Special Feature on Implementing Participatory Water Management:
Recent Advances in Theory, Practice and Evaluation

This synthesis product was published as a special feature in Ecology & Society.

Key words: stakeholder participation; public participation; interactive planning; water resources management; policy analysis; design; evaluation; institutions; participatory modeling; participatory research; social learning; development theory; adaptive management

Research Focus and objective of the Special Feature

Many current water planning and management problems are riddled with high levels of complexity, uncertainty and conflict; so-called “messes” or “wicked problems”. These problem situations, which used to remain the domain of technical water managers, are increasingly entering the public policy sphere as resources and individual implementation power become scarce, and conflicts between water users and interest groups proliferate, adding a previously over-looked social dimension to the complex systems being managed. The realisation that there is a need to consider the values, knowledge and perspectives of these “stakeholders” in collaborative decision-making processes has led to a multitude of new methods and processes being proposed, which include “participatory” forms of modelling, planning and decision-aiding processes. Despite an increasing uptake of such methods around the world in water management, as well as in other sectors of natural resources management and public policy fields such as urban transport, health and technology risk assessment; and despite the proliferation of scientific literature on the evaluation of participation processes in many of these fields - including water management -, two pivotal questions have not yet been clearly answered in the scientific literature:

  1. What are the benefits of using participatory approaches?
  2. How exactly should these approaches be implemented in complex social-ecological settings to exploit these potential benefits?

These questions are not only of interest to the scientific community but equally to water managers and policy makers. This is in particular as the lack of clear insight means that in many cases the potential for effective water management remains unattained. In the study of sustainable ecological and social systems the first two questions concretise into a third one that reaches beyond the one-time application of participatory approaches to water management:

The answer to this question is equally open. Given the increasingly perceived scarce and fragile state of water resources in many countries, this question is of urgent practical relevance.  

This special feature on participatory water management starts to address these three questions by outlining recent advances in theory, practice and evaluation related to the implementation of participatory water management. The feature is largely based on an extensive range of case studies that have been implemented and analysed by cross-disciplinary research teams in collaboration with practitioners and in a number of cases policy makers.

The following articles have been published:

Guest Editorial

Research Articles

Synthesis Articles

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