Whose Water? Between the local and the global

John Powell and Chris Short from the CCRI have travelled to Japan for the 14th Global Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons.

John Powell took part in a panel discussion exploring the nature of water as a commons resource.  The panel was chaired by Ruth Meinzi-Dick from the International Food Policy Research Institute with Chandra Rappagari from the Government of Andrha Pradesh as discussant.  The panel was made up of those who had received a Fellowship or a travel grant from the Foundation for Ecological Security in India.

John continues…

The panel started by discussing the issue of state versus community control and it quickly became apparent the issue is highly context dependent.  Groundwater and surface water need to be considered differently with the panel suggesting that groundwater needed a greater level of local community control whereas surface water required some level of state control to coordinate information needs and resolve disputes between communities that may be separated geographically.  In India it was pointed out that surface water should be under community control but that government regulation often interfered with local arrangements.  For groundwater the problem was more one of individual use that needed to be controlled and brought under some form of community level management.  In china on the other hand there is conflict between what is written in the constitution (all water belongs to the state) and what happens on the ground (in practice it belongs to the community).


 The concern in many countries was the overriding power of the state to take control of the resource and disenfranchise those dependent on clean water for their livelihoods, while enriching others.  Other key issues that came out of the discussion as influencing rights over the resource include empowerment, gender (the role of women), and both the availability and quality of water.  How communities operate to get the state to devolve power in a practical manner that supported community aims was considered to be a major challenge in all countries represented by panellists, and applied to both developing and developed countries.


Parallels were drawn with marine resources where ‘global’ interests (e.g. multi-national energy companies, national governments) effectively control the resource while local coastal communities no longer have a voice in how resources (in particular fisheries) are managed.  The need for state support was recognised in the case of large scale complex resources in order to deal with conflict and trans-boundary issues but the major concern was how to ensure the state did not dominate (or become domineering).  The panel suggested that both fresh water (surface and ground) and marine resources should be re-conceptualised as ‘shared resources’ and local communities need to reclaim a larger share in the decision making over management and use.  Enabling communities and building capacity at the local level was seen as the way forward.