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A Review of Shiney Varghese's "Water Governance for 21st Century"

Water Governance for 21st Century, by Shiney Varghese at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, makes a compelling case urging advcates and policy makers to advance an approach combining the commons framework and the Public Trust Doctrine principles. Shiney notes that the tendency of recent trends to rely on market and rights–based policies has exaccerbated the failures in water governance. These approaches do not “solve problems such as poor management, existing over-allocation or failing water governance.” Solutions that commodify water and name it as an economic good often result in the transfer of water from small-scale livelihood farming, rightful Indigenous uses, and ecological needs to uses with a higher dollar value, such as irrigated commodity farming. These approaches also represent further enclosure of water, moving us away from protecting water as a commons and instead facilitating private gain from transactions of this inherited resource and publicly built infrastructure.

This is the same conclusion and motivation behind the Great Lakes Commons Initiative. Leaders around the lakes from many communities and Nations recognized that current Great Lakes governance is simply incapable of protecting our water because 1) policy is biased toward private and commercial interest; 2) the needs and boundaries of the eco-region are not taken into account; and 3) the people of the Great Lakes are not central to water stewardship and largely lack power in water decisions.

Varghese uses specific examples to clearly demonstrate how better and more equitable outcomes are possible if communities and countries combine commons principles with Public Trust Doctrine. Together, these frameworks ensure that water is “available first and foremost for public purposes” and place the responsibility to the water and the future squarely with community, not with multi-national corporations and global financial institutions.

Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel Laureate and commons researcher powerfully sums up this shift: “Designing institutions to force entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes has been the major goal posited by policy analysts for much of the past half century. Extensive empirical research leads me to argue that instead, a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans…the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants and the achievement of more effective, equitable and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.” So, states Varghese, “Public policy rooted in cooperation and mutual responsibility, instead of competition, would help address the ongoing crisis in shared commons such as water.”

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