A Comparative Analysis of Water Governance, Water Management, and Environmental Performance in River Basins


River ecosystems are facing a diversity of threats in many parts of the world. To restore and preserve riverine environments, human societies have established water governance and management responses. However, the means by which a satisfactory environmental state can be achieved in light of different regional contexts is still poorly understood. This article explores whether or not good environmental performance can be achieved through water governance and management in combination with further context factors. To this end, we applied fuzzy set Qualitative Comparative Analysis to examine data on water governance, water management, and environmental performance from a recent international study together with context data on per capita income, corruption, hydro-climate, and use pressure from other datasets. Results demonstrate that the combination of polycentric governance, high per capita income, and low levels of corruption is sufficient for achieving good water management practice. However, a good environmental state in river basins seems to primarily depend upon the overall level of pressure from human use rather than the quality of water management. This demonstrates that water governance and management should be seen as part of a broader societal transformation towards sustainability that focusses on a reduction of pressures in river basins instead of mitigating their impacts.

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  1. 1.

    In this paper, factors denote real-world phenomena that are supposed to influence other phenomena of interest. Indicators are measures describing such phenomena quantitatively or qualitatively. Conditions refer to indicators in an assessment based on Qualitative Comparative Analysis that have been calibrated (see section 2.3). An ‘outcome’ denotes a condition to be explained through Qualitative Comparative Analysis.

  2. 2.

    Cf. Schneider and Wagemann (2012) for a comprehensive description of QCA.

  3. 3.

    For example, if the configurations”A AND B” and “A AND NOT B” are sufficient for an outcome, they will be merged into “A”, because in order to achieve the outcome it is irrelevant whether condition A is combined with “B” or “NOT B”.

  4. 4.

    The spatial focus of the Brahmaputra case is on the Indian state of Assam.

  5. 5.

    Although the calculation required equal-area property, we did not transform the GIS dataset to the sinusoidal projection because the dataset's projection (world cylindrical equal area) is an equal area projection as well.

  6. 6.

    In QCA, an asterisk (*) denotes a logical AND, a plus (+) a logical OR, and a tilde (~) a logical NOT. An arrow to the right (→) signifies “is/are sufficient for”.

  7. 7.

    Logical minimization allows an alternative most parsimonious solution, CORR*POLY*~USE. It results from the inclusion of the logical remainder ~ GNI*CORR *POLY* ~ USE instead of GNI*CORR*POLY*USE. However, the alternative solution does not pass the PRI consistency threshold and is therefore not considered here.


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The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 226571. The Rüdiger Kurt Bode Foundation provided co-funding, which facilitated the follow-up research presented here. We thank Christof Schneider (University of Kassel) for providing two useful spatial datasets (Environmental Stress induced by Flow Regime Alterations, coefficient of variation of annual flow) and Luzma Fabiola Nava Jiménez (now International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg), who contributed data on the Rio Grande case. Finally, we thank our colleagues from Osnabrück University for helpful comments on earlier versions of the paper.

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Correspondence to Christian Knieper.

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Knieper, C., Pahl-Wostl, C. A Comparative Analysis of Water Governance, Water Management, and Environmental Performance in River Basins. Water Resour Manage 30, 2161–2177 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11269-016-1276-z

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  • Polycentric water governance
  • Water management
  • Fuzzy set Qualitative Comparative Analysis (fsQCA)
  • River basins
  • Environmental state