Collaborative governance and sustainable rivers

Today more than ever, sustainable natural resource management is a societal challenge of dramatic importance. Among those resources, freshwater stands out as particularly vital, irreplaceable and complex. Climate change, increased demographic and economic pressures are expected to increase the demand for freshwater, while restraining the quantity and quality of this resource. Our societies are going to have to learn to do more with less in terms of water management, and business-as-usual solutions won’t make up for it. Looking at the urgency and magnitude of the threats resource systems are facing, scientists are calling for disruptive changes.

But water issues are not purely environmental or technological, they are also social. Freshwater is considered as a common-pool resource, which means that no one can be excluded from accessing the resource system at a reasonable cost (think of building a huge wall all along a river bank), yet the impact of anyone’s action or use of this system reaches everyone else (e.g. by throwing vast amounts of toxic waste in the same river). You may have the best technology to treat the water, big investment capacity, if everyone pumps or dumps as much as they want from and to the river, an ecological disaster waits around the corner. This kind of situation can notoriously lead to a “tragedy of the commons”, i.e. the overexploitation and depletion of the resource system.

Now, the inclusion of local actors in decision-making processes has been advanced as the way towards a sustainable management of those common resources, as opposed to top-down governance from a single authority. It makes sense because, as we said, it is a common-pool resource. But is it so simple? Collaboration requires motivation, time and money, not only from the organizing institutions, but also from every actor to be involved. We already know that the greater the number of actors, the more diverse they are, the bigger the geographic area, the harder collaboration is going to be.

But more than that, a successful collaboration towards sustainable natural resource management requires everyone to adopt a common view on what ‘sustainable natural resource management’ even means. Often this is not the case. Further, the collaborative governance initiatives which are being established aim at bringing institutional change, from previously unsustainable practices to sustainable ones. But if you let all local actors voice their opinion on what should be done, there is a possibility that business-as-usual, status-quo or incremental decisions are taken, rather than disruptive ones. And, as we said in the beginning, considering the worrying ecological trends we are witnessing, that might not be enough. That is why a more critical investigation of collaborative natural resource governance is needed. This does not mean that authoritarian models are preferable, far from it, but to make the best out of collaboration, we need to understand the terms and conditions under which it can lead to sustainable natural resource governance.

Article Lucie Baudoin, PhD Program at ESADE Business School

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