Regional Environmental Change

, Volume 18, Issue 6, pp 1579–1591 | Cite as

Multi-level interactions in a context of political decentralization and evolving water-policy goals: the case of Spain

  • Lucia De Stefano
  • Nuria Hernandez-Mora
Original Article


Spain is a highly decentralized country where water governance is a multi-level institutional endeavor requiring effective intergovernmental coordination—in terms of objectives and actions. The paper revisits the evolution of vertical and horizontal intergovernmental interactions in Spain, with a special focus on four interregional river basins. We build on a historical analysis of the evolution of water governance institutions, a mapping of existing interactions over water, careful document analysis, and interviews with selected public officials that are at the interface between the political and the technical spheres. Intergovernmental interaction occurs through different mechanisms that are slowly evolving to adapt to new challenges posed by changing power dynamics and water policy goals. Since the start of political decentralization in 1978, key institutional reforms within and outside of the water sector have opened windows of opportunity for regions to seek new spheres of influence and power. Disputes over water allocation, environmental flows, inter-basin transfers, and even basin boundaries delineation emerge as an expression of a struggle over power distribution between the regions and the central government. The physical and institutional geography of water and diverging visions and priorities (over water and beyond) are among the factors that contribute to shape conflict and cooperation in intergovernmental relations over water.


Subnational Multilevel Cooperation Dispute Spain WFD 


Federal rivers are defined as “major rivers within or shared by a federal political system” (Garrick et al. 2013:12) and can be considered a special type of transboundary river, where the governments sharing waters are subnational levels with a strong level of autonomy instead of sovereign countries. While international and community-based levels of water governance have been extensively studied, literature about this meso-scale of water governance is still limited (Garrick and De Stefano 2016).

Past evidence about relations over water between riparian countries in international rivers suggests that in general, positive interactions outnumber negative ones (Wolf et al. 2003; De Stefano et al. 2010), whereas tensions in specific basins can reach high intensity and become a serious source of concern. Systematic studies focused on subnational intergovernmental conflicts over water are limited (for regional inventories, see, e.g., Bernauer et al. 2012; Eidem et al. 2012) but suggest that water can lead to heated intergovernmental disputes and political gridlock. Analyzing decentralized political systems, Moore (2017, p.15) observes that “while scholars concerned with water resource management often direct their focus to the national level, […] subnational officials frequently determine the success or failure of national water resource policy reforms.” This is especially true in federal political systems, where subnational governments usually have broad powers on key water-related policies.

Intergovernmental interactions involve both vertical relations between governments at the central and subnational levels, and horizontal ones, between governments at the same level (inter-state or inter-provincial) (Watts 2006). The same author points out that cooperation in federal systems contributes to multiple goals, including coordination of decisions in policy areas where responsibilities are complementary or overlap and the achievement of objectives by one government level in areas that are under another’s jurisdiction. Thus, mechanisms enabling effective intergovernmental interaction are key for achieving cooperation in a federal political system, and mapping them contributes to understand to what extent and why they achieve (or not) their cooperation purposes.

The nature of these interactions is determined by a complex landscape of factors that range from constitutional features to geography. We build our analysis of those factors within Spain’s water governance on the extensive scholarship related to conflict and cooperation in international rivers, with the important caveat that actors in subnational systems are bound by several elements (common constitution, binding laws, shared political culture, etc.) that are absent in relationships among sovereign riparian countries. Past evidence suggests that the main sources of tension in transboundary basins relate to the construction or operation of water infrastructure, distribution of water among riparian states, and water quality issues (Yoffe et al. 2003; De Stefano et al. 2010). Disputes tend to occur when rapid or extreme change to physical or governance systems outpaces the capacity of existing institutions to manage the effects of that change (Wolf et al. 2003).

Identifying what factors influence cooperation and conflict is a challenging task. In international basins, several scholars use theoretical arguments or historical evidence to establish causal links between conflicts and factors potentially contributing to tensions: water availability (e.g., Toset et al. 2000; Furlong et al. 2006); climate change (Nordås and Gleditsch 2007; Gleditsch 2012); upstream-downstream relationships (Munia et al. 2016); the saliency of the issue at stake (Hensel et al. 2008); the existence and design of treaties (Brochmann 2012; Dinar et al. 2015), the level of democracy in the riparian countries (Brochmann and Hensel 2009, Brochmann and Gleditsch 2012); commercial trade (Espey and Towfique 2004; Tir and Ackerman 2009); or peacefulness of riparian relationships (Brochmann and Gleditsch 2012).

In this paper, we focus on intergovernmental interactions over water in Spain, a quasi-federal country,1 where the decentralized political system has evolved significantly over the past 40 years. We address two main questions: how do governments interact vertically and horizontally in a context where division of responsibilities over different sectoral policies requires effective cooperation and coordination between governments and where the federal political system is still evolving? What factors influence the cooperative or conflictive nature of that interaction? Addressing these two questions helps shed light into what strategies could be implemented to foster cooperation in each specific context.


We approach the questions outlined in the introduction by considering the recent history and present dynamics of water management in Spain focusing on four interregional river basin districts2 (RBDs) managed by the central government through a river basin authority (RBA): Cantábrico, Ebro, Guadiana, and Júcar (Fig. 1). Case studies were selected because of their high level of intergovernmental conflict and/or cooperation for river basin management; the diversity of hydrological and ecological interconnection at the basin scale; the diversity of cultural and territorial identity of the regions sharing the RBD; and their high political relevance for the evolution of Spanish hydropolitics.
Fig. 1

River basin districts and autonomous regions in Spain

Two of them (Ebro and Júcar) are cases of high-intensity disputes that have reached the courts, causing major stalls in the river basin planning process. Cantábrico was also subject to judicial disputes but has evolved into a textbook case of intergovernmental cooperation. Guadiana is an interregional and international basin (shared with Portugal) where conflicts take place between users and between competing sectoral policies at the intrarregional level rather than between regions. Both Ebro and Cantábrico include regions with strong and historically based national and cultural identity (Catalonia, Navarra and Basque Country in the Ebro; and the Basque Country in Cantábrico). In terms of physical configuration, while Ebro has a well-defined river mainstream, the other three cases have different levels of hydrological interconnection between different parts of the basin (Guadiana) or between different river basins within the river basin district (Júcar and Cantábrico) (see Fig. 1).

We analyze both vertical (between central and regional governments) and horizontal interactions (between and within regions) with a special focus on the coordination challenges posed by water resources planning and management in the context of evolving water policy goals. We conduct a historical analysis of the evolution of water governance institutions and map existing interactions over water. We identify factors that contribute to promote intergovernmental conflict or cooperation and compare them with those identified in the extensive literature on international river basin governance. We do this through extensive document analysis and literature review as well as semi-structured phone interviews conducted in February 2017 with practitioners holding responsibility over water planning and management at the national scale and at the river basin and the regional scale in the four case studies. Interviewees (N = 9) were civil servants with a long (10 + years) experience in water planning and management. Their affiliations included the following: intraregional RBA (2), interregional RBA (4), regional governments (2), and the ministry for water affairs (1) (Table 1, Electronic Supplemental Material). Most of them hold or have held politically appointed positions, i.e., they are high-ranked civil servants that work at the interface between the political and the technical spheres. Interviews explored interactions between RBAs and the regions within the RBA’s territory, between regions within the same RBD, and between regions and the central government. Questions focused on both the thematic content and goals of the interaction, existing mechanisms for interaction, and factors that determine the nature of the relationships.

The focus on long-time civil servants was justified because of the emphasis on the historical evolution of inter-institutional relations under evolving governance regimes and water policy goals which required ongoing involvement in management and planning processes. We also sought to complement previous research conducted by the authors that focused on users, civil society, or political analysis (see for instance Pedregal et al. 2011; López-Gunn and De Stefano 2014; Hernández-Mora et al. 2015; del Moral and Hernández-Mora 2016).

The case of Spain: evolution of shared water governance model and impacts of reforms

Why is the case of Spain relevant in this debate?

Spain is located within the Mediterranean region, where prolonged drought is a recurring feature. Rainfall and water resource availability are distributed unevenly, with a humid north (average rainfall over 1600 mm/year) and arid central and southeastern regions (average rainfall below 400 mm/year). Water demand for domestic use represents only 15% of all consumptive water uses. Irrigated agriculture is the main water user in all the basins except in the wet North, Catalonia, and the islands and accounts for 80% of total consumptive uses. Hydropower is important in northern and western basins and demands 38,000 Mm3/year (non-consumptive use).

The case of Spain is particularly relevant for a discussion of intergovernmental interaction over water in federal systems because of its process of institutional development. On one hand, Spain’s semi-federal configuration results from a process of political and administrative decentralization that followed the transition to democracy that started in 1975 and the creation of 17 autonomous regions that hold broad powers over most policy issues. It could be argued that Spain is a case of dynamic federalism insofar as the 1978 Spanish Constitution that created the decentralized administrative-political structure after almost 40 years of centralized dictatorship had to balance interests and pressures from regions with very different cultural, historical, and political identities (Subirats 2006). The Constitution outlined the basic features of the new decentralized political structure that continues to evolve and consolidate. The case of water is paradigmatic of this dynamism, with an institutional set up that continues to adapt and evolve in lockstep with the evolution of the federal system. As a result, profound unresolved constitutional debates necessarily intermingle with policy concerns.

In Spain, like in other European Union (EU) countries, the approval of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) in 2000 mandated the progressive shift of water policy goals from a focus on water quantity to water quality and ecosystem-based management. While this transition faces important inertia and setbacks, the establishment of new goals offers possibilities for the emergence of new actors, changes in the balances of power, new conflicts, and thus new requirements and opportunities for cooperation or conflict.

In Spain, federalism and the WFD integrated water resources management approach require the development of strong coordination institutions and processes to effectively deal with the hydrological, ecological, socioeconomic, and political interconnections that take place at the scale of the river basin. The WFD required many countries to shift from water resource management guided by political-administrative scales to the scale of the river basin. In Spain, the adjustment went in the opposite direction (del Moral and Hernández-Mora, 2016). Between 1926 and 1961, RBAs (Confederaciones Hidrográficas) were established in all peninsular river basins in Spain. Their original guiding principles were the consideration of the river basin as the ideal scale for water management, the participation of users in decisions over water allocation and use, and decentralization of the role of the central government to the basin scale to better accommodate regional contexts and goals. However, during Franco’s political dictatorship (1939–1975), RBAs became increasingly an administrative arm of the central government that guided hydraulic development for the achievement of centrally designed regional and sectorial development plans. The emergence of the autonomous regions required the adaptation of this centrally controlled river basin-based water management model, with the resulting redistribution of authority and influence and the emergence of conflicts over boundaries and scales (del Moral and Hernández-Mora, 2016).

Today, nine RBAs are responsible for water allocation and management in interregional river basins (i.e., crossing more than one region). They are functionally autonomous but organically dependent from the central government. Six regional RBAs have authority over intra-regional continental rivers that fall entirely within the territory of their region (Fig. 1). Regional governments are present in interregional RBA’s boards and commissions, and their representation is proportional to the territory of the basin within their borders. RBD boundary definition has, therefore, clear political implications (Del Moral and Hernández-Mora 2016).

An evolving model of shared control over water

We can identify three main phases in the evolution of intergovernmental interaction regarding water policy since the advent of democracy and the decentralization of the state, each with specific institutional reforms that altered the balances of power over water.

Phase 1: distribution of authority (1978–1987)

The 1978 democratic Constitution created the new decentralized state and the 1985 Water Act adapted water institutions to the new political-administrative configuration. The state retained water planning and management authority over interregional river basins through pre-existing RBAs. Autonomous regions were given authority over river basins that fell entirely within their region. In parallel, the first round of Statutes of Autonomy—each region’s Constitution—was approved between 1979 and 1983, allowing regions to assume the powers granted by the national Constitution.

Phase 2: distribution of water resources (1987–2004)

A 1987 regulatory reform redefined river basin boundaries and gave the newly created regions representation in RBA’s management, planning and governing boards, proportionally to the share of territory they held in the basin. The debate focused on water allocation among regions and users in the context of the 1998 river basin management plans (RBMPs) and the National Hydrological Plan (NHP) of 2001. Policy goals focused on water development to meet demands primarily from agriculture, hydroelectricity, and urban and tourism expansion (Saurí and Moral 2001). Negotiations between the central government and the autonomous regions were conducted at the political level, since the regions had not yet developed the technical capacity to undertake their new water-related management responsibilities. The exception was Catalonia that created the Catalan Water Agency in 1999, the first intraregional RBA to become operational.

During this time, regional governments had become increasingly strong political voices. Conflicts between upstream and downstream regions regarding the distribution of water within a basin, as for instance in the Ebro or Júcar river basins, or opposing existing or planned interregional inter-basin transfers, emerged with force. Moreover, new discourses and interests and new social movements and environmental groups that defended more sustainable water management approaches also gained force (Font and Subirats 2010; Hernández-Mora et al. 2015).

Phase 3: redefining roles and policy goals (2004–2017)

Three major institutional reforms profoundly altered intergovernmental relations. First, several autonomous regions assumed full authority over intraregional river basins and created regional RBAs. Attempts were made to deal with unresolved conflicts over the delimitation of RBD boundaries, with a new delineation legislative decree issued in 2007 and repeatedly revised afterward due to judicial challenges from affected regions. As a result of these reforms, from the original 13 peninsular RBDs in 2007, today there are 17 (10 interregional and 7 intraregional).

Second, the WFD implementation process started in earnest, and with it, new water policy goals, procedures, actors, and interests came into play. The ecosystem-based water management approach promoted by the Directive stresses the importance of incorporating sectorial policies that have an impact on the health of European waters. In Spain, regions have full authority over these policies (agriculture, nature conservation, industry, land use, etc.), and therefore, the new WFD-inspired RBMPs required seeking the active participation and commitment of regions in water resource planning. In order to facilitate coordination, Competent Authorities Committees (Comité de Autoridades Competentes, CAC) were created in 2007 in interregional RBD.

Third, in spite of the required shift in water management goals and the intensive technical work undertaken to develop the new RBMPs, the traditional hydraulic political community (Saurí and Moral 2001) continued to focus the debate around water allocation issues, hydraulic infrastructure, and investments. In this context, the reform of the original Statutes of Autonomy reflected unresolved tensions and served as a tool to attempt to increase regions’ influence and power over who controls and allocates water (López-Gunn and De Stefano 2014). In 2007, Andalucía and Castilla-León regions assumed full powers over the Guadalquivir and Duero river basins, respectively, although the courts declared these claims unconstitutional in 2011 (del Moral and Hernández-Mora, 2016). Valencia, Aragón, and Castilla-La Mancha also attempted to use their Statutes’ reform to influence proposed or existing inter-basin water transfers.

In an attempt to reduce inter-regional tensions over water allocation, in the mid-2000s, the central government made major investments in the construction of numerous desalination plants on the Mediterranean coast. Desalination had the advantage that no region had to give up ‘its’ water to the advantage of another one in order to secure additional resources for water scarce territories. As March et al. (2014:21) note, “desalination at a grand scale was offered to the Spanish Mediterranean coast as a conflict-free alternative to provide water for presumably booming agriculture and, especially, urban –tourist demands.” This strategy served to increase water security locally but did not manage to assuage inter-regional tensions.

Figure 2 shows a timeline of evolution of Spanish water governance institutional framework. The figure illustrates increasing complexity, with the incorporation of new actors (such as regions or civil society) whose involvement and influence intensifies over time as new empowering legal reforms take place and policy focus broadens. It also shows a growing importance of the courts (both the Supreme and the Constitutional courts) as conflict resolution mechanisms to resolve disputes over water in an increasingly complex institutional and socio-political context.
Fig. 2

Timeline of reforms of the Spanish institutional framework for water resources management. Lighter shade of green indicates lower intensity of involvement than dark green

Water institutions and reforms in the selected case studies

The evolving institutional landscape described above has shaped the selected case studies’ institutional setup in different ways due to their diverse characteristics and trajectories.

The Cantábrico RBD is made up of numerous independent small basins where cooperation between regions appears to be quite effective. RBD boundaries have evolved over time. The 1987 legal reform gave the Norte RBA management authority over waters on the northern ridge of Spain. The reform was challenged in court by the Basque regional government, one of the regions in the newly delineated district. As a result, the Internal Basins of the Basque country were created and management authority was transferred to the Basque government in 1994. The boundaries of the RBD were revised again in 2007, dividing the Norte RBD into three districts: Miño-Sil, Cantábrico Occidental, and Cantábrico Oriental. This new delineation was challenged again and a 2009 sentence of the EU Justice Tribunal led to negotiations between the Spanish and the Basque governments. A 2011 legislative decree granted the Cantábrico RBA planning authority over two RBD: Cantábrico Occidental and Oriental, covering 20,800 km2 and stretching over six regions (see Fig. 1). The Basque RBA, created in 2006, has exclusive authority on the region’s internal basins and in 2011 obtained full delegation of water management and planning authority (excluding granting of water rights) in the Basque territory of the Cantábrico Oriental RBD. The 2011 agreement requires that the Cantábrico Oriental RBMP results from the “harmonious integration” of the plans generated by each territory’s RBA. A specific joint technical body (Comité Técnico de Coordinación) was established by Ministerial Resolution in 2012 in order to provide technical support to this cooperation, and staff from both RBAs (two technicians each) have worked closely since then toward integrated water planning in Cantábrico Oriental.

The Ebro RBD is a highly interconnected basin shared by nine regions. Proposed hydraulic developments and inter-basin transfers from the Ebro triggered widespread changes in Spanish water policies (Font and Subirats 2010). In 1992, the regional parliament of Aragon, the largest region in the basin, stated its claims over the Ebro waters through the approval of the Aragon Water Pact, requiring the construction of more than 20 large dams to double Aragon’s irrigated area. The 2001 National Hydrological Plan included the Pact’s dams and the construction of a 914-km transfer to bring up to 1000 Mm3/year from the lower Ebro to regions along the Mediterranean coast. The main donor regions, Aragon and Catalonia, together with a coalition of environmental and social movements, fiercely opposed the project. The Ebro transfer was a controversial issue in the 2004 national election campaign and the newly elected government canceled the project when it came into office. Since 2005, several regions involved in the transfer used the reform of their Statutes of Autonomy in an attempt to increase their control over Ebro waters. The 2006 Catalan Statute claimed the right of Catalonia to veto any transfer affecting its territory, while the 2007 Aragon Statute earmarked 6550 Mm3 of water for its socioeconomic development, a de-facto veto to any transfer. On the recipient side, the 2006 Valencia Statute asserted the right of Valencia citizens to receive surplus water from other territories. Even after the transfer project was canceled, the Ebro waters remain at the center of heated inter-governmental disputes. The requirements for liquid and solid flows to maintain the Ebro delta in Catalonia were a key environmental argument against the Ebro transfer and is now a source of tension between Catalonia, the Ebro RBA, and Aragon. At the center of the debate is the management of existing reservoirs by the RBA and its plans for new dams to satisfy Aragon’s demands. Disagreements over the definition of environmental flow regimes led the Catalan government to sue (unsuccessfully) to revoke the Ebro RBMP.

The Júcar RBD has been the focus of the most judicialized interregional dispute over the definition of boundaries and the associated reorganization of power balances. The Jucar RBA was created in 1934 to manage several interregional and smaller intraregional river basins. The definition of RBD boundaries has been subject to intense controversy between the regions of Castilla-La Mancha (CLM) and Valencia, with different stakeholders and interests at play (Del Moral and Hernández-Mora 2016). After the approval of the 1998 RBMP, CLM sued to exclude Valencia intra-regional river basins from the district, since CLM has 71% of the territory of the Júcar river basin but only 38% of the entire RBD, and a boundary redefinition would increase its political influence over the Júcar basin. In 2004, the Court ruled in its favor, and in 2007, as part of the WFD planning process and in compliance with the ruling, the central government defined the new boundaries excluding the Valencia intra-regional basins from the RBD. Valencia challenged the new delineation and the Court ruled in their favor in 2011. In addition to maintaining their territorial advantage, Valencia’s interest in the status quo stems from the high interconnection between the Júcar watershed and the regional sub-basins through various water schemes. The boundary redefinition would have significantly complicated water supply to the Valencia intra-regional basins (López-Gunn and De Stefano 2014). The central government approved a new decree in 2013 recognizing the existence of both Valencia and CLM intraregional basins within the RBD, but temporarily left existing boundaries for planning and management purposes, pending the transfer of authority over intraregional basins to the regions. A new appeal was filed by Valencia irrigators identifying more endorheic drainages in CLM and a new ruling in June 2015 partially accepted their claims. The Júcar RBD delineation continues to be the subject of political and judicial struggles, with the articulation of techno-scientific arguments to defend clearly political regional interests (Del Moral and Hernández-Mora 2016).

Finally, the Guadiana RBD is one of the four international river basins shared between Spain and Portugal and crosses three regions. Given the basin’s hydrological characteristics, conflicts, when they emerge, remain between competing uses within the regions or between the regions and the RBA. The Spanish part of the Guadiana basin has three distinct parts that are largely independent from one another both hydrologically as well as from the perspective of pressures, actors, and conflicts. The upper basin (22,000 km2) is located entirely in CLM. Groundwater is the primary resource, and conflicts between groundwater use and ecosystem conservation have conditioned water planning and management and sociopolitical relations for decades, pitting irrigators and the CLM government that defend their interests against the RBA (Martínez-Santos et al. 2008; López-Gunn et al. 2013). The middle basin (26,650 km2) is located almost entirely in the Extremadura region. It encompasses the trunk of the Guadiana river and its main tributaries until the border with Portugal, and it is where most reservoirs are located. This area is characterized by large surface water irrigation systems developed in the mid-1950s and surface water comes primarily from the tributaries. Finally, the lower basin (2272 km2) is located in the region of Andalusia. It encompasses the Spanish part of the Guadiana estuary and its main Spanish tributaries. It is downstream of the Alqueva dam in Portugal, the largest water storage infrastructure in Western Europe. These three hydrologically distinct regions are characterized by a network of relations, actors, and conflicts that are, for the most part, independent of one another. Intergovernmental relations in the Guadiana, therefore, work mostly bilaterally between the RBA and each region.


This section maps intergovernmental interactions over water and reflects on how they have evolved with the evolution of the decentralized state and water policy goals. It then explores factors that determine the nature of intergovernmental relations in Spain’s evolving multi-level water governance model.

Intergovernmental interaction

According to Watts (2006:209) “disputes (…) are the very essence of politics. A more realistic objective is to “manage” competition and conflict through processes that encourage cooperation.” In an attempt to typify these processes, he identifies three kinds of intergovernmental interactions in federal political systems:
  1. (a)

    Day-to-day informal contacts which serve to exchange information and ultimately develop mutual trust and respect that are the basis for effective collaboration;

  2. (b)

    Formal and informal meetings and councils where governments share information, discuss common problems, and, where appropriate, design joint actions; and

  3. (c)

    Formal and informal agreements including joint programs or the delegation of responsibilities about a specific subject from one government to another.

Table 1 characterizes intergovernmental interactions over water in Spain on two of the categories proposed by Watts (2006): meetings and councils (M) and agreements (A). By informal, we refer to interactions that occur outside regulated coordinating institutions.
Table 1

Intergovernmental interactions over water

Type of interaction and government levels involved

Interaction mechanism

Examples and outcomes of interactions

Vertical and bilateral:

central government and regional government

Bilateral negotiations between RBAs or national ministries and autonomous regions (M)

Negotiations for approval of 1998 RBMP

Negotiations for development of specific hydraulic infrastructures

Vertical and multilateral: central government and regional governments

National Water Council (M)

Approval of national water policy reforms

Approval of RBMPs

Sectoral commissions

(Environmental, agricultural, industrial, etc.) (M)

Periodic meetings to exchange information and facilitate vertical and horizontal coordination of sectoral policies between central government officials of different autonomous regions

Coordination meetings of RBAs planning offices (M)

Periodically organized by the central ministry’s Sub-directorate of Water Planning and Management to coordinate water planning goals, priorities and schedules in compliance with the WFD

National Water Plan (A)

2001 National Water Plan resulted from political negotiations between the central government and the autonomous regions representing regional interests and users

Vertical and horizontal, multilateral: River Basin Authority and regional governments

RBA’s participated management and governing boards and commissions (M)a

Water allocation and water management

Flood and drought management

Competent Authorities Committees (M)a

Created in response to WFD coordination requirements, they approve water planning documents, including RBMPs

River Basin Water Council (M)a

Launching of planning process

Approval of RBMPs

River District Management Plan (A)

RBMP approval requires coordination of sectoral policies that can be achieved through formal institutions (for instance Cantábrico and Basque working group) or informal working groups and commissions

Meetings and coordination processes among technical staff initiated by the (1) General Water Directorate or (2) RBA’s planning offices (M)

Regular meetings of RBA planning directors to coordinate water planning processes (1).

Development of Programmes of Measures (2).

Coordination of sectoral policies (where regional governments have authority) with water policy and planning goals (2)

Horizontal within the regional government: regional department for water affairs and regional departments for other sectoral policies

Regional sectoral commissions

(Environmental, agricultural, industrial, etc.) (M)

Exchange information and horizontal coordination of sectoral policies among officials of different departments within the same autonomous regions

Working groups and committees initiated by water affairs departments (M)

Gathering information and coordination to inform water planning processes

aRepresentatives of different ministries of the central government participate in these institutions

(M) Intergovernmental meetings and councils; (A) intergovernmental agreements. Shaded cells indicate informal interaction mechanisms

While all three types of interactions coexist in Spain’s water institutional framework, their intensity, focus, and the institutions involved have changed over time. As the decentralized political system and water policy focus develop in parallel, intergovernmental interactions become increasingly horizontal and multilateral, moving downward in Table 1, towards more polycentric water governance arrangements.

The need for multilateral polycentricity has increased with the approval of the WFD, which requires improved intergovernmental cooperation and better coordination of sectoral policies assigned to different agencies and levels of government.

“Interactions have intensified on certain topics. That has to do with the WFD: good status [of water bodies], Competent Authorities Committees, water quality, natural areas… Interactions are more intense and cover new areas: biological indicators, wastewater treatment… Since 1985 interactions have been increasingly intense”. [Interviewee 3]

However, the transition towards more collaborative forms of governance is not a smooth one, with different regional governments and water authorities responding differently to both the requirements for cooperation and the need to redefine water policy goals.

“All should share water management responsibilities, but there is a lack of involvement. They [regional governments and users] are not fully aware of this shared responsibility. (…) They don’t want to acknowledge that they are equally responsible for achieving environmental objectives.” [Interviewee 2]

Here, we clearly see the challenge of interplay, where “the effectiveness of specific institutions often depends not only on their own features but also on their interactions with other institutions” (Young 1999: 49). This is not exclusive of federal systems but it can be stronger in such systems, where subnational governments have the power of passing laws and hold a high degree of autonomy. Key areas of interaction—and tension—involve water distribution, the establishment of environmental flows, management of invasive species, land use planning, diffuse pollution, and achievement of good chemical status.
The WFD has highlighted policy coordination challenges that have always existed. Diverging visions and policy priorities create tensions between water and regional authorities in charge of other sectoral policies, as both defend their areas of influence and power. Diverging visions exist also across different departments of the same regional government, so that RBAs have multiple interlocutors for the same region and the challenging task of reconciling conflicting priorities and goals.

“Within one regional government there is some schizophrenia between sectoral policies. (…) One department supports a measure that is opposed by another department of the same government. (…) These contradictions are still unsolved.” [Interviewee 3]

Intergovernmental interactions largely occur in the context of regulated institutions and procedures for cooperation such as RBA’s participated boards and commissions, or Water Councils at the basin and national levels (Varela and Hernández-Mora 2010). While these formal institutions have proven to be relatively effective mechanisms in the past to deal with water allocation challenges, growing institutional complexity and shifting policy goals have resulted in the emergence of new formal and informal institutions to enable cooperation. Following the WFD mandate, CACs were created in interregional river basins to improve intergovernmental coordination. They are made up of one representative from each autonomous region with territory in the basin, three representatives of the central government, and one representative of local governments in the basin. However, they are often seen as regulated venues to merely approve previously negotiated positions, rather than to articulate effective intergovernmental cooperation.
The limitations of CACs and other formal institutions have led to the emergence of non-regulated venues for collaboration and cooperation between staff from different agencies within regional governments or between RBAs and regional governments. These are mainly technical meetings and committees convened by administrations with water planning responsibilities (RBAs, national Ministry in charge of water affairs, etc.) to seek common methodological and technical approaches to water planning. While these venues play an important role to increase trust, build consensus, and devise alternative solutions, they are based on the goodwill of individuals and linked to existence of favorable political conditions, which makes them highly vulnerable to changes in staff motivation or in the political directives provided by the government in office. Furthermore, their informal nature reduces transparency and accountability in decision making because other actors are excluded and no formal reporting is required. Thus, there is a need to both reinforce existing formal institutions to make them more effective and regulate informal venues that have proven to be effective, in order to ensure that they are stable over time and more transparent.

“I think it is important to somehow formalize those informal relations. Otherwise they are voluntary (…). They can change over time for any reason, and that is not good. Those interactions and relationships should be institutionalized and regulated” [Interviewee 1].

Informal interactions are also crucial for building trust and seek consensus over different aspects of water management and planning. In particular, practitioners stressed the importance of collaboration and trust at the technical level in order to build a basis for consensus that later will need to be negotiated at the political level.

“If there is trust and understanding between people, success is ensured. If you have a good relationship with someone and you trust them, you can make progress. Otherwise, it is more complicated” [Interviewee 8].

Direct horizontal interaction over water between riparian regions is still uncommon. Decisions are often negotiated through vertical, bilateral interactions between each region and the RBA or directly between the region and the central Ministry. The predominance of bilateralism and poor collective action among autonomous communities is a feature of Spain’s federalism also underscored by Subirats (2006), who noted that nationalist parties governing regions are reluctant to multilateralism worried about a reduced ability of finding solutions to their specific needs outside bilateralism. Bilateral (region-RBA) negotiations do not favor the definition of a common vision of the basin shared by all the riparian regions but rather a fragmented approach to problems and solutions.

“RBAs simply gather the demands of all regional governments and include them in the plan, as if it were a letter to Santa. The Programmes of Measures [of River Basin Management Plans] are a collated list that is not internally coherent.” [Interviewee 1]

Furthermore, the increasing use of courts to address water conflicts (see Fig. 2) is at the same time cause and symptom of that lack of shared vision and constructive intergovernmental cooperation at all levels. Indeed, judicial processes inevitably create winners and losers, thus consolidating adversarial positions that are not favorable to reaching durable agreements. The relevant role of courts in intergovernmental relations suggests that the existing instruments for cooperation and non-judicial conflict resolution are falling short of creating a favorable ground for consensus. At the same time, it points to the need to revisit and redefine the role of regions in water management, as there is a clear disconnect between their almost complete authority over a wide range of sectoral policies and their subordinate role in the management of shared water resources. This is part of a broader and highly sensitive debate over power distribution, representation, and autonomy of regional governments that is beyond the scope of this paper.

Drivers of conflict or cooperation

The analysis of past and present intergovernmental interactions over water in the case studies analyzed leads to the identification of several factors that catalyze the emergence of tensions or enable the development of cooperative agreements.

In Spain, water allocation issues are the main source of conflict in vertical and horizontal intergovernmental interactions. This mirrors trends in international rivers, where water quantity and the construction of water infrastructures were the primary focus of tensions in recorded transboundary interactions between 1948 and 2008 (Yoffe et al. 2003; De Stefano et al. 2010).

“Autonomous regions (…) are not in the least bit worried about environmental issues (…). Their only concern is water quantity, inter-basin transfers, new infrastructures… In essence it is water quantity concerns that dominate relationships between the central government and the autonomous regions.” [Interviewee 2]

Tensions increase in basins with full allocation of renewable resources, which is common in Spanish central and southern river basins. This creates competition among water users that spills over to intergovernmental relationships, where regional governments advocate for the interests of their constituents. The presence of large irrigation areas in these basins increases pressure on intergovernmental interactions, both for the high consumptive use they generate and for the strong lobbying capacity of the irrigation sector.

The analysis of intergovernmental relations in different basins suggests that geography matters, as the physical configuration of the basin and the existing physical or artificial interlinkages between regions and basins influence how they interact, which was found to happen also in international rivers (Espey and Towfique 2004; Gleditsch et al. 2006). For example, in the Cantábrico RBD, there is no main river course shared by all or most regions. This simplifies horizontal interactions, as the RBA manages single water courses directly with one or two regions, and multilateral interactions are required only for some isuues, e.g. the establishment of common criteria for water planning and drought or flood risk management. In the Guadiana RBD, there is one river basin but the three regions have a limited hydrologic interdependency and therefore do not need to interact intensively. Their main counterpart is the RBA, with whom they interact bilaterally.

On the other extreme of the spectrum are the Ebro and the Júcar RBDs. In the Ebro, the largest tensions are rooted in an upstream-downstream relationship, where upstream regions—mainly Aragon—demand water volumes for irrigation that downstream Catalonia claims in order to maintain the Ebro delta ecosystem, with its associated economic activities and biodiversity values. In the Júcar, RBD tensions revolve around the most water-abundant river basin within the district, the Júcar. The interdependency between upstream and downstream users in the Júcar, located in different autonomous regions, is strong and has been a reason for dispute, especially during droughts. Furthermore, scarcity in other basins within the RBD, such as in the Turia river, where the regional capital of Valencia is located, or the Vinalopó, also in the Valencia region and with significant irrigation demands, have resulted in inter-basin water transfers from the Júcar river and in intense social conflicts and interregional political tensions (Hernández-Mora et al. 2014).

In international rivers, Espey and Towfique (2004) observed that differences in the importance of the river to each riparian country and the degree of control over the river each country have influenced the formation (or not) of treaties. We found these factors to be relevant also in intergovernmental relations in Spain, as the intensity of interactions and the likelihood of conflict are lower when the geographical share of the region within the basin is smaller or when consumptive water uses in that basin are small. When sharing territory in several basins, regions will focus its efforts in those basins that have higher importance in terms of size, annual runoff, or population. For instance in Castilla La Mancha, with territory in seven RBDs, the stakes are particularly high in the Júcar, Guadiana, and Tajo basins, where population, uses, and territory concentrate. Also, the Catalan share of the Ebro river basin represents almost half of Catalonia. It is in these basins where tensions are most intense.

“[Relations] are not comparable as the territory is much smaller (…) If there were more territory and conflict, perhaps things would be different” [Interviewee 7, referring to a region with a small share of its territory in the RBD]

The construction of infrastructure and the allocation of financial resources for funding regional plans are also a catalyst for tensions. The former has also been observed in international rivers, where the construction of infrastructure in the absence of adequate institutional capacity has been identified as a cause of transboundary tensions (Wolf et al. 2003; De Stefano et al. 2017). In Spain, a clear example of the effect of contested infrastructures on interregional relationships are the dams foreseen by the Aragon Water Pact (opposed by Catalonia) and the now-canceled Ebro transfer that in the early 2000s sparked tensions between the main donor regions (Aragon and Catalonia) and the main recipient regions (Murcia and Valencia).
National investments in regional infrastructures can also become a “bargaining chip” used by regions to grant their positive vote to water-related decisions. In this context, one of the interviewees noted that when the RBA has little capacity to invest in new infrastructure, tensions at RBD level tend to decrease, as regions will lobby the central government directly.

“There is a lot of back-and-forth negotiations related to infrastructure investments, but the final decision has to be included in the annual budget [of the central government].” [Interviewee 3]

“[Two regions voted against the RBMP] and a new negotiation process started. Their negative vote was motivated mainly by decisions about investments funded by the central government” [Interviewee 4]

Interviewees remarked that the lack of accountability of regions before the EU for WFD-compliance creates little incentive for regional governments to truly commit to the achievement of the Directive goals, as in case of noncompliance, the central government is held accountable. In this context, the main incentive for regions comes from the EU conditioning the release of funds (e.g., agricultural subsidies or rural development funds) to compliance with the WFD and other Directives.

“How can we force regions to meet their obligations [in relation to the WFD]? With economic sanctions? What tools do we have to make them comply with specific requirements?” [Interviewee 2]

The delimitation of RBD boundaries required by the WFD also created an opportunity to revisit and question existing power configurations. Given proportional representation rules in RBD management boards and committees, boundary configuration translates into power in decisions over water and has thus become a highly contentious topic subject to judicial actions, as observed in the Júcar and Cantábrico RBDs.

Finally, in Spain, an important driver of tensions results from the process of redistribution of authority over water management that started with the 1978 Constitution. As we noted above, Spain’s decentralization is in flux and the role of regional and central authorities in different policy areas is often a matter of contention. Trench (2006:233) remarks that “when constitutional matters – such as the defense of regional jurisdictions – become matters of political controversy, they intrude increasingly into matters of day-to-day IGR [Intergovernmental Relations]. (…). In such circumstances, the relationship between policy issues and constitutional ones becomes complex”. In this context, tensions experienced in the constitutional arena spill over to water-related discussions and decisions. In Catalonia, the dispute over environmental flows for the Delta has become one more issue of contention in a broader context of tense relationships between the Catalan and the central governments. In the Basque Country, after several years of negotiations and legal actions initiated by the regional government to defend their authority over their territorial waters, a relatively stable agreement has been reached, coinciding with a period of stable intergovernmental relationships between the central and autonomous governments.

Concluding remarks

Spain provides an ideal context in which to analyze the relationships between different levels of governments with overlapping responsibilities over water governance in federal political systems. Spain’s water institutions, organized at the scale of river basins starting in the mid-1920s, had to reform and adapt to the process of political and administrative decentralization that started with the 1978 democratic Constitution. The implementation of the WFD, with its ecosystem-based water policy goals, also brought with it a gradual transformation in objectives, procedures, requirements, and actors involved.

Spain is a relatively young and evolving federal political system where unresolved conflicts at the constitutional level are profoundly intertwined with other policy concerns. The political-administrative decentralization process is still in flux and clearly manifests itself in Spain’s water policy. Key institutional reforms within and outside the water realm have opened windows of opportunity for regions to reposition themselves and seek new spheres of influence and power, primarily over the allocation of water resources in shared river basins. In addition, as a result of the WFD implementation process that gradually moved from a strong emphasis on water distribution to a broader array of policy objectives (water quality and ecosystem conservation), evolving water policy goals have reinforced the need for intergovernmental cooperation in order to align water and other sectoral policies.

This paper uses four river basins shared by several regions as case studies. We look at the impacts of institutional reforms and the resulting horizontal and vertical intergovernmental interactions and try to discern what factors influence the cooperative or conflictive nature of those interactions. These range from constitutional features to geography.

Interesting parallels are found in international river basins, despite the fact that legal and institutional contexts are considerably different. For instance, in Spain, changes in the existing legal and institutional settings have caused tensions in intergovernmental relationships and opened windows of opportunity for rediscussing existing power balances. This has similarities with the occurrence of tensions in transboundary basins when the rate of change in national governance systems outpace the capacity of institutions to adapt to change. As in international rivers, the physical configuration of the interregional basins—upstream-downstream relationship and the geographical relevance of the basin for each actor—influences the level and quality of interactions between riparian regions and with the RBA. Tensions associated with the construction and operation of water infrastructure affecting more than one region also clearly recall common disputes in international rivers.

Cooperative federalism unfolds through three different levels of interaction: informal contacts to exchange information and develop trust, formal and informal meetings and processes to share information and set the foundation for effective cooperation, and intergovernmental agreements and programs. In the Spanish water policy arena, existing formal coordination and interaction mechanisms have proven insufficient to meet new multilateral polycentric governance requirements. New institutions created to foster cooperation and coordination, such as the Competent Authorities Committees, have also proven to have a limited scope. Coordination between different levels of government, sectoral departments, and regions is often carried out through informal interactions among water officials at different technical levels. Generally, the initiative is taken by those with legal responsibility to develop RBMPs. As a result, informal daily interactions are needed and key to build trust but are based on loyalty and personal initiative, thus being very vulnerable to change. Moreover, informal interaction reduces transparency and accountability in decision making because other actors are excluded from that interaction and there are no public reporting requirements.

Conflicts among regions, or between regions and the central government, continue to revolve around the distribution of authority over water management and decisions over water allocation. Power is often related to the relative weight of each region in the formal institutions of shared river basins, in turn a result of the delineation of RBD boundaries. Current institutional arrangements are often perceived to inadequately incorporate regions, which have broad powers over most policy issues but have a subordinate role in the management of shared river basins. This seems to be only one expression of the ongoing, often tense political debate about the relationships and power distribution between Spain’s government and autonomous regions. Conflicts often reach the courts, or regions find alternative political routes to achieve their ends, as for instance through the incorporation of water-related provisions in their Statutes of Autonomy. The result is the entrenchment of adversarial positions and a diminished opportunity for the development of cooperative mechanisms.


  1. 1.

    As noted by Sala (2013:109) “Scholars find it difficult to characterize the type of decentralization adopted since Franco’s death”. It is outside the scope of this paper to discuss the federal (or not) nature of Spain, whose federalism has been qualified as “imperfect”, “non-institutional”, “incomplete”, “unfulfilled” or “quasi-federation” (see Sala 2013), due to the lack of some elements (e.g. a Senate with territorial representation) that are considered by some scholars to be key in a federation.

  2. 2.

    “River basin district” means the area of land and sea, made up of one or more neighboring river basins together with their associated groundwater and coastal waters, which is identified under Article 3(1) as the main unit for management of river basins” (Article 2, Water Framework Directive).



The authors thank the interviewees for sharing their insights and experiences; two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments; Mario Ballesteros for his help with Fig. 1; and Professor Dustin Garrick and Leandro del Moral for their valuable feedback on a first draft of this paper.

Supplementary material

10113_2018_1318_MOESM1_ESM.docx (14 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 14 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Facultad de Ciencias GeológicasUniversidad Complutense de MadridMadridSpain
  2. 2.Water ObservatoryBotín FoundationMadridSpain
  3. 3.Fundación Nueva Cultura del AguaMadridSpain

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