Democratisation of Water Management: Establishing a Paradigm Shift in the Water Sector

Democratisation of Water Management: Establishing a Paradigm Shift in the Water Sector

V. Suresh, Vibhu Nayar

(The) water crisis is largely our own making. It has resulted not from the natural limitations of the water supply or lack of financing and appropriate technologies, even though these are important factors, but rather from profound failures in water governance … Consequently, resolving the challenges in this area must be a key priority if we are to achieve sustainable water resources development and management.
– UNDP on water governance

There are many influential studies which show that the solution to the global water crisis is not in increasing investment or introducing better technology but in improving water governance.

Nonetheless, reports of numerous conferences, repeat the same jaded mantra: increase investments, introduce more technology, downsize public utilities, curtail the role of government and bring in the private sector.

The addition of newer policy prescriptions, sometimes described as paradigm shifts, do not get much attention. Ideas include: greater community participation through an increased sense of ownership and participation by intended beneficiaries or `consumers’; a shift from supply driven to demand responsive functioning; a shift in the role of government functionaries from being `providers’ to `facilitators’; and moving towards greater decentralization in water supply function.

An important question is seldom asked: what happened to the billions of dollars worth of investment in the water sector worldwide in the last two or three decades? What is inexplicable is that in the absence of any scientific evidence or assessment of the type of water assets created by prior investments, or details about how long they remained useful or reasons for their collapse, more investments are sought to answer the water crisis.

It is not the purpose of this paper to argue that new investments are not required to address the challenge of providing safe, adequate and sustainable water to all human beings. To the contrary, while acknowledging the necessity of raising investments to ensure water supply, what we would like to stress is that the solution to the water crisis can be found only by breaking out of the stereotyped solution frameworks adopted until now. We would like to suggest that a much more cost effective but important solution would be to initiate comprehensive governance reform work within the water sector.

This paper highlights one such effort to fill this gap in water governance reform, initiated in the rural water supply division of the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board (TWAD) in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The major state level utility reform exercise titled, ‘Democratisation of Water Management’ was launched in early 2004 and is still continuing at the time of writing this paper in June, 2006.


1, accessed on 12/06/2006
2 See for example the United Nations World Water Development Report, `Water for Life, Water for
People’, Challenge 11, `Governing Water Wisely for Sustainable Development’. “The water crisis is
essentially a crisis of governance … Weaknesses in governance systems have greatly impeded
progress towards sustainable development and the balancing of socio-economic needs with ecological