Water has many uses in society, such as agriculture, livestock rearing, drinking, sanitation, navigation, tourism and recreation. Water is also used to generate energy. The multifaceted and critical role of water in society creates tensions about who gets the water, how and when. These tensions can disadvantage people in some communities more than others. For example, urban residents often have access to cleaner and more reliable drinking water than residents of rural areas due to lack of appropriate infrastructure, investment and support. Water management seeks to address and prevent these tensions. It deals with decisions, strategies, processes and methods that allow decision-makers to collect, preserve, replenish and distribute water resources among the citizens for different uses.

Traditionally, countries followed a top-down approach to water management, whereby national authorities decide how, when, how much and what type of water[1] citizens get access to. While this approach provides a high level of control and coordination in managing water resources, it could affect the equitable distribution of water among users. Aspects such as where people live and what they do for a living greatly impacts water needs. This heterogeneity among users tends to be overlooked or underrated in a top-down approach to water resources management.

Furthermore, in river basins that cross national boundaries, countries often make water management decisions independently without consulting their neighbours, which affects the livelihood and relationships of upstream-downstream nations. There are 286 transboundary river basins in the world, where surface water resources are shared by two or more countries. Upstream users get the water first and the water quality is also better. But if they over-use or pollute the water, downstream users will be adversely affected. For example, building dams upstream to support economic progress can have serious consequences for downstream users if the dams significantly alter the quantity or quality of the natural flow of water. Additionally, uncoordinated releases of water from upstream dams can result in floods affecting downstream users.

The limitations of top-down management and lack of cooperation between riparian countries has resulted in political tensions within and across nations, prompting change. With over 800,000 dams in the world and further 3700 being planned[2],[3], there is a need to rethink water resources management. Globally, there has been a push for an inclusive notion of water management called Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). Although the concept started gaining traction in the nineties, it was first suggested in the 1930s and 40s. At the outset, IWRM seeks to provide plans that clearly state who gets the water, what type, how much and when.

IWRM continues to be portrayed as a favourable solution to solve water crises and conflicts, but many have questioned its effectiveness to address issues[4]. A major roadblock for implementing IWRM is not knowing where and how to begin or how to apply IWRM to specific real-world situations[5]. As part of the GCRF-funded FutureDAMS project[6], we started exploring how IWRM is applied in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and realised that several reasons limit its uptake: (1) Challenges in coordinating across ministries, sectors and countries (in transboundary river basins). (2) Lack of funding, infrastructure, training and legal frameworks to permit the collection and sharing of data across organisations and countries, thereby greatly limiting the potential for integrated resource planning and management. (3) Difficulties in implementing participatory and consultative water management, despite it being valued for its potential to include end users in the decision-making process and making them accountable for their water use. (4) Difficulties in implementing some technological solutions e.g., dam re-operation[7] can allow for conjunctive water management[8], drought management and flow re-regulation for hydropower production[9]. But dam re-operation is rarely a success anywhere in the world.

Based on literature review, expert interviews and stakeholder interest, we pursued the IWRM topic of participatory water resources management enabled by decentralised water governance. The principal motivation for getting local communities involved in water resources management is to allow them to voice their concerns, get support from the state and authorities, assume ownership of communal resources and contribute to their upkeep. But there have been challenges in demonstrating its success. Water User Associations (WUAs) are a case in point. They are semi-formal institutions that coordinate with regional and national authorities and work with communities to manage water resources and infrastructure locally.

WUAs have been successful participatory forums in some countries while many have dwindled due to lack of financial support, unsustainable management and inadequate participation from local communities. We have uncovered a few reasons for why this happens: (1) The water infrastructure managed by WUAs are established with help from governments, private donors and funding agencies and then handed over to WUAs for subsequent maintenance and upkeep. Members of WUAs are primarily farmers who are expected to pay for the Operation and Maintenance (O&M) costs of their water infrastructure. But sometimes farmers are unable to pay for these costs when they make a loss because of inadequate agricultural inputs and the market arrangements needed to generate revenue and income from the crops cultivated. (2) Unexpected weather events (e.g., floods) cause silting of canals forcing WUAs to impose additional charges which farmers may not be able to pay. (3) Water losses in open canal systems. (4) Water used for non-irrigational needs, for example, when non-settled pastoralists gain unauthorised access to water resources causing resource stress. Even member farmers can use water for livestock maintenance although they only pay for irrigation use. (5) There are different land use and land rental activities affecting who benefits (members or non-members) from water provision. When non-members use water or members fail to pay for their actual usage, it reduces the financial sustainability of WUAs.

Against this backdrop, we are developing an agent-based model[10] called WATERING (WATER user associations at the Interface of Nexus Governance) to explore the management of WUAs and suggest alternative, viable, context-based approaches to decentralised water management. WATERING investigates the role of WUAs working with large irrigation schemes and those benefiting from small dams. It accounts for the effect of different management policies on WUA performance, members’ welfare, economic productivity, and sustainable water use in the coverage area. The policies being tested are a combination of operational and strategic decisions implemented or influenced by those directly involved in the day-to-day functioning of WUAs and those working closely with or influencing WUAs. The model also simulates the impact of cooperative/conflictive behaviour of resource users (farmers, herders and households) on the system. In doing so, the model helps assess the impact of both top-down (management policies) and bottom-up (individual behaviour) forces affecting the performance of WUAs and the use of water resources managed by WUAs. The model thus investigates to what extent WUAs can be successful in their objectives and what can be done to improve their working.

WATERING has several applications. (1) It provides evidence of cause-effect relationships between human behaviour and decision-making and resource consumption and sustainability. (2) It provides a prototype that policymakers can use to assess the impacts of decentralised water governance, by considering both micro- and macro-level dynamics. (3) It serves as a mediating object that interested stakeholders can probe to develop a shared understanding of the target system (e.g., to understand its norms, rules, characteristics and processes) and facilitate better communication[11].

If you are interested in knowing more about this research, please get in touch with Dr Kavin NarasimhanDr Corinna Elsenbroich or Prof Nigel Gilbert

Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.


[1] Blue water is surface water. Green water is precipitation from soil moisture. Grey water is that which has been used for domestic or irrigation purposes but can be recycled for agricultural use. Black water is that which has come in contact with fecal matter and thus cannot be reused.

[2] Kennedy, T. A., Muehlbauer, J. D., Yackulic, C. B., Lytle, D. A., Miller, S. W., Dibble, K. L., … & Baxter, C. V. (2016). Flow management for hydropower extirpates aquatic insects, undermining river food webs. BioScience, 66(7), 561-575.

[3] Poff, N. L., & Schmidt, J. C. (2016). How dams can go with the flow. Science, 353(6304), 1099-1100.

[4] Biswas, A. K. (2004). Integrated water resources management: a reassessment: a water forum contribution. Water International, 29(2), 248-256.

[5] UNESCO. (2009). Introduction to the IWRM guidelines at river basin level. World Water Assessment Programme, Dialogue Paper. Paris: UNEP.

[6] http://www.futuredams.org/

[7] Modifying dam operations to maintain the benefits while simultaneously reducing the negative impacts, e.g., by making arrangements to restore the natural flow regimes of rivers.

[8] Coordinated use of surface and groundwater resources

[9] Richter, B., & Thomas, G. (2007). Restoring environmental flows by modifying dam operations. Ecology and society, 12(1).

[10] Gilbert, N. (2019). Agent-based models (Vol. 153). 2nd Ed. Sage Publications.

[11] Barreteau, O., Bousquet, F., & Attonaty, J. M. (2001). Role-playing games for opening the black box of multi-agent systems: method and lessons of its application to Senegal River Valley irrigated systems. Journal of artificial societies and social simulation, 4(2), 5. hideused1 \l

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

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