Blog.Aug 18, 2023

Innovating water governance. A conversation with Karin Gardes

Everything at SIWI connects to water governance. A conversation with SIWI’s Acting Executive Director Karin Gardes about the importance of water governance and what is needed to make it work.

Another summer with record temperatures and droughts is underway in the Global North. With it come increasing debates about how the planet’s precious water resources can be protected, shared, and used more sustainably. Water governance deals with such questions by looking at who gets water, when and how. But what does water governance mean in practice? We met with SIWI’s Acting Executive Director Karin Gardes to take a closer look.

How can water governance contribute to a more sustainable world?

Water is a unique lever for a more peaceful and prosperous planet. It connects communities, ecosystems, and the global development goals that the international community has signed up to. Water is vital for reaching most if not all SDGs as well as other global commitments such as the Paris Agreement. As an example, both food- and energy security and climate mitigation depend heavily on the availability of freshwater. This presents a great opportunity, but to grab it we need to improve the way water is managed, its governance, making sure that water decisions are informed, and based on the best available science and practice.

What is needed to make water governance work?

There is no one-size-fits-all to water governance or to inclusive water strategies, it needs to be context specific. Having said that, there are some common characteristics of good water governance. A fundamental aspect of governance – in all sectors and certainly in the water sector – is real access to, and representation in the institutions that set the governing rules and regulations. Strategies and policies are often ineffective or not applicable because those with first-hand knowledge are not sufficiently included in the decision-making. So, we need to develop strategies for water governance in a collaborative, transparent, and participatory way that puts local ownership at the center. It is my opinion that SDG16 must be applied to the entire water sector.

Another key point is that we need to make questions about water a matter for everyone. Solving the water crisis requires a whole-of-government approach as well as an increased understanding in other sectors that incorporating freshwater in their planning is in their own interest. This is particularly important for sectors such as agriculture, energy, and health.

"We need to develop strategies for water governance in a collaborative, transparent, and participatory way that puts local ownership at the center."

Karin Gardes

What is the connection between water governance and how we value water resources?

Water resources are essential for the whole planet, but for a very long time they have not been regarded or treated like that. Water has been taken for granted. Since my childhood I have heard warnings that humanity will someday run out of oil. This has been described as a disaster. Billions and billions have been invested in developing alternative sources of energy to avoid this. What is scary is that I don’t hear us talking with the same sense of urgency and alarmism about the water crisis, with the exception of some countries most affected by water scarcity. But we need this shared understanding of water’s preciousness to be at the center of everything we do. We need to recognize that water is a finite resource, and we need to change the ways in which we value water resources, the ways in which we manage water resources and the way we utilize water resources.

How does SIWI work to support improved water governance?

SIWI is active in all aspects of water management, from normative work and evidence-based research to technical advice for policy and strategy development, and facilitation, training, and capacity development. Much of the work being done in the field of water can be summarized into two sides that complement each other. There is the more technical side of it which could be called the hardware. It includes building pumps and pipes or sewage systems.  The water governance work at SIWI revolves around the other side which could be called the software. We focus on the political, economic, and social institutions that influence the use and management of water. We develop policies, strategies, and practices with the aim to build governance systems that make the hardware function in a sustainable efficient and economically viable way. Both hardware and software are equally needed to solve the water crisis. Good governance is a prerequisite for productive water management, and SIWI is at the forefront of bringing that message to decision-makers and water practitioners.

This year’s World Water Week has the theme “Seeds of Change: Innovative Solutions for a Water-Wise World.” What does innovation mean for SIWI?

Innovation is often understood as something connected to hardware development, artificial intelligence, or apps. I sometimes encounter the belief that this interpretation of innovation offers the solutions to everything. That is naive. There are many ways of being innovative. SIWI is a small but trusted expert organization. We have a global presence and understand the importance of context-specific solutions. So, innovation at SIWI is all about using our expertise to ensure the right priorities at the right time and help making sound decisions by adapting solutions to the context. We need to innovate water governance by doing things differently, adopting better and more inclusive policies. Here we have an opportunity to learn from experience and leapfrog when creating or improving policies, strategies, and governance structures. This is “readily-available” innovation.