A blueprint for managing water resources through collaboration

Monday, 1 February, 2016 - 13:40

All over the world, partnerships between government and non-government organizations (NGOs) are springing up to solve complex water management problems, coalescing individuals and groups with different skills, perspectives, and goals. These collaborative partnerships are abler to unite diverse interests, consolidate knowledge, manage conflict, and offer additional benefits to the decision-making process.
In a recent report, two researchers from the Department of Planning, Public Policy, and Management at the University of Oregon and the Land and Water Flagship in Australia review the settings and approaches of collaborative partnership to effectively manage water resources. Published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, their report describes the spectrum of collaborative partnership types and the difference between coordinated and cooperative approaches. The authors’ methods include a review of existing literature as well as their own research of collaborative partnerships in water resource management.
Sustainable water management strategies demand collaboration between stakeholders and governing bodies. Partnerships have evolved to overcome power-sharing and consensus-building challenges that are common among diverse players in the decision-making process. First, collaborative partnerships must share in information collection, goal clarification, and consensus building before they can start implementing strategies. Once ready to implement, partnerships generally follow one of two approaches.
One approach is characterized by cooperation. This approach uses the “divide and conquer” mentality. Players work through their own independent decision-making frameworks toward a shared goal. The second approach is characterized by coordination. With this approach, partnerships actively share information, swap resources, and constantly adapt management criteria.
The setting of collaborative partnerships span three general levels of governance: (1) action, (2) organizational, and (3) policy. First at the action level, partnerships usually involve government agencies and citizens concerned about water management. Partnerships at this level rely mainly on the social networks and financial support offered by those involved. A couple of challenges common among partnerships at the “action” level are citizen burnout and leadership retention since these partnerships mainly rely on volunteers and local leadership that tend to have fixed time constraints and frequent turnover.
Secondly, partnerships at the “organization” level usually involve government and NGOs using coordinated approaches to water resource management. Common challenges among these kinds of partnerships include transaction costs, retention of participants, co-leadership, information sharing, and staff turnover. Participating governments and NGOs also usually have many other projects that demand a significant amount of the organization’s resources. 
The last level of governance at which water management partnerships operate is the “policy” level. Participants usually represent a mix of international, national, state, and local governments. These partnerships are challenged by the necessary political support required to retain leadership who have championed collaboration efforts.
The challenges outlined by the authors have two main implications for collaborative partnerships involved with sustainable water management efforts. First, acknowledging whether a partnership’s approach is characterized by cooperation or coordination dictates the level of interaction and adaptation required by participants over time. Coordinated approaches generally require more time, resources, and people devoted to the efforts of the partnership when compared to approaches characterized by cooperation. Second, participants must think carefully about the level at which water management efforts must operate. Understanding this will dictate the types of partners involved in the partnership and the types of resources necessary. 

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