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United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development

Commitment from NEWAVE Early Stage Researchers on Overcoming Obstacles for Reflexive Research Practices in Water Governance - to the UN Water Conference 2023

Scientific community

    We are a group of 15 Early Stage Researchers of the NEWAVE Network, covering 15 research projects on water governance in Europe, Asia, Latin America and East Africa. To accelerate achievement of SDG 6 and of the Water Action agenda, there is a need to include reflexive thinking in research and in the implementation of water agendas. We have identified several gaps in the global water governance system that are hindering progress towards equitable, just, and sustainable governance of complex water problems and the achievement of SDG 6. The key issue we highlight here is the limited reflexivity in both academic and policy arenas on who is doing water governance, how it is being done, and for what purpose. Disciplinary silos, combined with distrust, vested interests, and unequal power dynamics between different groups, has resulted in a limited reflection amongst water governance actors on:

    • Dominant approaches and paradigms in water governance (i.e. neo-liberal perspectives, integrated water resource management, ideas around efficiency and control, commodification) go largely unquestioned, whereas the transformative potential of critical thinking (i.e. feminist, political ecology, post-colonial theories) is subdued under these paradigms as a marginal narrative;
    • The power dynamics between actors, as certain stakeholders continue to be underrepresented, unable to access decision-making processes (even those deemed ‘open and accessible’), and are ultimately (un/intentionally) re-portrayed as recipients of ‘solutions’ and policies designed by ‘experts’ and based on technical expert-knowledge;
    • The limits to accessibility on water data and how this affects decision-making processes, particularly as disclosure and transparency on data and its collection methods are crucial for actionable water governance.

    We are committed to fostering reflexivity in our role as academics, researchers, and practitioners working on water challenges, and to incorporate greater reflection in our practices pushing forward 7 actions to influence the direction of the Water Action Agenda. We do this to create spaces for transparent, just, and accountable forms of water governance to emerge.

    Expected Impact

    1. Address the limitations of academic institutions within which research in ‘remote laboratories’ is upheld as more ‘objective’ than action-research and co-creation approaches. These limitations are particularly problematic when academics from the ‘Global North’ conduct research in the ‘Global South’ as it replicates a colonial and extractive approach to knowledge accumulation - about which many critical researchers are sounding alarm bells. How can researchers build ethical and sustained partnerships (with institutional support) with local actors/ institutions?

    2. It is important to acknowledge and question biases of what research is considered useful, neutral, or legitimate. In the water field, more ‘objective’ and positivist modes of research are often considered to have higher eligibility for grants, permits, requests for information, and access to participants. In some sectors (i.e. development organizations), there might also be implicit or explicit pressure to emphasize ‘successful’ interventions, rather than admitting challenges.

    3. Critically engage with information collection practices. Collected water data is often based on limited parameters and intended to meet specific purposes. Data are frequently not made available to stakeholders, the broader public, or research communities. An immense amount of knowledge is kept within the walls of financial, governmental, and private institutions. How do dominant paradigms determine what data is collected and for what purpose?

    4. Acknowledge the connections of water and land. Most research on water governance treats water as H2O or, in recent systems approaches, as a component of the water-energy-food nexus. The connection between the socio-ecological and political links of land and water often remain under-researched, which de-politicizes historical-material processes and invisibilizes/ justifies practices such as land grabbing. Re-politicizing water and land entanglements can shed light on a blind spot of water governance research.

    5. Critically reflect on the limitations of institutions. Water challenges are becoming increasingly complex with the impacts of climate change placing stress on existing institutions. Existing legal frameworks– from access rights to environmental migration policies– must be re-imagined and re-crafted to meet the challenges of today. As researchers on water governance, how can we shed light on such limitations of institutions? How can we better visualize locally-situated experiments that are challenging/ overcoming barriers of legal frameworks and institutions?

    6. Complexify and challenge binaries in water governance research. Common binaries include formal-informal; control-chaos; technical-political; public-private or the public-commons; science-policy; science-activism, and human-non-human among others. More fluid research that challenges these binaries and boundaries is needed. For instance, informality often remains negatively depicted or invisibilized, but how might it help overcome service gaps and limitations in legal rights that leave behind certain groups?

    7. Reflect on how metrics are designed and leveraged to promote certain policies or paradigms. Metrics, used to measure the impact/ outcomes of developmental interventions, infrastructure projects, policy or legislation, are not neutral but inherently political and driven by particular paradigms. Can we measure what it means for water governance approaches to be more ‘just’ and ‘equitable’ and if so, how? How can we simultaneously embrace plurality and resist the pressures to generalize or scale up?


    Fundation Nueva Cultura del Agua, Global Water Partnership

    Additional information

    Goal 6

    Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

    Goal 6


    By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all


    Proportion of population using safely managed drinking water services


    By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations


    Proportion of population using (a) safely managed sanitation services and (b) a hand-washing facility with soap and water


    By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally


    Proportion of domestic and industrial wastewater flows safely treated


    Proportion of bodies of water with good ambient water quality


    By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity

    Change in water-use efficiency over time


    Level of water stress: freshwater withdrawal as a proportion of available freshwater resources


    By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate


    Degree of integrated water resources management 


    Proportion of transboundary basin area with an operational arrangement for water cooperation


    By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes

    Change in the extent of water-related ecosystems over time


    By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies

    Amount of water- and sanitation-related official development assistance that is part of a government-coordinated spending plan


    Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management


    Proportion of local administrative units with established and operational policies and procedures for participation of local communities in water and sanitation management

    Name Description
    Critical academic outputs on water governance challenges i.e publications, webinars, workshops, science-policy interface talks
    Staff / Technical expertise
    15 Early Stage Researchers conducting doctoral research on water governance
    No progress reports have been submitted. Please sign in and click here to submit one.
    Action Network
    water logo
    24 March 2023 (start date)
    24 December 2024 (date of completion)
    1. Africa
    2. Europe
    3. Asia and Pacific
    4. Latin America and the Caribbean
    5. Global
    Other beneficiaries

    Academic/scientific community

    Contact Information

    Jampel, Assistant Professor