Water crises and governance: Reinventing collaborative institutions in an era of uncertainty (Taylor and Sonnenfeld, 2019)

Tomás Olivier

tbTaylor, P.L. and Sonnenfeld, D.A. (Eds). 2019. Water crises and governance: Reinventing collaborative institutions in an era of uncertainty. New York, NY: Routledge. Paperback ISBN 9780367233969, 172 p., £36.99.

(URL: www.routledge.com/Water-Crises-and-Governance-Reinventing-Collaborative-Institutions-in/Taylor-Sonnenfeld/p/book/9781138299764#toc)

Tomás Olivier

School of Public Administration, Florida Atlantic University; oliviert@fau.edu


To cite this Review: Olivier, T. 2020. Review of "Water crises and governance: Reinventing collaborative institutions in an era of uncertainty". Routledge, 2019, by Peter Leigh Taylor and David A. Sonnenfeld, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/115-crisis


Water crises occur and affect users everywhere. Governments at every level face crisis of flooding, drought, availability, and poor water quality, and at times deal with several of them simultaneously. In addition to the fundamental strain placed on citizens, crises create challenges for decisionmakers, who must address problems quickly while operating under conditions of high uncertainty. Viewed this way, water crises are crises of governance where an arrangement of rules, stakeholders, and worldviews are shaken and often re-arranged. This book provides multiple examples of those situations throughout the world.

Water Crises and Governance: Reinventing Collaborative Institutions in an Era of Uncertainty, edited by Peter Leigh Taylor and David A. Sonnenfeld is a reprint of a special issue published in the Journal Society & Natural Resources in 2017. The editors add a new epilogue to the book version where they elaborate on the key implications of the empirical studies presented. Water Crises and Governance, compiles a series of nine empirical studies on water crises in the developed world, the Global South, and the semi periphery. The empirical analyses encompass Australia (Chapters 1 and 4), China (Chapter 2), New Zealand (Chapter 3), the United States (Chapters 4 and 9), France (Chapter 4), Nicaragua (Chapter 5), Cameroon (Chapter 6), Uganda (Chapter 7), and South Africa (Chapter 8). The cases are weaved together as examples of how governments, stakeholders, and users have responded to ecological crises, (Chapters 1, 2, and 3), crises of state policy and law (Chapters 4 and 5), crises of access (Chapters 6 and 7), and crises of power (Chapters 8 and 9). In addition to geographic and context coverage, the crises studied in this book are analyzed through a variety of methodological and conceptual tools, from ethnographies (Chapter 9) to logistic regressions (Chapter 7).  These methodological and theoretical approaches are all presented in a style and prose that make them accessible for specialists unfamiliar with the theories or methodological techniques applied in each chapter.

Throughout the book, the reader is exposed to the different ways in which crises of varying natures shake the status quo and force decision-makers, resource users, local communities, and others to adjust their courses of action. In some cases, these adjustments require coming up with new and creative solutions. The empirical chapters showcase how crises disrupt common perceptions of the relationship between societies and water resources and open windows for creative but sometimes disrupting solutions. However, these are not the classic stories of remarkable success that are usually showcased by international organizations hoping to “modernize” water governance. Instead, these cases show the incomplete nature of water governance changes in response to crises, where no silver policy bullets exist and where solutions often generate new problems.

A repeating theme throughout the book is the multi-faceted nature of crises and the limitations of the different policy and institutional responses to those crises. For instance, Chapters 2 (Huang and Xu), 4 (Eberhard et al.), 5 (Romano), 6 (Fonjong and Fokum), and 8 (Förster, Downsborough, and Chomba) discuss how commonly applied approaches to improve water governance and water provision, namely decentralization, network governance, organic empowerment of local communities, privatization, and collaborative approaches are often at odds with pre-existing institutional, social, or cultural dynamics. In these contexts, crises help unveil the tensions between these governance strategies and the social-cultural dynamics. These studies emphasize how the organization of government and the dynamics of local communities interact and influence the performance of policies created to address water governance crises.  Chapters 3 (Duncan), 7 (Naiga, Penker, and Hogl), and 9 (Norman) focus on the dynamics of science, politics, and policy. These studies show, for instance, how science and policy are intertwined (Duncan), the role of gender in policy implementation (Naiga, Penker, and Hogl), and how coalition-building led by Indigenous Peoples has contributed to ensure a just enforcement of policy (Norman). By doing that, these chapters encourage scholars and practitioners alike to embrace a more nuanced understanding of policy and advocacy, arguing for the incorporation of multiple knowledges into the design and practice of water governance in the context of water crises.

The goal of these studies, and of this book in general, is to highlight the transformative nature of crises. Regardless of their causes (ecological, policy, access, or power), crises demand changes that are tailored to the social and cultural dynamics of the contexts in which they occur. The epilogue of the book provides six lessons learned from the case studies. Notwithstanding, the reader may finish the book with a bittersweet feeling of frustration, at times asking for more and more practical recommendations. This frustration refers to the fact, elegantly highlighted by the cases studied, that there are no panaceas to address the uncertainty of water governance crises. Rather than looking for successful inspirational stories of success, the chapters embrace the limitations and incompleteness of existing experiences with dealing with water crises. Doing that is necessary if we, scholars and practitioners alike, want to effectively learn and contribute to improve the governance of complex natural resources like water. One of the fundamental contributions of this book lies in identifying and embracing those uncertainties.


Additional Info

  • Author(s): Peter Leigh Taylor and David A. Sonnenfeld
  • Year of publication: 2019
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Subject: Water policy, Water governance, Water politics, Water allocation
  • Type: Review
  • Review author: Tomás Olivier
  • Language: English