Many countries engage in water sector reform; thus changing the way water is being governed.

Due to the varying characteristics of water resources and socio-economic and political frameworks, governing mechanisms vary considerably across countries.

Despite significant country-specific variations, most reforms typically include components linked to the following:


Decentralization and participation play important roles in water reform. Many countries are moving away from conventional forms of water governance, usually dominated by a top-down approach, towards bottom-up approaches that combine the experience and knowledge of various local groups and people.

Decentralization reform is justified by the principle of subsidiarity (that management responsibilities should be placed at the lowest appropriate level). Related challenges include: mobilizing financial resources and developing human and institutional capacities; and ensuring transparency and participatory approaches when decentralizing water responsibilities to local communities or catchment management organizations.

Integrity & accountability

Corruption remains one of more malignant challenges in relation to water resources and services. Governments, bilateral and multilateral organizations have tacitly accepted corruption in the way water is governed. Research and case studies increasingly demonstrate the extent to which corrupt practices are detrimental to sustainable water use and service provision, by diverting financial resources and skewing decisions away from addressing collective concerns. Corruption ultimately limits the scope for improving poor people’s livelihood opportunities.


Various types of private enterprises, community-based organizations, water user associations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play important roles, independently or in partnership with government agencies, in the management of water and delivery of water services.

While there is distrust between state, civil society and the market in many parts of the world, various kinds of triadic partnerships may be well-positioned to improve water resources management and services. Experience also suggests that to make private sector engagement work, effective government regulatory powers are required.

Roles & responsibilities

Ownership, or the right to use a resource, is a form of power and control. The establishment of well-defined and coherent roles and responsibilities can lead to a number of social, economic and environmental benefits.

These include improved access to water by groups that have previously been denied the formal or informal water right, and efficiency of existing water supply allocations. It can also be a basis for improving hydrological data to support more effective resource management and increase willingness to invest – in both rural and urban contexts.

Insecurity of water rights, discrepancies between formal legislation and informal customary water rights, and unequal distribution of water rights are also frequent sources of conflict.