Participation: The Key to Water Governance in Glacier Regions

To conserve dwindling water resources, government policies will need to ensure that communities which live near main water sources are involved in water management, according to a new study by Margot Hurlbert and Joyeet Gupta.

This year, 2015, is marked by a global focus on sustainable development and climate change. Currently, a new set of universal goals, named the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is being negotiated, building off the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Access to clean water and water security remains a top goal and is integrated into all 17 SDGs.

The new study suggests that effective stakeholder participation in water management and climate change requires organizational learning and social trust, as well as appropriate policy structures and levels of consensus among stakeholders.

A number of questions emerge from a review of successful cases in which stakeholders have been part of effective policy making. For example, how can stakeholder participation be promoted within regional policy making,  and under which circumstances the stakeholder participation will be important for policy making? The researchers use what they term a “split-ladder participation model” to study stakeholder participation and policy under different settings in South America (Mendoza, Argentina and Coquimbo, Chile) and Canada (Alberta and Saskatchewan). They build on an influential 1969 paper by Sherry Arnstein, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” which has been cited over 1600 times.  They follow Arnstein’s image of a ladder which ascends from lower ground (less participation) to higher ground (more participation), and amend it by suggesting that the ladder has two split, or partially separated, sides, one with more tightly structured organizaitonal frameworks and one with less tightly structured frameworks. They draw on a set of case studies to document that both sides allow the climb upward to higher levels of participation, though with varying degrees of trust and social learning. The authors propose that this split-ladder approach can serve as a means to examine stakeholder participation in the formulation or implementation of  regional water policy.

Clear waters of lake and Andes Mountains in Mendoza, Argentine
Clear waters and mountains, Mendoza, Argentina (Photo: Flickr)

In the Mendoza region of the Argentine Andes (one of the four case studies presented in the study), local residents depend on glaciers for water supply. Many small communities manage water resources locally and independently in Mendoza. Access to water in this region is closely tied to land ownership, so individuals whose lands are close to the glacier control the meltwater. The authors argue that this control by local landowners allows residents to create sustainable policies and regulations, avoiding the domination of narrow special interest groups. This management, in turns, led to the creation of a Glacier Preservation Law to conserve glaciers as a valued resource. This law has gained public trust over the last couple of years, according to the study

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This image depicts the split- ladder model. (source: Hurlbert & Gupta 2015)

Water governance varies in the four cases. In Coquimbo, Chile, water is bought through a water market while in in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, water is licensed through government institutions.

In Coquimbo, a region also fed by Andean glaciers, water markets and water privatization structure current water management practices. Participation and water governance are monitored via involvement of The Chilean national government, regional government bodies and civil society organizations support participation, though privatization has limited water rights for some stakeholders, and the building of dams  has caused further problems for management of water resources.

Water management and participation are handled slightly differently in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, through the provision of government licensing and availability of limited water markets and through water policies in which technical experts and criteria are highly influential. Canada manages drinking water quality standards through a combination of legislation, monitoring and reporting. In Alberta, where glacier meltwater from the Rocky Mountains is an important resource, water conservation efforts are undertaken through the Alberta Water Act 2000 while the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency governs water in Saskatchewan. The levels and forms of participation influence the patterns of effectiveness of water governance in these provinces.

The Oldman River Dam (shown here is its reservoir) in Alberta, Canada is categorized as a successful example of quadrant 1 of the split-ladder model. (Photo: Flickr)
The Oldman River Dam (shown here is a glimpse of its reservoir) in Alberta, Canada is categorized as a successful example of the split-ladder model. (Photo: Flickr)

Elsewhere in the world, organizations such as ICIMOD and the Mountain Partnership have categorically found that stakeholder participation and development of local scale solutions are critically needed for long term sustainability of water resources in mountain regions, where glaciers are melting as a result of climate change. The use of water resources could range from drinking supply to hydroelectric power and provision of ecological services. The split-ladder model framework could be potentially used in these areas as well for assessing importance of local participation in policy making.

In sum, this study offers the split ladder approach as a promising avenue to assess the role of stakeholder participation in water resource governance.  Its broad scope invites researchers, managers and community members around the world to apply it in sustainable management of this critical resource.

For more details on water governance in these areas, visit these posts on Canada and Chile.