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The watershed approach: Challenges, antecedents, and the transition from technical tool to governance unit

Alice Cohen
Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada; cohena@interchange.ubc.ca
Seanna Davidson
Department of Geography and Environmental Management, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Canada; seannadavidson@gmail.com

ABSTRACT: Watersheds are a widely accepted scale for water governance activities. This paper makes three contributions to current understandings of watersheds as governance units. First, the paper collects recent research identifying some of the challenges associated with the policy framework understood as the watershed approach. These challenges are boundary choice, accountability, public participation, and watersheds'€™ asymmetries with 'problem-sheds' and 'policy-sheds'. Second, the paper draws upon this synthesis and on a review of the development and evolution of the concept of watersheds to suggest that the challenges associated with the watershed approach are symptoms of a broader issue: that the concept of watersheds was developed as a technical tool but has been taken up as a policy framework. The result of this transition from tool to framework, the paper argues, has been the conflation of governance tools, hydrologic boundaries, and Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). Third, the paper calls for an analysis of watersheds as separate from the governance tools with which they have been conflated, and presents three entry points into such an analysis.