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Water Governance Workshop: Beyond Tame Solutions for ‘Wicked’ Problems

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 (All day)

Academics at a water governance conference called for more collaboration between the natural and social sciences as they highlighted the complexity of managing water for irrigation and domestic use. Speakers used examples from Africa, Pakistan and Malaysia, warned against relying on technical solutions and spoke of successful stakeholder participation initiatives at the event run by LIDC and the Water for Africa Research Project at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

There was an emerging consensus that both Water Resource Management (WRM) and Water Supply and Sanitation (WSS) can be considered ‘wicked’ problems – difficulties which are technically uncertain and likely to generate multiple possible solutions. The use of irrigation water for domestic consumption, the lack of water provision in slums and the pitfalls of privatising water supplies were also explored during the event, called Water Governance: Beyond Tame Solutions for ‘Wicked’ Problems, on 10 March at Birkbeck’s Clore Management Centre.

‘Wicked’ nature of water problems
The discussions began with Laurence Smith, from SOAS, defining the concept of ‘wicked’ problems.  These problems, because of their complexity, can be framed in diverse ways by different groups and so-called solutions create further problems. Smith said: “The reality is messy. There is not one set of governance arrangements for wicked problems. We need a more collaborative approach.” He emphasised the need to learn and adapt and recognise the importance of pursuing a process, rather than trying to “implement” a “blueprint.”

Dr Frances Cleaver, the Director of the Water for Africa Research Project at SOAS, continued by showing how the ‘wicked’ framework can be applied to WSS problems. She said technical solutions – water pumps and pipes etc. – are inadequate to solve entrenched problems largely rooted in how society controls people’s access to water. She warned about the unanticipated consequences of intended actions, such as strengthening the most powerful in society. Cleaver spoke of “temporary resolutions” and said: “It is unlikely that any one intervention is going to be the solution.” Professor Tony Allan, from SOAS and King’s College London, also referred to social theory as he highlighted the role of governance and provided an analytical framework for the different water sub-sectors – WSS and WRM.

Stakeholder engagement in South Africa
Dr John Colvin, from the Open University, detailed his work establishing stakeholder participation in South Africa. He explained how the water policy environment has changed radically with a new emphasis on stakeholder engagement following the end of apartheid. Managing such a transition requires a “learning journey” and Colvin described the “promising” progress in the Mvoti sub-catchment 18 months after the beginning of the participatory process involving farmers, government officials and tribal groups.

Pitfalls of privatising water supplies
Dr Jeff Tan, from Aga Khan University, illustrated the “fundamental mismatch” between the principles of privatisation and the nature of water and sanitation services, which require high capital costs over a long period, thereby making them unattractive to the private sector. He showed how privatisation failed in Malaysia (the sewerage system had to be re-nationalised in 2000, seven years after it was privatised) because of such incompatibility. Tan posed the question: “How do we finance WSS when the state has no funds and it is of no interest to the private sector?”

By Guy Collender, Communications Officer, LIDC

Presentation abstracts, PowerPoint slides and audio recordings

‘Wicked’ Thinking for Water Resource Management – Laurence Smith, SOAS

The framing of complex challenges to planning and management as ‘wicked problems’ dates back forty years, yet finds particular relevance to today’s water resource management problems set in the context of sustainable development. The characterisation of natural resource dilemmas as ‘wicked problems’ raises questions about governance, praxis and the interface between science and policy.

Are Water and Sanitation Problems ‘Wicked’? – Dr Frances Cleaver, SOAS
While natural resource dilemmas have been characterised as 'wicked', some commentators argue that by comparison the provision of water supply and sanitation services is relatively simple. This talk will ask whether this distinction is valid. What light does an analysis of the wickedness of water problems throw on slow progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)?
View PowerPoint slides
Listen to recording

What is Governance? How can Water Governance Be Improved? – Professor Tony Allan, SOAS, and King’s College London
The term governance needs to be rescued from its unfortunate loss of status. It has been questioned as a potentially useful focus and approach for enhancing the management of water and the protection of water services. The loss of status is a consequence of the many users of the term failing to agree some definitions. Who does it? Who is it done to? And are the issues subject to governance the same – even across the water sector? Some generally well regarded social theory will be shown to be helpful in providing an analytical framework for the different water sub-sectors – water supply and sanitation (WSS) and water resource management (WRM).
View PowerPoint slides: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Listen to recording

Building Capabilities for Adaptive Integrated Water Resources Management in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa – Dr John Colvin, Open University
South Africa's National Water Act is internationally recognised as one of the most progressive water policies in the world. Yet effective implementation has been significantly constrained by uncertainties over how to match the policy framework with appropriate instruments and capacities, the challenges of climate change, and failure to learn from international good practices. South Africa is not unique in this respect.

These implementation difficulties can be characterised as ‘wicked policy problems’,  that is, problems that typically are multi-causal, socially complex, hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organisation or department, have no obvious solutions, and appear intractable. This paper argues that  handling wicked problems requires holistic, rather than linear, thinking and action to understand and  improve the situation systemically, including the design of dialogic practices involving stakeholders and networks. Systemic inquiry and social learning approaches are described in the context of building capacity for the implementation of the South African water policy and two cases from KwaZulu Natal are explored.


Integrated Water Management: How to Deal with Household Water Needs – Dr Jeroen Ensink, LSHTM
In many semi-arid and arid countries irrigated agriculture is by far the largest user of fresh water resources, accounting for up to 90 per cent of  fresh water withdrawals. With rapidly growing urban populations there is increasing competition over water and irrigated agriculture is increasingly forced to achieve higher productivity with less water. However, in many rural areas irrigation water serves multiple purposes, which may include fishing, animal husbandry, washing, bathing, cooking and drinking. Therefore, irrigation water- saving policies may have an adverse impact on the health of rural populations. In Pakistan an estimated 50 million people rely on irrigation water for all their domestic water needs, including drinking, as a result of high groundwater salinity. The supply of agricultural water takes precedence and in periods of low agricultural water demand, irrigation canals are closed for maintenance or to just save water. Stronger emphasis is needed to increase understanding of how agricultural management strategies affect water availability and water quality in rural communities.
View PowerPoint slides: Part 1, Part 2

Listen to recording

Access to Safe Water in the Slums of the Developing World – Dr Hulya Dagdeviren and Simon Robertson, University of Hertfordshire
The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) revealed that 924 million people in the world lived in slums in 2001, and the population  growth  in these settlements is much greater than the growth in other urban areas. The estimates suggest that this figure may rise to 1.5 billion by 2020 (Payne 2005). This rapid increase is expected in spite of ‘slum upgrading’ efforts that have been taking place, albeit inconsistently, for decades. Examining access to water in the slums is important in order to reveal the multi-dimensional nature of the problem, including income poverty, weak infrastructure, asset ownership and housing quality. This paper examines access to water in the slums of the developing world in two ways. Firstly, it identifies the objective and policy-related challenges that hinder progress in the provision of safe, affordable, continuous, and easy access to water in countries with slums. Secondly, it explores the existing systems of provision in the informal settlements and discusses the weaknesses and strengths of each in turn.
View PowerPoint slides: Part 1, Part 2

Listen to recording

Privatisation and Water Governance: What Went Wrong and Where to Next? Dr Kate Bayliss, SOAS and Dr Jeff Tan, Aga KhanUniversity
There were high hopes of privatisation in the water sector in the 1990s. The policy was expected to transform the delivery of water in developing countries, bringing both finance and efficiency. Results have, however, been disappointing. Of all forms of infrastructure, water and sanitation have attracted the least amount of private sector funding and there is little conclusive empirical evidence to show that it has resulted in efficiency gains. Our presentation will discuss the rationale behind the drive for privatisation and the drawbacks that led to its failure with particular reference to sub-Saharan Africa and Malaysia. We will consider appropriate responses to these policy outcomes and consider why, despite all the evidence of failure, privatisation remains high on the donor policy agenda.
View PowerPoint slides
Listen to recording


Distilling or Diluting? Addressing ‘Wicked’ Problems at the Research-Policy Interface – Dr Frances Cleaver, SOAS
This presentation examines some of the tensions in the generation of knowledge about water governance and poverty, and the translation of this knowledge into policy and practice. It explores the differences in the perspectives of researchers as 'uncertainty creators' and policy makers as 'uncertainty reducers'. The paper considers the political processes involved in translating the analysis of complex water problems into workable policy and practice and calls for more reflexive knowledge generation at the research-policy interface.
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‘Wicked’ Solutions for Water Resources Protection – Laurence Smith, SOAS

Characterisation of water resources protection as a ‘wicked problem’ enhances understanding of the challenges to be faced in formulating policy and implementing sustainable solutions to improve water quality. It also facilitates the assessment and comparison of innovative and successful international examples of catchment management programmes. This includes the identification of potentially transferable principles, approaches and methods for catchment investigation and management, and similarly identification of the features and enablers of collaborative governance arrangements that offer the best prospect of sustainable success.

View PowerPoint slides: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Listen to recording