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Charting a Course – Collaborative Water Governance

Water governance refers to the processes and institutions through which decisions are made about water. This includes the range of political, organizational, and administrative processes used to make and implement decisions, as well as how decision makers are held accountable. This is different from water management, which refers to the operational, on-the-ground activity to regulate the water resource and the conditions of its use.

The NRTEE set out to explore the potential of collaborative water governance approaches and how they might assist in achieving sustainable water use by the natural resources sectors. Our research provides insights into three areas:

  1. the benefits and challenges of current collaborative water governance approaches;
  2. governments’ and industries’ changing roles in water governance and management, and how a collaborative governance process might deal with these changes; and
  3. circumstances under which collaborative water governance might be appropriate in the future.

Collaborative water governance can take on many forms and functions, differentiated primarily by two key characteristics:

  1. the degree of non-governmental participation, and
  2. the degree of delegation of decision-making power.

Figure 25: Approaches to Collaborative Water Governance

Making Collaborative Water Governance Work

Collaborative water governance is appropriate when
  • input from multiple stakeholders into decision making on “big picture” or strategic issues is required;
  • long-term commitment from multiple stakeholders is required;
  • policy frameworks are being developed; or
  • watershed plans are being developed.

Collaborative water governance works when

  • rights, responsibilities, mandates, and rules are clear;
  • relationships are emphasized over hierarchies;
  • common objectives and benefits can be defined;
  • participants recognize the need to make decisions at a specific scale;
  • stable funding is available to support the collaborative process; and
  • participants share a commitment to sustainable water governance.

Collaborative water governance may not work or be appropriate when

  • not all participants are willing to come to the table;
  • the process is used by certain groups to delay action or hinder policy processes;
  • no processes exist for conflict resolution;
  • power imbalances exist;
  • clarity is lacking about authority for decision making;
  • federal and provincial policy is not aligned with municipal or watershed organizations’ objectives;
  • a crisis situation requires immediate action; or
  • there is a well-defined problem that can be easily dealt with by a government department.

Roles of the Natural Resource Sectors

The natural resource sectors have been involved in collaborative processes for a long time and see the value of such processes as being dependent on various factors. They believe that the benefits of collaboration need to be clearly demonstrated. They also emphasize the critical need to provide contextually appropriate incentives for industry participation in water governance processes. Similarly to other stakeholders, firms in the natural resources sectors require greater clarity with respect to expectations and roles and responsibilities in water governance.

Industry’s participation in collaborative water governance forums is not guaranteed and may remain limited until governments mandate such processes. Several issues can explain such limited participation. One important factor is that for some industry sectors, the benefits of participation seem both limited and unclear. Corporations respond strongly to signals from governments and regulatory mechanisms. If they believe that water governance is not a government priority, then they will not consider it a priority and will likely not participate.

Another issue is the amount of time and resources required to participate in those processes, which often leads to “volunteer burnout” in the non-governmental stakeholders. This has implications, as companies will be reluctant to invest time and money in a process that does not have a good chance of success. Incentives are required to ensure participation from all relevant natural resources sectors in order to improve involvement in, and acceptance of, the collaborative water governance process.


Effective collaborative water governance requires involvement from a broad range of stakeholders whose participation is not always guaranteed. As for other stakeholders, representatives from the natural resource sectors need some incentives to remain committed to such processes. They want to see alignment with other planning processes such as municipal land use planning or forest management plans. To encourage participation in collaborative water governance, governments need to demonstrate strong leadership and act on the recommendations provided by the collaborative process.

Collaborative water governance is a tool to be selected in particular situations, not a panacea for all water governance challenges. It requires time and dedicated resources, as well as clear rules and guidance from governments. To be successful, the mandate, scope, and role of collaborative groups must be clearly stated in written documents. Collaborative governance in name only — without clear objectives and accountability rules, without stakeholder or government support, in a conflict-ridden situation, and without a spirit of collaboration — has the potential to make things worse, not better. But future water-management challenges require consideration of more inclusive decision-making processes as a means to identify shared problems and potential solutions. Collaborative governance approaches for water management need to be considered. 

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