Water governance as a question of justice : Politics, rights, and representation

Roth, Dik; Zwarteveen, Margreet; Joy, K.J.; Kulkarni, Seema


Introduction Policy discourses - at the heart of water governance - are seldom explicit about the distributional assumptions and consequences underlying water policies, technologies, and institutions. They treat water problems as natural problems affecting all of us, and proposed solutions are “rendered technical” (Li, 2007) or leave allocation to anonymous markets. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to recognize that water governance is significantly about justice. Therefore, this chapter shows how making water justice issues visible significantly hinges on defining water governance through water distribution and water rights (see also Zwarteveen, 2015). This starts by acknowledging and teasing out how the socio-environmental processes of change that water interventions (involving institutions, technologies and markets) entail alter existing water stocks, flows, quantity and quality, and create new access patterns and mechanisms, establish new rights and forms of in/exclusion, and thus new constellations of winners and losers (Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003). Contestation and conflict are intrinsic to such changes, which is why “rational organization of dissent” (see Mollinga, 2008) is essential to water governance approaches that take justice seriously. Debate and disagreement may concern direct physical control over water resources; rules and laws governing water allocation, use and management; authority and power to define, decide upon, and enforce such rules; or the discourses and knowledge used to frame or make sense of society-water relations (Boelens and Zwarteveen, 2005; Zwarteveen et al., 2005).To understand water governance in terms of justice, we recognize that many current water governance reforms are part of broader capitalist transformation under globalization. Dominant water governance language and logic are so deeply infused with neoliberalism that it has become difficult to see and recognize them as part of an ideology or belief rather than a (natural or economic) given or a necessity (see Achterhuis et al., 2010; Ahlers and Zwarteveen, 2009; Boelens and Zwarteveen, 2005). The following section shows how India’s rapid economic growth is partly driven by equally rapid (although neither new nor recent) capitalization of nature, increasingly allocating water resources to supposedly more productive uses - industries and private companies - at the expense of supposedly less-productive users, including smallholder farmers or the urban poor. The state actively supports and facilitates this, reforming water law to standardize and privatize water rights (Cullet et al., 2010a).