Standards and guidelines on water governance: what’s in it for Oxfam?

What do the World Commission on
Dams report
, Both ENDS’
negotiated approach
and WWF’s Freshwater
have in common? They all give some sort of guidelines on a theme
related to water governance. And apart from these three, there are many more:
the World Bank, the OECD and the United Nations all have their own
standards to address water governance. The exact themes that they focus on
range from dams to ecosystems to multinational organizations, and the
guidelines are aimed at different actors like NGOs, states and companies. It
seems that almost every organization has its own set of guidelines, and Oxfam
is no different. Their global guiding framework is inclusive water
, aiming at including decision-making, empowerment of women and focusing
on a transboundary scale. Oxfam’s approach only exists since last year, and
therefore my task as in intern was to see what other organizations do on this
topic, who uses which standards, and how Oxfam can best position itself in the
field of water governance.

Global Inclusive Water Governance Brochure, Oxfam

As the beginning of this blog already shows, after some initial research
I soon found out that there are many different guidelines, developed by many
different organizations. Interestingly, most guidelines seem to only be
followed by the organization that developed them, and there is very little
cross-referencing between them. There are exceptions of course. The World Commission on
Dams report
, for example, is generally seen as the guiding framework for dam
projects. However, the problem is that the guidelines are so specific to only
one aspect of water governance, namely dams, that they can’t be used in other
contexts. In addition, most guidelines are not binding, so actors can’t be
forced to follow them. Another problem with water governance is that rivers
cross national boundaries, making it a transboundary
issue. Overall, the water governance field lacks one guiding framework that can
be applied in many different contexts, also transboundary, and that is
supported, voluntarily or not, by a wide range of actors in the field.

There is a guideline that seems promising in this respect, and that is
the UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC). The Convention is
an overarching global legal framework that gives basic standards and rules for
cooperation between watercourse states on the use, management and protection of
international watercourses. The issue of transboundary river basins is clearly
addressed here, and the framework is broad enough to encompass issues that are
important to different types of organizations. As of now, the Convention
focuses specifically on states, but  this
could be seen broader in the future, to also include all activities of others
within a state. So the Convention addresses different aspects of water
governance, with a possible relevance for many different actors. However, its
ratification is going painfully slow.

In 1997, the Convention was first adopted. But it took until May 2014
before it finally entered into force as Vietnam became the 35th contracting
state. Most of those 35 countries are European, some are African and only two
are Asian. No countries from North and South America have ratified the Convention.
It is worrying that only two Asian countries have, with some of the most water-stressed
in the world to be found in this region. While the UNWC is binding for
those states who have ratified it, the limited number of countries that has
done that means that its overall influence on the regulation of transboundary
water governance is still very limited. When we look at the work of Oxfam, we
see that two of their three regional water programmes are located in Asia. One
focuses on the Pakistani part of the Indus, and the other on the countries
around the Mekong. In the Mekong, good transboundary governance is essential to
ensure water access for people in all the different countries. However, only
Vietnam has ratified the Convention so far. And China, the country that has
built many dams upstream of the Mekong, is one of only three countries that has
voted against the Convention. So while the UNWC seems very promising in terms
of approach, it is clear that its actual power is very limited at the moment,
and especially in regions where Oxfam works.

Mekong River livelihoods. Source:

So what if even a UN Convention can’t accomplish an overall framework on
transboundary water governance? Is it better to let all organizations have
their own guidelines and frameworks, should we put more effort in making the UN
Convention applicable to all countries, or should a new, independent, framework
be developed that can be endorsed by everybody? And what does this mean for an
organization like Oxfam? Would it be good to develop a whole new framework of
its own, with the possibility that it will not be used by anyone else than its
local partners, or would it be better to follow some existing guidelines? But
then, which ones, and why? To me, the existence of so many guidelines seems
confusing, but understandable at the same time. Every organization has its own
interests, and uniting in one set of guidelines brings the risk that these
interests go lost. But as complicated as the situation seems, in the end we
should keep in mind that if no common framework is developed soon, hundreds of
millions of people that depend on rivers for their livelihoods are at risk.

Linda Velzeboer

Linda is currently working
with the Water Governance team at Oxfam Novib. Now, a week-old proud graduate
of the University of Amsterdam, she was greeted with much fanfare on her first
day back at the office- cake, penguin, the works! (Disappointingly, it was only
a paper penguin). 
Having experience on water governance
issues (particularly in Malawi), she confirms the Dutch stereotype with her
water know-how!


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