Boundary Judgments in Water Governance: Diagnosing Internal and External Factors that Matter in a Complex World

Rob C. de Loë, J.J. Patterson

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Governance failures are widely recognized as a key reason why, despite sustained attention over previous decades, many longstanding water problems continue to go unsolved around the world. A major challenge in analyzing and addressing water governance problems is making “boundary judgments” in the face of complexity. Improving water governance requires accounting for a diverse and sometimes unclear set of internal and external factors that cause water problems. For example, drivers, actors, and institutions implicated may be both “internal” or “external” to a water governance system, depending on how problem boundaries are delineated. This problem confronts researchers and practitioners alike, and although recognition is growing, it remains extremely challenging to practically address. Diagnostic approaches are needed to deal with the complexity of contemporary water governance problems. In this paper, we propose a practical diagnostic approach to support structured, context-specific, critical diagnostic inquiry. We build on complementary initiatives emerging in other fields, paying particular attention to external factors that are often neglected, while being sensitive to the capacity constraints of policymakers and practitioners. The approach is flexible in allowing for either cursory or in-depth analysis as appropriate in a given situation. This allows for the identification of tangible improvements and “small wins” to improve water governance systems within a bigger-picture perspective of the diverse causes of water governance problems. Innovatively, we take a user-oriented perspective to support researchers and policymakers in practice, and break new ground in providing tractable tools for dealing with complexity in water governance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)565-581
Number of pages17
JournalWater Resources Management
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2018


Acknowledgments This work was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (453-2014-0959). The authors would like to thank the members of the Water Policy and Governance Group who provided constructive feedback on earlier drafts, and external reviewers who helped us sharpen and clarify the arguments.

FundersFunder number
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada453-2014-0959


    • water governance, water management, complexity, actors, stakeholders, policy, practice, systems thinking


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