Water rights: the beating heart of sustainable water management?

Water is vital to our wellbeing and prosperity, individually and collectively. In times of plenty we give it little thought, while in times of scarcity we recognise its true value, at least momentarily. With advancing climate change impacting water availability, coupled with growing demand there are many headlines all over the world talking of actual and impending water crises. 

These headlines speak to a flurry of activity, a wealth of science and commentary, announcements of initiatives and investments all aimed at addressing the current or future imbalance between supply and demand. This sounds deceptively easy and organised, while we all appreciate a more complex reality of the politics of water, fragmented effort, competition over ideas, and a debate all too often focussed around ‘silver bullets’ – in many ways Mark Twain’s famous quotation “Whisky is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.” never held truer.

Yet, in this public debate we have often been struck by how little mention or attention is given to the fundamental bridge between supply and demand – the humble water right (sometimes referred to as a licence or entitlement). The individual water right specifies who can use water, how much, where, when, and whether they can transfer the right and so on – the totality of all the water rights issued by a government defines how much water is allowed to be extracted from the available supply. Water rights vary enormously, within and between jurisdictions, in their duration, security, flexibility, divisibility and transferability. Yet, the management and administration of these rights is central to sustainability, and they are largely unseen and unknown. 

These water rights are established by governments via the relevant legal frameworks governing water. Information about these water rights are held by governments, and governments are the central authority when it comes to their administration, management, and visibility. In recent months we have seen an upturn in coverage of demands for more transparency in water, and more particularly about water rights. For example, in Australia any effective solution … must, therefore, hold governments responsible for their water plans and decisions. This requires that a “who, what, how and when” of water be made transparent ...1, in Europe and South America: “information deficiencies in this area (water use and management) question the transparency of the whole water sector, as they mean that citizens and interested parties have no access to comprehensive information about how water—a public good—is used”2and in the United States: “California’s water data currently falls far short of the fundamental goal of being complete and usable—that is, readily available in formats that suit users’ needs and are useful for making the decisions at hand.3 

So why are these calls becoming more strident? 

One significant driver is increasing competition for water, exacerbated by scarcityThis correlation between high water stress and high transparency may sound counterintuitivebut there is evidence that civil society in water-stressed areas is more active and demanding of information, thus forcing government to be more transparent. Furtheras water tends to be high on the political agenda in water stressed regionsgovernments can be more interested in showing its commitment to address water-related issues to its constituency.” That said, in any call for transparency there is also a need to respect privacy and confidentiality. 

A second driver is the expectations of today’s digital citizens as a result of exposure to highly efficient and engaging consumer products to deliver services and process transactions. Consumers are growing demand to reduce transactional costs, improve response times, and build confidence in the data and trust in the transaction. Equally, governments are seeking reduction of costs, increased transparency, and improving the customer experience. New digital technologies offer the opportunity for governments, and other service providers, to enable a future where the delivery of public value linked services and resources are more personal, immediate, and efficient. 

This sounds like a win-win opportunity, yet “a single point of truth on many issues appears to be more challenging to establish than it should4. It also sounds like a new opportunity, yet efforts to date have yielded little gain. Why? 

A key emergent challenge in realising this digital transformation is how to overcome fragmented and function specific information systems, and interintragovernmental, and sectoral silos – nowhere stronger than in water. And as we all know, the adage, here described by Tom Clancy, also holds true: “Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people. 

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