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INTERVIEW | Aziza Akhmouch & Oriana Romano, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

In our APE Interview Series 2019, we meet high-level water experts to discuss the future of water and share perspectives on the upcoming challenges and solutions for truly sustainable water services. This interview is part of a six-part series, all of the interviews are available in Aqua Publica Europea's publication 'The Public Water Services of the Future'

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Aziza AkhmouchOriana Romano

Aziza AkhmouchHead of Division and Oriana Romano, Policy Analyst, at the Division on Cities, Urban Policies and Sustainable Development, of the Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) share with Aqua Publica Europea perspectives on water governance and why it matters. 

1. Why does governance matter to achieve a sustainable management of water resources?

Sustainability is a multi-faced concept, which includes environmental, economic and social dimensions. The water sector holds intrinsic characteristics that make it highly sensitive to and dependent on multi-level governance.

Water connects across sectors, places and people, as well as geographic and temporal scales. In most cases, hydrological boundaries and administrative perimeters do not coincide. Freshwater management (surface and groundwater) is both a global and local concern, and involves a plethora of public, private and non-profit stakeholders in the decision-making, policy and project cycles. Water is a highly capital-intensive and monopolistic sector, with important market failures where co-ordination is essential. And, water policy is inherently complex and strongly linked to domains that are critical for development, including health, environment, agriculture, energy, spatial planning, regional development and poverty alleviation.

Therefore, managing current and future water challenges implies much more than technical solutions; it requires robust public policies, targeting measurable objectives in pre-determined time-schedules at the appropriate scale, relying on a clear assignment of duties across responsible authorities and subject to regular monitoring and evaluation. Coping with future water challenges raises not only the question of “what to do?” but also “who does what?”, “why?”, “at which level of government?” and “how?”. Water governance can greatly contribute to the design and implementation of such policies, in a shared responsibility across levels of government, civil society, business and the broader range of stakeholders who have an important role to play alongside policy-makers to reap the economic, social and environmental benefits of good water governance.

The governance landscape for freshwater management has changed in the last 25 years. Information flows more easily and potentially sheds greater light on deficiencies, failures and poor practices. Decentralisation resulted in opportunities to customise policies to local realities, but also raised capacity and co-ordination challenges in the delivery of public services. There is now an enhanced recognition that bottom-up and inclusive decision-making is key to effective water policies, and a number of legal frameworks have triggered major evolutions in water policy at national or international levels. But in many places “implementation” is lagging behind, which is why the OECD has long been arguing that water crises are often also governance crises in the sense that they relate much more to managing complexity and trade-offs inherent to water policies than designing technical or infrastructural solutions.

2. How can your current work at the OECD help public authorities and stakeholders to improve the governance of water resources?

OECD evidence shows that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to water challenges worldwide, but rather a large diversity of situations within and across countries. Governance responses should therefore be adapted to territorial specificities, and recognising that governance is highly context-dependent and important to fit water policies to places. This is the reason why the OECD Principles on Water Governance were designed in 2015 to provide governments and stakeholders with the 12 must-do for effective, efficient, and inclusive water policies.

OECD Principles on Water Governance (website)

The Principles aim to enhance water governance systems that help manage “too much”, “too little” and “too polluted” water in a sustainable, integrated and inclusive way, at an acceptable cost, and in a reasonable timeframe. They consider that governance is good if it can help solve key
water challenges, using a combination of bottom-up and top-down processes while fostering constructive state-society relations. It is bad if it generates undue transaction costs and does not respond to place-based needs. The Principles consider that water governance systems (more or less formal, complex, and costly) should be designed according to the challenges they are required to address. This problem-solving approach means that “forms” of water governance should follow “functions” of water governance. Structuring, institutionalising, and/or formalising institutions should not detract from the ultimate objective of delivering sufficient water of good quality, while maintaining or improving the ecological integrity of water bodies.

The Principles were developed and discussed through a bottom-up and multi-stakeholder process within the WGI, under the umbrella and guidance of the OECD Regional Development Policy Committee. Since their adoption, they have been endorsed by 170+ stakeholders, showing a strong commitment towards better water governance. A Survey conducted in 2018 on the use and dissemination of the Principles showed that the 80 % of
respondents, from 30 countries, have used the Principles as guidance to identify water governance practices, tool for self-assessment of how water governance systems are performing, and/or as a vehicle for dialogue across stakeholders at local, basin or national level. At the OECD, we very much believe that governance is not only about governments and that stakeholders have a critical role to play for sustainable futures. The Principles
provide a “common language” that can facilitate stakeholder engagement, analysis, dialogue, consensus or assessment about whether water policies are fit for the future, and/or which actions need to be taken, in a shared responsibility, to that effect. For the past decade, we have been facilitating such dialogues, assessing cities, basins or countries’ performance, providing data, evidence or recommendations that can drive better water policies for better people’s lives.

3. Stakeholders engagement is identified as one of the essential conditions to achieve good governance.Which are the specific responsibilities of water operators in promoting multi-stakeholders dialogue?

Indeed, stakeholder engagement is key for informed and outcome-oriented contributions to water policy design and implementation. This is why international instruments, both hard and soft, have proliferated: they range from the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, to the 1998 United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (the “Aarhus Convention”), to the Article 14 of the Water Framework Directive, which requires member countries to encourage the active involvement of interested parties in the implementation of the Directive.

Water operators, such as service providers, are key actors in the water management system. There is growing recognition that services work better when designed and delivered in consultation with citizens, and that listening to stakeholders’ insights can foster innovation in service delivery practices and better risk management. As such, a customer-focused approach can drive better quality, faster delivery, greater flexibility in water service provision, while building and enhancing trust.

The OECD (2016) on Water Governance in Cities reflected on the role of service providers in 48 cities from OECD and non-OECD countries and detected a wide range of management models for drinking water and sanitation services across cities, which are often the reflection of political choice and/or institutional features. Regardless of the management models, what matters the most is that citizens be protected against water risks, and have safe, and clean access to water services, in line with international commitments and national policy goals and strategies.

As an international organisation, the OECD provides standards and guidelines based on international experiences to enhance, amongst others, stakeholder engagement, transparency, integrity and accountability (from the 2009 Checklist for Private Sector Participation in water-related infrastructure to the 2015 OECD Principles on Water Governance). The OECD is also investigating on the evolving role of water operators in cities from provider to promoter of more integrated initiatives interconnecting water, with waste, energy, land use within the circular economy approach. Nowadays water management in cities does not only mean providing a service, but keeping resources in use and improving natural capital, as water is not only a service, but a carrier of nutrients, chemicals and minerals, and also a source of energy.Once again, stakeholder engagement is key for this shift to happen.

4. Do you see any trend in the evolution of concrete governance models?

There is no unique model for managing water but a range of options reflecting a diversity of situations within and across countries catchment based institutions or not. This organizational diversity is captured by the OECD Principles on Water Governance, which include a principle that calls for “managing water at the appropriate scale(s) within integrated basin governance systems to reflect local conditions, and foster co-ordination between the different scales”. To that effect, water management practices and tools should: respond to long-term environmental, economic and social  objectives with a view to making the best use of water resources, through risk prevention and integrated water resources management; encourage a sound hydrological cycle management from capture and distribution of freshwater to the release of wastewater and return flows; promote adaptive and mitigation strategies, action programs and measures based on clear and coherent mandates, through effective basin management plans that are consistent with national policies and local conditions; promote multi-level co-operation among users, stakeholders and levels of government for the management of water resources; and, enhance riparian co-operation on the use of transboundary freshwater resources.

When it comes to the institutional framework for water management at basin level, a number of dimensions should be taken into account, such as: structure (e.g. existence of a basin committee and its roles and responsibilities); participation (e.g. degree of representativeness of people
according to the nomination mechanisms- nomination, election, and degree of quantitative and qualitative participation of members of the committee); legal framework (e.g. legislative framework concerning the mandate and the structure of the river basin committee); planning; co-ordination mechanisms (e.g. with different levels of government and with stakeholders) and information systems (e.g. data, information available and shared). However, a throughout evaluation of the impacts of river basin related structures is still missing. While it is certainly a challenging task, there are no tangible evidences of the impacts of catchment based institutions on enhanced water security, effective stakeholder engagement, or better spending. Further investigations could then help to shed light on the link between governance structure and outcomes.

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