WWF UK Blog  

Grappling with Governance: reflections from Tanzania’s river basins


“Governance” is an extremely elusive beast. It means different things to different organisations and people. To be honest it’s one of those buzzwords which I’ve rather avoided, feeling that at times it’s used as a way to gloss over the real problems.

So I was intrigued to be part of a symposium led by WWF-Tanzania last week on the topic of water governance, specifically “Making catchment governance work for all”. The idea of the symposium was to bring together different people to share ideas about how to grapple with water governance in Tanzania at the scale of river catchments/ basins. But why should WWF, and indeed Tanzania, care about the governance of water?

Tanzania faces big water challenges. Two examples help illustrate the scale of the challenge: on average 43% of new water supply points fail within the first year, and in one district it’s 90%; in the last 15 years the Great Ruaha River has ceased to flow in the dry season – it can no longer be described as “great”. These things have happened despite significant aid investment; despite the fact the good water policies and laws are in place; and despite the fact that it is clear what management or technical fixes are required.

So what’s going wrong?

Many development institutions point to underlying issues linked to water governance. Indeed, this is not just a problem in Tanzania: in its first Water Development Report in 2003 the UN strongly stated that the “water crisis is essentially a crisis of governance…”; and it seems to be an issue beyond the water sector too: the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that “good governance is perhaps the single most important factor in eradicating poverty and promoting development”.

Great Ruaha River in the dry season ©WWF-TanzaniaGreat Ruaha River in the dry season ©WWF-Tanzania

But what is this governance beast?

Back to the symposium. At the symposium’s heart was learning from different perspectives, so we shared ideas about what governance means to us. Common reflections were, “a process for making and implementing decisions” and “an inclusive process involving participation”, as were the things that frame governance – namely policies, standards, laws, procedures, institutions, political context, socio-economic context, and a common problem.

We also heard many useful metaphors for what good governance looks like: a good football team on the pitch, an orchestra playing together, sailing a boat. I think the football metaphor resonated with most people; Tanzania is crazy about football. But personally I’m with the sailing boat. Good governance is like sailing a boat well in a race: the crew must work together, responding to feedback from the biophysical environment (i.e. wind and currents), and feedback from the social world (the rules of the game and others in the crew). The boat represents the institutions and infrastructure that the team have to work with to sail – or govern – well.  The government sets the rules of the game but allows different forms of sailing to emerge.

Great Ruaha River in the wet season ©WWF-TanzaniaGreat Ruaha River in the wet season ©WWF-Tanzania

But we’re far from seeing this good governance in Tanzania, or indeed in many parts of the world. At the symposium we heard real examples of failing governance. We heard about how in one district in Tanzania stakeholders of water supply schemes claim that “we don’t participate, we get participated” – meaning that they get invited to meetings simply to tick the “participation box”. We also heard about a recent assessment that pointed to massive human resource shortages in the basin authorities in Tanzania (83% in the Rufiji Basin Office).  We also heard many examples about poor relationships between sectors and within sectors, and particularly between upstream and downstream users, and between the government and private sectors. This was exemplified by WWF’s experience in the Ruaha river basin under the Sustainable Water Access Use and Management (SWAUM) programme. In short, the “I” of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) – another buzzword which I won’t go into now – was not happening.

And how do we make good governance happen?

Again, we learned from different people who were grappling with governance in different places – practitioners that had made steps towards good governance.   Emerging approaches included popularising the concept of responsible and inclusive water management (indeed one approach involved football); working together to generate locally relevant and flexible solutions; empowering individuals to be more accountable for water issues; and negotiating trade-offs between different options for managing water. What was really inspiring was the way in which participants took the governance beast by the horns, engaged with these different ideas, questioned them, and came up with positive steps to tackle it in their own sphere of influence.

Symposium participants with ideas for improving governance Symposium participants with ideas for improving governance ©Catherine Moncrieff

At the heart of many of the ideas discussed was facilitating a process of learning and adaption.  This involves learning from the past (understanding history and what went well/not so well before); learning about the present (mapping institutions, stakeholders and power); learning from each other (understanding different perspectives);  changing mind-sets; building and sustaining stakeholder engagement; and ultimately making decisions together. WWF has been trying out this kind of approach in the Ruaha river basin under the SWAUM programme. We’ve called it social learning, but there’s another buzzword!

In short, governance can be a difficult concept to get your head around, but it seems to underlie many of the problems associated with water management. There are lots of good approaches out there to tackle it. But in our grappling with governance, we must remember to keep our eyes on our destination: securing water for livelihoods and economic development, whilst making sure the rivers of Tanzania flow all year round.

Find out more about how we’re keeping rivers flowing in Tanzania and the rest of the world.

Find out more about our work globally on Water Governance

Related posts