Water governance research in a messy world: A review

Luke Whaley
Sheffield Global Sustainable Development Institute, University of Sheffield, UK; l.whaley@sheffield.ac.uk

ABSTRACT: Water governance research is confronted with a messy world that is difficult to make sense of. Mainstream policy approaches tend to simplify and standardise this messiness in ways that obscure complexity, power and politics. As a result, these approaches not only promise more than they can deliver but often end up reproducing unequal and iniquitous governance dynamics. A wealth of critical scholarship has attempted to address these limitations but with little impact. This review takes this dilemma as its central concern. The aim is to understand different ways that water governance scholarship has engaged with the messiness of the world, laying the groundwork for more fruitful dialogue with mainstream approaches. Firstly, the article recounts policy attempts to 'mainstream messiness' at the level of discourse. It notes salient features of these discourses, including integration, combination, and participation. Three sections follow that concern themselves with ways that critical water governance research has engaged with messiness. The first is messiness as 'scalar complexity'. A distinction is made between research that assumes that scales are fixed and pre-given and literature examining the politics and performativity of scale. Next, the review focuses on 'institutional diversity' and strands of literature that do a different job of articulating messy water governance arrangements, including neo-institutionalism, legal pluralism, and critical institutionalism. The third way of engaging with messiness is through the 'multiple meanings and practices' of water users and governance actors. The strands of literature reviewed are culture, values, and beliefs; narratives and discourse; and water ontologies. The penultimate section of the article proposes three broad interdisciplinary approaches that attempt to manage messiness by bringing together scalar complexity, institutional diversity, and multiple meanings and practices. The article concludes by revisiting the dilemma noted above: the failure of much critical water governance research to influence mainstream policy and practice.

KEYWORDS: Water governance, messiness, scale, institutions, meaning, practices