The case of the World Commission on Dams is a good example of how this tendency to centralize water resource management can be mitigated, if not completely eliminated.
The political reality of the world is that government represents more than just laws and policies, just as management and governance has to be about more than just enacting laws and edicts, but should reflect the values of the community and the interests of the communities that will be summarily affected by those policies. In the case of water resource management, this means that it must be a prerequisite to involve a wider variety of community stakeholders as part of the decision-making process in order to make more "equitable and sustainable use of rivers. But in most countries, the cards are stacked heavily against an inclusive and more balanced process. Patterns of governance for the most part still reflect the utilitarian mind-set of the twentieth century, which focused on the engineering challenges of bringing rivers under control for society's economic advancement" (Postel and Richter 168). Accordingly, the issue that governments traditionally consider with regard to water resource management has been how to accomplish specific tasks that will, presumably, benefit the political or economic landscape. Little thought has been traditionally given to how such decisions would impact the people who actually have to live with those decisions: in the case of dam construction, those individuals whose lives and livelihoods might be displaced permanently by the presence of an enormous lake where there once was a river.
The World Commission on Dams, sponsored by the World Bank, found that this traditional model is rife with failings and invariably fails to take into account local and regional social and environmental impacts, focusing instead on technical or political benefits instead. After two years of intense study, the WCD found that diversifying stakeholder involvement throughout the communities that would be affected by dam-related decisions needed to be a project requirement. Referencing the WCD Knowledge Base of Dams, the Commission recognized a failure to include the interests of affected people in the planning process or, when involved, the political power and right to participate in the process and ensure that their voices were considered. The WCD found that "in terms of the social impacts of dams, [...] negative effects were neither adequately assessed nor accounted for [and that the] range of these impacts is substantial, including on the lives, livelihoods, and health of the affected communities dependent on the riverine environment" ("Dams and Development" 16-19).
To break from this tradition of neglect in dam and water resource management, the WCD attempted to undermine the traditional model and involve a wide range of stakeholders in an effort to involve the people who would ultimately be affected. In particular, the WCD stood out in the way in which it selected participants on the commission. Rather than following the "eminent persons model" or distinguished politicians, the WCD sought out and comprised itself of "active practitioners whose personal legitimacy derived from their prominence in international networks of stakeholders" (Dubash et al. 2). The intent, which was somewhat successful, was to involve individuals that while outspoken on the issue of dam construction and management, might not otherwise have a voice in the political process of making decisions about the future of dams on rivers throughout the world. Their efforts were successful and helped to create a more active process of participants who might engage the issues in ways dramatically different than politicians otherwise would.
Of course, the WCD still selected from amongst the most privileged and knowledgeable on the subject: a requirement for actually getting things done, but not necessarily conducive to actually reaching the people who would be affected by any decision that was made. Nonetheless, the World Bank encourages this kind of local participation, even amongst the "poor, indigenous people, and disadvantaged groups -- in the water-related operations it supports" (Bauer, "Water Resources Management" 16). Throughout the world, this has been an increasing trend as local and global grassroots efforts have emerged to help the people who are directly affected by these water management issues voice their concerns and issues in a forum that could actually affect the decision making process. Such initiatives have emerged in Chile's river basin management, and in World Bank projects throughout the world (Briscoe, Salas, and Pena 10; Postel and Richter 169).
The guiding principle, and a noble one in theory if not always in execution, behind these movements is the idea that water resource management should happen as close to the actual people who will be affected by the decisions as possible (Bauer, "Water Resources Management" 15). Top-down hierarchical decision making will only marginalize and create continuing problems associated with dams and water management that could be avoided or at least alleviated in those cases where it would have been otherwise possible to connect local people with the resources they could have used to manage the issue themselves.
Bates, Sarah F., Getches, David H., MacDonnell, Lawrence J., and Wilkinson, Charles F. Searching out the Headwaters: Change and Rediscovery in Western Water Policy. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993.
Bauer, Carl J. Siren Song: Chilean Water Law as a Model for International Reform. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 2004.
Bauer, Carl. "Water Resources Management." A World Bank Policy Paper. Washington, DC: The World Bank, 1993.
Briscoe, John, Salas, Pablo Anguita, and Pena, Humberto. "Managing Water as an Economic Resource: Reflections on the Chilean Experience." Environmental Economics Series. Washington, DC: The World Bank, April 1998.
Brown, F. Lee. "Water Markets and Traditional Water Values: Merging Commodity and Community Perspectives." Water International 22.1 (1997): pp. 2-5.
Dubash, Navroz K., Dupar, Mairi, Kothari, Smitu, and Lissu, Tundu. A Watershed in Global Governance? An Independent Assessment of the World Commission on Dams. World Resources Institute, Lokayan, and Lawyers' Environmental Action Team, 2001.
Postel, Sandra and Richter, Brian. Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People…