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


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.

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Fig. 2


  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. “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).


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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.

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Correspondence to Lucia De Stefano.

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Nuria Hernández-Mora is an Independent researcher, Madrid, Spain.

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De Stefano, L., Hernandez-Mora, N. Multi-level interactions in a context of political decentralization and evolving water-policy goals: the case of Spain. Reg Environ Change 18, 1579–1591 (2018).

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  • Subnational
  • Multilevel
  • Cooperation
  • Dispute
  • Spain
  • WFD