the Biobío region is recognized for the implementation of more updated guidelines on water management. The creation of working groups for the construction of a regional water strategy brings together different actors, mainly from the private and public sectors. However, the public is unaware of these actions, which is recognized as a weakness by the DGA itself. The new regional political actors elected from the Green Ecologist Party and at the national level represent an opportunity for citizens to make decisions that care for the environment. On the other hand, the Wetlands Network has become more relevant thanks to the impulse given to the approved Urban Wetlands Law. This law is also perceived as the result of cooperation between a greener political sector and citizen organizations. The interviewees perceive that the private actors are on the opposite plane to the citizenry, while the public world responds to the actors that generate more political or economic pressure. In this context, some of the actors consider that environmental standards in Chile are not demanding and that companies act within the diffuse limits to optimize their profits. However, the creation of the Biobío River Oversight Board, considered a measure of adaptation to climate change by the private sector, is seen as positive.
Regarding the presidential delegate and the regional governor, the interviewees perceive a conflict of powers, where the powers of each are not clear. Despite these criticisms, the regional governor is perceived as an actor who can improve access to water and work on the creation of a network of actors involved in water management. On the contrary, the presidential delegate is perceived as an actor who re-represents the interests of the central executive branch, giving voice to the interests of the private sector. The position of presidential delegate is perceived as a non-democratic position, but one that does have a great influence on water decisions.

3.10. Decentralization

In relation to the actors involved, several processes must be understood in order to understand their actions. One of these processes is that of decentralization, understood as a process of state reform. These reforms transfer responsibilities, resources, or authority through various public policies from the higher levels of government to the lower ones. These transfers involve three dimensions: fiscal, administrative, and political [108].
Historically, Chile has been considered a centralized country, where its administrative system is associated with economic efficiency and political stability. However, the role of decentralization is debatable, especially related to performance improvement and regional competitiveness [109]. Within the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, Chile was one of the few countries that did not elect intermediate-level authorities. However, Law 20.990, passed in 2017, will allow the so-called regional intendant, a regional political authority delegated by the president, to be replaced by two new positions [104].
When the decentralization process became effective in 2021, a new scenario was configured, with an elected authority and an appointed authority, i.e., governor and presidential delegate, respectively. The designation is made by the president of the republic, and this position will have to coexist with the elected one since they have similar attributions and competencies for regional management [110].
One of the main advantages of this process is the democratization of the public space, giving greater stability to regional political leadership. However, the duality of command is an unresolved problem, considering its high potential to create confusion among leaderships in regional dynamics. The creations of new regional schemes are unknown, will no longer be based on the traditional hierarchical relationship, and will open a varied space for the creation of new combinations between municipalities, the regional government, the regional presidential delegation, and ministries [110].
The decentralization process has stood out for its strong State presence, where its services are present throughout Chile. However, it has a low democratic legitimacy and instability in the management of regional planning. An example of this is that mayors remain in office for an average of 18 months [110].
Law 29.990 is not capable of guaranteeing effective political coordination to solve the competition and conflict that may be generated by the double leadership of governors and presidential delegates. The lack of practical coordination considerations among the actors is identified, neglecting execution. Likewise, reforms are mainly focused on regional autonomy and formal rules [110].
The possible lack of coordination among the actors in the new scenario may mean the creation of institutional gaps. The problem with these gaps is the action of opportunistic politicians who capitalize on them, for example, by strengthening their electoral careers. This situation is a window for national authorities to fill this power vacuum and lack of coordination among regional actors, causing a process contrary to the much-desired decentralization [110].
The interviews conducted are also an input to the research. Those consulted consider that the regional bodies do not have the power to make decisions in the last instance, criticized by the municipalities is the national legal system, which hinders local decision-making. In this context, the perception of the interviewees coincides with official documents of the Municipality of San Pedro de la Paz, where it is stated that the Territorial Planning Instruments do not have powers of protection or recognition of areas of environmental and landscape value in the communes.
Many actions by the Ministry of the Environment, which mean actions regarding the construction of more sustainable cities and the improvement of water efficiency, reach the regions with guidelines defined from Santiago. These guidelines are criticized because the needs of the regions and communes are different. From Arica to Punta Arenas, the competitive funds are based on pillars from a centralist perspective.
On the other hand, local organizations see advantages in the local authorities, with whom they can have better communication in terms of time and quality, as well as receive more effective responses according to the interviewees. The interviewees perceive the importance of having local water studies since it is complex to guarantee the water of the future without knowing the current state of this resource. An example of the need to carry out studies that allow the decentralization of knowledge is the hydrogeological study project led by the DGA of the Biobío region.

4. Discussion

4.1. Perception of Climate Change and Productive Activities Related to Water Resources

In the context of drought and multiple water use, measures to address these challenges can be considered reactive, especially in rural areas where institutional coordination and planning are predominantly reactive [11]. There is a perception of transience of the drought, where at some point, it will end, and everything will return to the parameters of past decades [7].
From an anthropocentric perspective, the literature indicates that the largest water consumer at the national level is the agricultural sector [111]. This sector is framed by the large number of monocultures that exist in the country, which generate in the surrounding communities numerous economic, social, and ecological changes. This is exemplified by the case of peasants who cannot sustain their livelihoods in the affected territories. This situation is consistent with water deregulation that does not consider the ecological, social, and cultural functions of the regions in Chile but visualizes water as a homogeneous and inert element [16]. This perspective is applied in practice even when the ecosystem does not allow any more productive activity, i.e., where the availability and reproductive capacity of water resources have been exceeded [86]. The agricultural sector is especially criticized for its lack of updating and technologization of its irrigation systems. However, there are differing opinions that consider that this industry is the most adapted to climate change, carrying out a replacement of species and implementing drip irrigation technology.
Likewise, focusing on the case studies, the research and literature analyzed agree that the private sector uses different mechanisms to delay and limit decisions in favor of wetland protection, such as requests for studies that take years and legal actions against municipalities. The decrease of 40% of the wetland surface area since 1975 at the Gran Concepción level [11] is said to be irrecoverable by the researchers involved [112]. The destruction of wetlands is perceived as a disadvantage for adaptation to climate change, given their high ecosystemic value, which allows us to understand that the actions of the actors involved in the filling are in opposition to the preservation and respect of wetlands. In the Los Batros wetland, for example, research suggests urgently incorporating regulatory actions that allow planning to use the territory under principles of environmental sustainability [35].
Likewise, in Greater Concepción, the democratic sense of having access to bodies of water for recreational purposes is especially strong. Still, the lack of housing is a growing problem that influences definitions and decisions about construction in the city. This scenario of lack of housing is strengthened by the fact that wetlands are legally owned by real estate companies, for example. The risks associated with wetland construction, such as liquefaction and seismic hazard, are not sufficiently considered. In addition, urban development does not currently incorporate the water crisis or climate change into planning, given the socioeconomic framework on which the order of cities is based.
Moreover, the direct and indirect impacts of climate change will not only affect humans [3] but are potentially disastrous for the previously mentioned ecosystems. Risky recreational activities and micro dumps peripheral to water bodies do not contribute to the protection of wetlands, as pointed out by Martinez et al. [113]. Wetland protection is a challenge addressed mainly by environmentally active citizen sectors and sections of the local, regional, and national governments. A reflection of this process is the declaration of wetlands as part of the Urban Wetlands Law, especially in the case of the municipality of Concepción [38].

4.2. Disarticulation of the Water Administration

The legal framework under which water is administered in Chile and consequently in Greater Concepción is marked by neoliberal policies [56]. This research analyzed questions regarding the principles of privatization, commodification, and liberalization of the Chilean economic system [18]. It is possible to identify how traditional water administration is not consistent with the principles of sustainability that are needed to safeguard ecosystems and that are also promoted at the international level by recognized institutions [114]. Until now, water management has been based on an anthropocentric and market perspective, without considering its “ecosystemic” character [81]. It is here where the criticisms of the “invisible hand” of the market [55], which has questionable effectiveness if social and ecological factors are considered in the analysis of water management, can be visualized.
Different institutions and agencies have difficulties in recognizing their own functions and powers in relation to water. Therefore, the recognition of the powers of other actors is even more complex. It is important to highlight that Chile is the country with the greatest diversity of administrative authorities related to water resources management, which coincides with the statements of the actors interviewed. The lack of coordination among the multiple actors makes it difficult to ensure a coordinated development plan. In addition to the aforementioned articulation, shortcomings are also identified, such as the lack of consolidation and integration of the information generated by the institutions, inadequate delimitation and coordination of functions between agencies, and the absence of a higher political authority to coordinate the functions and institutions of the State in water matters. Different studies agree on the need to improve water institutions. However, there is no consensus on how [115]. It is especially notable how the DGA decreases its autonomy and loses effectiveness in decision-making because it lacks preponderance over other institutions [101].
Likewise, the duplicity of positions in the case of the mayor and the new governor is perceived as an obstacle in the construction of a good water administration, similar to what Montecinos [110] affirmed about the confusion of leadership created by the duality of positions. Another obstacle is the lack of exhaustive knowledge of the state of water resources in Chile. This knowledge is associated with the survival of the population, the economy, and its consequent sustainability and productivity [101]. In addition, qualitative and quantitative information on water resources is essential for short, medium, and long-term planning.
On the other hand, community interests are articulated through political, organizational, and administrative processes at local and regional levels [116]. It is important to highlight that each of these organizations can be considered a linkage between people with moderately similar characteristics, forming “bridges,” as Putman states [97]. Citizen groups are a polycentric characteristic of climate governance, as stated by Ostrom [67]. An example of this is the organizations of the Paicaví and Los Batros wetlands, which mainly have a horizontal and multifunctional structure. These organizations channel legal actions, citizen complaints, virtual and physical protests, and outreach, among other measures. These demands for participation reflect a new form of participation, close to the elements of polycentric governance.
In this same line, the environmental authority, such as the Seremi de Medioambiente, states that its institution is new in the decision-making scheme and points out that it is slowly acquiring regulations that strengthen them and allow them to lead the processes demanded by citizens [117]. Indeed, Chilean institutions dedicated to governance are relatively new and highly hierarchical, according to the literature studied [64]. However, these institutions and private companies move away from the characteristic elements for the construction of polycentric governance, such as transparency, binding participation, and sustainable management of water resources.
On the other hand, the existing literature understands that the landscape consists of a subjective and an objective vision, which means that the intimate experiences of individuals are impregnated to a material, physical substrate [33]. This represents, in the case of the Boca Sur horticulturists, the generation of diverse emotions and feelings associated with the vegetable gardens, which for generations have been related to their families. Because of these emotions and feelings, the orchards are related to a great sense of belonging.
The analyzed literature and the research with key actors allow us to identify the constant centralism present in public policies regarding water. This problem can be seen in the centralized decision-making and the lack of binding participation of rural communities, indigenous communities, non-governmental organizations, etc. [16]. The perceptions of key interviewees in the Paicaví and Los Batros wetland case studies indicate that there is a demand and a need for democratization in water decisions. The interviewed actors consider that, in order to guarantee effective water management, there should be binding participation of a wide diversity of participants.
It is important to highlight that the interviewees consider that regional bodies do not have the power to make decisions in the last instance, i.e., they have elements of centralized governance, according to Gupta et al. [59]. Local governments, such as municipalities, also lack the power to plan strategies to increase efficiency in water allocation or prioritization [79]. The number of liters delivered by water trucks is an example of this situation. Another example is what happened with the process of declaring heritage areas, where the municipalities’ applications are approved at the central level. In addition, the lack of laboratories, technology, and resources in the regional offices is identified as a deficiency in the region’s water administration.
The delivery of guidelines from the central level to the different agencies means using resources and workers so that they do not have to carry out the necessary territorialization. This situation is typical of a centralized, coordinated governance regime, where institutions address complex problems lacking context when they are applied in other regions. This is why performance is low, as it fails to provide adequate responses depending on the characteristics of each territory [59].
It is also important to mention that water security is the basis for present and future water management, which is conceptualized as the assurance of water mainly for human and productive subsistence. This concept is also perceived as secondary to securing water for ecosystems, according to the actors interviewed. The lack of protection of ecosystems is strongly criticized, as interviewees perceive that water bodies are vulnerable to drought, fire, contamination, etc. According to the first report of the National Water Board [118], one of the main factors threatening water security is the occurrence of prolonged and frequent droughts, as well as the frequency of floods, as a consequence of climate change. Another relevant factor is the lack of adequate infrastructure for climate change mitigation, with regard to floods, potential water accumulation, and works for access to desalinated water, deep aquifers, rainwater, and treated sewage. As a third factor, the report points out that the lack of coordination between state institutions, the absence of groundwater users’ organizations, the precarious strategic planning of basins, and the low information on water availability and quality are important threats to water security in Chilean territory. According to the aforementioned report [118], there are three thematic axes associated with the challenge of water security. The first axis is universal access to water and sanitation, the second is the planning of water structure and incorporation of new water sources, and the third is the axis related to the strategic planning of basins. These axes agree with the vision of the interviewees, where they comment on the potential of water planning by basins.

4.3. Towards Polycentric Water Governance?

In recent decades, a new conception of water administration has emerged, called water governance [41]. The new governance proposals postulate that water is no longer an economic resource but is considered a common good [86]; this demand coincides with the perception of the interviewees in this research. This common good is proposed as the basis for communities which manage water from interdisciplinary perspectives at the local and regional levels.
Polycentric water governance is presented as a possible alternative to consider for the cases studied. By configuring elements with a polycentric inclination, the roles of actors from state and non-governmental sectors could be integrated [81]. In the conceptualization of Folke et al. [60], different coordinated decision-making centers are applied in effective governance, which is consistent with the ideas of the interviewees.
As proposed by Skelcher [65], polycentric governance is achieved when different political authorities are divided into different constituted bodies, and in the Greater Concepción, this scenario can be found. However, each of these authorities must have jurisdictions that, although overlapping, do not remain in hierarchical dependence among them. It is precisely the hierarchical dependence one of the main characteristics of Chilean institutions, such as the chaos of the DGA, where exceeding an investment amount, the decision is taken by the MOP in Santiago. This element moves away from more polycentric governance. However, decentralization processes with new hierarchical relationships are observed, especially with the dissolution of the position of the intendant, creating the new positions of presidential delegate and governor [111].
Likewise, the scales of water administration are also essential, where water basin administration is conceived as the best alternative to achieve sustainable and efficient administration. Local actors consider that resources should be increased to access better monitoring equipment, workers, and studies to improve water management.
In Chile, there are more than 43 actors involved in water management who fulfill more than 102 functions related to water administration [107], which is an aspect with characteristics of a polycentric regime. However, these institutions lack competence and cooperation, and even more importantly, they do not have defined conflict resolution mechanisms, which is essential to building polycentric governance [64]. To visualize this situation, it is possible to mention the Paicaví wetland conflict, where different actors have resorted to different mechanisms for the protection of the wetland, where it is possible to mention the zoning of the territory, physical resistance to construction, and citizen protests. However, in the case of wetlands, polycentric aspects of conflict resolution are perceived with the creation of the Urban Wetlands Law.
It is also considered necessary for the environmental perspective to be integrated transversally into public policies. They also agree that the Framework Law on Climate Change should be approved as soon as possible since it is a considerable step forward in the creation of governance with a climate adaptation adequate to the demands of today. In a very similar way, climate adaptation in urban governance is a necessity in Greater Concepción, as in other cities around the world that face climate risks of various kinds. We must mention that the New Constitution is also of importance and could allow for a Constitution in line with the climate crisis and water scarcity. The interviewees hope that the new public instrument will open a door in terms of creating an ecological Magna Carta that addresses the governance of natural resources.
It is also important to mention the Biobío River Surveillance Board, which is identified as an embryonic element of water governance. This group was established on 30 September 2020, and its objective is to enable integrated and sustainable management of the main basin of the Biobío Region. In addition, to guarantee the correct distribution of water, avoid illegal extractions, confront projects harmful to water resources, prevent natural disasters, and create, systematize, and deliver information on the basin. This Oversight Board is contemplated by the Water Code. In addition, it stands out for being a non-profit entity and brings together the users of the basin, who account for 82% of the rights holders in the basin [119]. The interviewees mention the disarticulation of the actors in the water management of the territory, which is consistent with the role of the Junta de Vigilancia to ensure the proper coexistence of the members in the basin and their uses of surface and groundwater. However, the Supervisory Board still lacks greater levels of equity among the actors.
In order to face the challenges of the present, such as drought, climate change, and community water shortages, the literature indicates that it is not enough to technologize water management [119]. It is necessary to build governance that allows the binding participation of all social actors, not only water users [16].

5. Conclusions

In this work, different experiences of polycentric water governance were recognized, and, as a result, this type of governance represents a potentially adequate water administration proposal for the new challenges faced by the world, Chile, the capital of the peninsula, and the analyzed cases. Deeper knowledge was obtained about the networks of actors, their interests, and interactions, as well as figuring out their practices closer to polycentric water governance.
In the context of institutional change and climate change, the Paicaví and Los Batros wetlands are two cases that made it possible to analyze several variables of a constant problem, with different characteristics, in many other parts of Chile and the world. Both the bottom-up and the top-down approaches were reviewed and analyzed using a local scale example, but that illustrates at the voices of the actors interviewed on all the issues of a lack of proper water governance, that in our view, should consider elements of participation, the balance between the different stakeholders, a decentralized perspective and also the availability and access to information by all the interested parties in a transparent way.
The reviewed bibliography facilitated an analysis of governance at a global, Latin American, and Chilean level. It also conceptualized the different scales and the currently observed governance proposals. In addition, the complexity of water governance was analyzed, which implies a high complexity given its origin, variability, cycles, productive multipurpose, and climatic and anthropic disturbances [86].
Using grounded theory, we analyzed the networks of actors involved in water management in the two studied cases in the context of the Greater Concepción metropolis. This research analyzed the process of decision-making on water resources. Additionally, this article showed that the interaction between some of the actors sought to formulate, promote, and achieve common objectives but recognized the complexity of the process and the divergence of sectors with other interests.
In response to the main question of this research, the article addressed various elements of water management in Greater Concepción. This management has a tendency towards polycentric governance, where decentralization and democratization are presented as protagonists. Two experiences that reflect this process are the creation of the position of governor and the implementation of the Urban Wetlands Law. Consequently, they involved greater involvement of local communities along with the binding participation proposed by the model that provided us with new perspectives that came from ecology, sociology, economics, cosmology, etc.
This research shows that institutions and private companies are distanced from the most characteristic elements for the construction of polycentric governance. In other words, the democratization of decision-making actors, transparency, and decentralization are not present in most of the practices of the actors in the private and public business world. In contrast, the practices of citizens are closer to a more sustainable governance model.
Last but not least, polycentric governance was also postulated as a guarantor of water security, which is why Greater Concepción would benefit if it approached this model in the future and included elements of this governance ideal. On the contrary, elements that are close to the centralized, coordinated model limit the capacity to face complex challenges such as drought and climate change.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, F.Q., J.R.H. and R.O.B.; methodology, F.Q., J.R.H. and R.O.B., field work, F.Q., writing, F.Q., J.R.H. and R.O.B.; formal analysis, F.Q. and J.R.H.; funding acquisition, J.R.H. and R.O.B. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research was funded by CRHIAM Centre ANID/FONDAP 15130015.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.


This research would not be possible without the constant support of Jorge Rojas and Ricardo Barra. In the context of the double master’s thesis in Regional Sciences. This work was supported by the CRHIAM Centre ANID/FONDAP 15130015.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Study area Metropolitan Area of Concepción (MAC) [23]: (A) MAC location in the country; (B) Map of Biobío region.
Figure 1. Study area Metropolitan Area of Concepción (MAC) [23]: (A) MAC location in the country; (B) Map of Biobío region.
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Figure 2. Paicaví Wetland (north) and Los Batros Wetland (south) [26].
Figure 2. Paicaví Wetland (north) and Los Batros Wetland (south) [26].
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Table 1. Main governance conceptualizations in Europe [42].
Table 1. Main governance conceptualizations in Europe [42].
AuthorsGovernance Definition
Jessop [43]Heterarchy, interdependence and negotiated coordination between systems and organizations.
Rhodes [48]A network of institutions and individuals that collaborate together and are united by a pact of mutual trust.
Scharpf [44]; Mayntz [45]; Kooiman [46]; and Kickert; Klijn and Koppenjan [47]Political interactions that are organized in horizontal networks.
Pierre and Peters [49]; Meuleman [50] Totality of interactions between public agencies, the private sector and civil society.
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Quevedo, F.; Rojas Hernández, J.; Barra, R.O. Towards a Chilean Water Governance: A Study on the Los Batros and Paicaví Wetland Reservoirs. Water 2022, 14, 2861.

AMA Style

Quevedo F, Rojas Hernández J, Barra RO. Towards a Chilean Water Governance: A Study on the Los Batros and Paicaví Wetland Reservoirs. Water. 2022; 14(18):2861.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Quevedo, Francisca, Jorge Rojas Hernández, and Ricardo O. Barra. 2022. "Towards a Chilean Water Governance: A Study on the Los Batros and Paicaví Wetland Reservoirs" Water 14, no. 18: 2861.

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