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Scale and consequences: does the distribution of formal powers and functions affect water management outcomes in federal contexts in Southern Africa?


The management of water resources requires the effective performance of a diverse variety of multi-scalar functions if it is to achieve its public objectives. It is influenced by the overarching governance arrangements within which these functions are undertaken. This paper considers the extent to which federal governance arrangements affect water management outcomes. Since the distribution of functions and enabling powers within, between and across levels of government varies widely amongst jurisdictions, it is difficult to compare different approaches. This paper uses cases from Southern Africa where specific functions are performed in terms of powers allocated under broadly federal arrangements to consider whether and how federal arrangements have hindered or helped countries and communities to manage their water to achieve public goals. It finds that federal arrangements have sometimes contributed to positive outcomes, primarily by introducing a degree of ‘polycentricity’ and network governance, which ensure that decision-making is informed by a wider range of perspectives. However, the outcomes depend on the content of the federal regulatory framework and the quality of its application rather than the overall structure of the federal regime. Governance structures alone cannot substitute for effective management.

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This work was informed by research on water and regional development undertaken for the African Development Bank and the South African Water Research Commission as well as the European Centre for Development Policy Management as well as by the author’s earlier experience as a senior water manager in South Africa and ongoing participation in some of the processes described. Invaluable perspectives were gained through participation in a number of events organised by the editors of this special issue. The original manuscript was substantially revised to take account of the detailed, insightful and constructive comments of the anonymous referees as well as the editors of this special issue.

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Correspondence to Mike Muller.

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Muller, M. Scale and consequences: does the distribution of formal powers and functions affect water management outcomes in federal contexts in Southern Africa?. Reg Environ Change 18, 1693–1706 (2018).

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  • Water management
  • Governance
  • Drought
  • Climate change
  • Southern Africa
  • Sustainable development
  • Regional integration
  • Federalism