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Hydro-social arrangements and paradigmatic change in water governance: an analysis of the sustainable development goals (SDGs)


SDG 6 presents a global water agenda and an important opportunity to steer development trajectories towards a water-secure world. Based on semi-structured interviews and a political ecology perspective, this study takes water and SDG 6 as a focal point to analyze the shift from MDGs to SDGs in terms of underlying governance paradigms and policy change dynamics. Results indicate that the water-related SDG constitutes an important shift of UN policies in the realms of development cooperation and sustainable development policies by merging these two strands. While the MDGs were largely framed in line with conventional governance and management approaches, SDG 6 portrays a more holistic and inclusive agenda, which is also reflected in actor arrangement changing within the international water community. Nevertheless, ‘state-hydraulic paradigm’ approaches are still prevalent within Goal 6 and current implementation. To stimulate a more fundamental paradigm change towards a socio-hydrological perspective, the analysis suggests to acknowledge the wider political environment of water challenges.

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Fig. 1


  1. Int-21, Private Sector, Skype Interview, 16.12.2015.

  2. Int-22, Intergovernmental Organization, Skype Interview, 16.12.2015.

  3. Int-12, Non-Governmental Organization, Skype Interview, 03.12.2015.

  4. Int-8, Non-Governmental Organization, Brussels, 30.11.2015.

  5. Int-16, Network for Governmental and Civil Society Organizations, Skype Interview, 04.12.2015.

  6. Int-19, Intergovernmental Organisation, Skype Interview, 11.12.2015.

  7. Int-11, Government Representative, Telephone, 02.12.2015.

  8. Int-5, Intergovernmental Organization, Skype Interview, 19.11.2015


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This research has been funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) under the reference number 01 LN 1316 A. We would like to thank all members of the Governance and Sustainability Lab at Trier University who commented on earlier versions of this article as well as two anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback. We would also like to thank all our interview partners who voluntarily shared their time and knowledge to make this research possible.

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Correspondence to Viviana Wiegleb.

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Wiegleb, V., Bruns, A. Hydro-social arrangements and paradigmatic change in water governance: an analysis of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Sustain Sci 13, 1155–1166 (2018).

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  • SDGs
  • Water governance
  • Policy and paradigm change
  • Hydro-social cycle