A scarce resource, water has been subject to different types of regulations across the world, seeking to improve its management and avoid any conflicts over it. Nevertheless, the rules have rarely worked and ended up with the state overhauling governance, according to a new study in six European countries.
A group of researchers from the Universities of Geneva (UNIGE) and Lausanne (UNIL), Switzerland looked at water governance regulations in European countries from 1750 to 2006. The study, published in Ecological Economics, showed the rules eventually fall apart after creating positive and negative effects.
For centuries, societies have been trying to impose rules to control the way natural resources such as water are used. Nevertheless, opposite interests between the state and private actors have produced environmental problems. Overall, research has agreed that such rules have produced both positive and negative effects. But that might not be the case in the long run.
The quality of governance is usually based on two components: the uses governed by the rules (quantity) and the fact that the rules are defined and followed (quality). Over the long term, a rule that creates a positive impact can cause turmoil when it begins to interact with existing regulations, said Thomas Bolognesi, a researcher at UNIGE.
Bolognesi and the team looked at water governance systems in Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. They identified three phases in the evolution of governance. The first one, from 1750 to 1850, covered the start of the governance process. From 1900 to 1980, the rules had positive effects. But since 1980, a new phase started with negative indirect effects.
“This is due to the creation of a profusion of new rules, especially following the introduction of the New Public Management approach in the 1980s,” said Bolognesi.
The expansion of new regulations had a negative effect on governance and led to a decrease in efficiency and clarity, causing the overall regulatory system to eventually malfunction. This shows a vicious circle in the management of water resources, the researchers noted: to have a positive effect, more and more rules have to be produced, which increases the risk of malfunction of the whole governance system, Stéphane Nahrath, a professor at IDHEAP concluded.
The study was able to demonstrate that conflict brews in the water management sector when repeatedly introducing new regulations, which are supposed to increase the efficiency of the system. Following the same path could lead to a breaking point, said Bolognesi.
“That’s why we think it’s important that the state and government policy should take charge of environmental governance issues. That way, we can avoid introducing separate rules that generate frictions and uncertainties, and that could create insurmountable obstacles for coordinating the system,” he argued.