4. Equity and participation on water access

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the concept of participation from various perspectives
  • Discuss the issues and concerns related to participation
  • Critically analyze participatory processes

Key Concepts

Participation, communities, stakeholders, empowerment, inclusion

1. Why do we talk about participation in the water sector?

In this submodule we will pay a critical gaze to the concept of participation and how it has been used in the water sector to understand its potentials and limitation for equitable water access.

To get introduced to the topic of participation in water management watch the sections 1-5 of the webinar “Participation“. The webinar is part of the E-Learning Module on Integrated Water Resources Management produced by IWAS (International Water Research Alliance Saxony), together with the German IHP/HWRP (International Hydrological Programme of UNESCO and Hydrology and Water Resources Programme of WMO). The lecture on Participation by Prof. Dr. J. Newig provides an overview of how participation has been institutionalized in the water sector, the rationales and benefits for participation as well as possible shortcomings , and the types and methods of participation normally used in the water sector.

According to the lecture, some of the reasons for introducing community or stakeholders participation in any water project are:

  • Decisions taken in a participatory way better reflect the real needs and concerns of the different actors involved in the process
  • Participation leads to sustainability as the different actors involved will feel ownership of the outcomes if they have been involved in the decision making process
  • Participation leads to social justice and the empowerment of the actors involved in the process

2. A critical view to community participation in water

There has been a more critical approach to participation in the international development and water sectors. The article written by Prof. Frances Cleaver in 1999, Paradoxes of participation: questioning participatory approaches to development provides a good example of this. According to her,

“Participation has become an act of faith in development; something we believe in and rarely question”

but as she says:

“despite significant claims to the contrary, there is little evidence of the long-term effectiveness of participation of materially improving the conditions of the most vulnerable people or as a strategy for social change”

Read section 1 of the article and summarize the idea behind the paradox of Efficiency and Empowerment of participatory projects.

You can access the full paper via IRC-WASH website.

In the following clip she further discusses how community participation has been institutionalized in water management projects. The clip was produced by Genewa Water Hub in 2016 as part of the Water Talks Series.

The talk by Prof. Cleaver, Adaptive Water Governance: the Promises and Pitfalls of Institutional Bricolage, explores the idea that institutions for local water governance are shaped more by processes of bricolage (the piecing together of arrangements from the materials at hand) than by design. Drawing on examples from Tanzania and Zimbabwe, she shows that institutions formed through bricolage are dynamic, adaptive and fit their local context. However, they may also be inefficient and inequitable and intermittent. She discusses the dilemmas that this poses for development agencies and their planned interventions.

3. Practical cases

The following two videos provide real examples of participation in the water sector. The first clip is documentary made by a group of students from UNESCO-IHE Water Management MSc program in 2011. It reflects on public Participation in Coastal Zone Management in the Netherlands.

The second clip was produced by Practical Action in 2014. The video presents the lessons and experiences from the Project Enhancing Community Participation in Water Governance of Water and Sanitation Service Delivery in Rural Gwanda District, Zimbabwe

Watch both clips and reflect about what you have learnt in the previous sections. Keeping in mind the following questions: Who is made to participate in the projects? Why? How is participation envisioned? Whose voice is included and whose might have been excluded? Why?

Key Readings

Key Readings

  • In addition, this policy brief   published on-line by the International Water Centre discusses how the ideas of "public participation" and "community engagement" have been adopted and applied in the water sector.
  • Reference: Helen Ross, Bronwyn Powell and Suzanne Hoverman (2008). Public participation and community engagement for water resource management in the Pacific. Australian Water Research Facility Policy Brief. IWC

Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

  • Who is made to participate in the different projects? Why?
  • How is participation envisioned?
  • Whose voice is included and whose might have been excluded? Why?

Further Readings

Further Readings

  • Abers, R. (2007) ‘Organizing for Governance: Building Collaboration in Brazilian River Basins’, World Development 35(8): 1450-1463
  • Eversole, Robyn (2003) ‘Managing the Pitfalls of Participatory Development: Some Insight from Australia’ World Development, 31(5): 781–795.
  • Fung A. (2006) 'Varieties of participation in complex governance.' Public Administration Review 66(s1): 66-75.
  • Mayoux, L. (1995) ‘Beyond Naivety: Women, Gender Inequality and Participatory Development’ Development and Change, 26: 235-258.

Other related International Waters Lessons and Submodules


Next submodule: Gender and water access

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