Norms in Multilevel Groundwater Governance & Sustainable Development

PhD Research on Groundwater Governance by Kirstin I. Conti
Project Information

'Norms in Multilevel Groundwater Governance & Sustainable Development' is a PhD research that Kirstin I. Conti with IGRAC as PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam (UVA), Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research. In July 2017, Dr. Conti successfully defended her PhD thesis and was awarded with Doctoral degree. The main groundwater governance challenges, research questions and outcomes are outlined below.

Groundwater trends and challenges

Groundwater resources compose the vast majority of available fresh water resources on earth. Groundwater scarcity, depletion, and the rate of its use are increasing in many locations across the globe. Further, global phenomena such as climate change and globalisation are shifting the dynamics of groundwater availability and exploitation. As such, there are three key groundwater problems:

  1. Abstraction: Over-abstraction in some areas resulting in loss of ecosystems, permanent depletion, under-utilisation in other areas.
  2. Groundwater Quality: Contamination through natural geological processes or through human activities.
  3. ‘Glocalisation’: Global problems affecting local groundwater resources and local groundwater problems affect global systems.

Groundwater governance gaps

Groundwater governance is necessary to address the resulting challenges of groundwater abstraction, quality degradation, and the increasingly global nature of the resource. Yet, there are four key gaps in scholarly knowledge regarding groundwater governance.

  1. Hydrogeology literature is poorly integrated into groundwater governance literature.
  2. Groundwater governance research does not use common guiding norm or take into account the multilevel perspective in analyzing the governance architecture. 
  3. Literature does not discuss the full range of groundwater governance principles in relation to the drivers of groundwater problems.
  4. Groundwater governance literature focuses on environmental, social, economic and political issues but not through a sustainability approach integrating those four elements.

Shortcomings of current normative architecture

This research responds to the question: What are the shortcomings of the current normative architecture for sustainable and inclusive groundwater governance and what are the key elements of a normative architecture at multiple geographic levels that are consistent with sustainable and inclusive development? The following sub-questions are addressed:

  1. How have groundwater governance frameworks evolved at multiple geographic levels, from global to local?
  2. How are hydrogeology, ecosystems services and the drivers of groundwater problems taken into account in the architectural design?
  3. Which groundwater governance principles have been included in these governance frameworks at multiple geographic levels? 
  4. How does legal pluralism manifest within and across multiple geographic levels?
  5. How can current designs of the normative architecture become consistent with sustainable and inclusive development at multiple geographic levels?

Integrating hydrogeology into groundwater governance

This research presented a big-picture analysis of the state of groundwater governance. It took a rigorous approach to integrating hydrogeological knowledge into current understandings of groundwater governance. It builds upon existing research on specific groundwater governance frameworks by identifying patterns across these frameworks and highlighting key areas of incoherence and contradictions within and across geographic levels. It went beyond existing research, using a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods, by positioning sustainable and inclusive development as the guiding norm in order to draw conclusions about how existing groundwater governance frameworks may be improved. 

While such a big picture analysis is prone to obscuring the details and nuance of specific instances of groundwater governance, a case study of the Stampriet Transboundary Aquifer System (shared by Botswana, Namibia and South Africa) was included to re-capture some of these elements.

The findings of this research indicate that groundwater governance frameworks need to address groundwater’s specific physical attributes; more deeply integrate social and relational elements (e.g. public participation and poverty eradication); address climate change and trade impacts on groundwater; integrate capacity building and data gathering; assess equivalence and/or pluralism between formal and customary governance frameworks; and address opportunities for increased, yet sustainable and inclusive groundwater use. 

Related groundwater governance publications

Case Study

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Stefan Siepman, Communication Specialist at IGRAC
Senior Communications Officer
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