Budapest Water Summit – Science Forum on Governance


The second session of the science forum was devoted to governance. It was clear from the beginning that the challenges faced by current water governance are numerous. Stressing this idea, the panel discussion was titled ‘Good water governance: Is it existing?’, directly appealing the guest panellists and the audience for an intense debate.

The three keynote speakers were: Ms Joyeeta Gupta, Professor at the University of Amsterdam, Ms Claudia Pahl-Wöstl, Chair at University of Osnabrück Institute of Environmental Systems Research, and Mr Stefan Uhlenbrook, Professor and Vice Rector at UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education.

During the presentations, it was highlighted one major difficulty for governance: there are a large variety of agencies related to water, all of them having different rules, while their coherence is limited. Every agency tries to govern water but with their own interests and agendas. Therefore there is a need for a common set of rules between all of them.

In this context, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can give a practical solution to this issue, setting a common ground on basic agreements on ideologies and principles from a political perspective. It would therefore avoid the previously mentioned need for ‘coherence of rules’. Indeed, setting indicators or targets might be easier to negotiate than coherent policies or a global constitutionalism.

However, the establishment of common targets needs transparency to ensure an adequate monitoring and control. One of the foreseen needs is that the contracts with the private sector related to the use of water should be openly available to everyone; the agreed terms of water use must not only stay in private hands.

Another area for consideration was Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), which was called to move from discourse to action. Some examples were pointed out such as: the increase of irrigation efficiency, together with the reduction of wasted food from consumers; cross-sectoral policies, where the water-food-energy nexus plays a key role; and the sharing of experiences between river basins.

Other ideas were introduced such as ‘IWRM has to be contextualized according to the economic, institutional and environmental conditions.’ Nonetheless, special attention was put into the presence of a relevant institutional framework to address water problems; it was also said to be even more critical than the availability of economic resources. Still in the context of IWRM, two recommendations were made: to move further to evidence-based solutions, and to develop better indicators to monitor success and failure of water governance reforms at all levels.

Prof. Stefan Uhlenbrook spoke about education, and highlighted that there is a generational knowledge gap among water professionals, i.e. many water experts are in the end of their careers while there is a need to train good water leaders. The crucial question is ‘who’s taking the lead?’ Prof. Uhlenbrook mentioned that a ‘T’ shape competency profile is needed for the future water experts since it is ideal for interdisciplinary teams. Working in teams is the future approach and has proven advantages over isolated work: social sensitivity for the group members and equality while speaking in turns.

After the presentations, a panel discussion was held and the big question was: ‘Is good water governance existing?’ Well, the question was soon re-formulated by one of the panellist as whether effective water governance was existing, underlining that there is not universal good governance but each has to be evaluated in terms of the effectiveness of the outcomes. In this way, a quantification of governance results is targeted, where each governance strategy needs to clearly set the policy objectives, e.g. water security, poverty reduction, land use changes, etc.  In addition, governance is transition, a process in its very nature, and needs to be evaluated regularly to re-direct actions. ‘Good’ governance should have flexible policies also to deal with uncertainties. Science in this context is relevant since it gives ‘numbers’ to decision-makers for regulation. For example, it quantifies what clean water is.

It was commented that ‘we are living beyond the capacity of our basins’, and that we need to change significantly our approach: different way of thinking, different technologies, etc. As a member of the Youth Forum, I personally noticed that the leitmotiv of the session can be summarized in one quotation from Einstein brought up during a presentation: ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ The water and ecosystems need to be conceived from a different perspective to allow any sustainable future. Governance plays a key role, and the future water leaders will have to strive for definitively better ways of governance. The youth has in its hands the power to make that shift, and therefore we have a big responsibility to come. We must not underestimate the challenges though, and continue to work and think critically. The Youth Forum in the Budapest Water Summit marks the initial steps of this challenging process ahead.

 Key ideas:

  • Governance challenges: coherence, flexibility, transparency.
  • SDGs as a possible solution for lack of governance coherence.
  • IWRM: understood in context; institutional robustness is key to success.
  • ‘T’ shape education for future water leaders.
  • A new governance approach is needed for a sustainable future.