Skip to main content

Reconfiguring Water Governance for Resilient Social-Ecological Systems in South America

  • Chapter
  • First Online:
Water Resilience


The Global South is usually underrepresented in comparative water governance studies. Latin America has abundant water resources but is the most unequal region in terms of access to water. Water governance in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay has been gradually moving from a conventional-centralized mode towards a decentralized, participatory and potentially adaptive approach. The purpose of this chapter is to analyze the main institutional changes in water governance during the past few decades in these three neighbouring South American countries, and how these changes have generated attributes which confer resilience to watersheds as social-ecological systems. A comparative case study approach was used to analyze the three countries, with document analysis as the key method. The findings show that the water governance reform started with changes or incorporations in the countries’ constitutions (Brazil – 1988, Argentina – 1994, Uruguay – 2004). Another common trend is the government interest to adopt integrated water resources management (IWRM) principles, such as the river basin approach and the formation of river basin organizations, including participatory forums or boards involving government institutions, users and civil society. Brazil shows clear signs of polycentric governance, while polycentricity is more limited in Argentina and Uruguay, although there exists some enabling legislation.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

USD 29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
USD 79.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
Softcover Book
USD 99.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Compact, lightweight edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info
Hardcover Book
USD 139.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Durable hardcover edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions


  1. 1.

    We opted to use the polycentric concept since it was among the findings of the global Delphi study which identified attributes of aquatic system governance indicating specified and/or general resilience (Plummer et al., 2014). We recognize, however, that polycentricity is related to other concepts such as multilevel governance and network governance.

  2. 2.

    According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, water stress conditions occur whenever renewable water resources within a region are at betweeen 500 and 1000 cubic meters per capita (Steduto, Hoogeveen, Winpenny, & Burke, 2017).

  3. 3.

    This plan is a continuation of a 2002 plan mandated by Law 25.688, focusing on access to water and sanitation, climate change adaptation, water for rural and industrial production, and integrated water management (through the development of new infrastructure) (SSRH, 2017).

  4. 4.

    At the local level, multistakeholder and advisory “Irrigation boards” (Juntas de riego) were created by the Law 16.858 (1997). In 2016, there were 17 in the country (Deci Agua, 2016a).

  5. 5.

    Also, we are currently developing a comparative research project on adaptive and anticipatory water governance (GovernAgua) which involves the collection/analysis of primary (interviews, participant observation) and secondary data in six watersheds (two in each country – Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay).


  • Agência Nacional de Águas (ANA). (2018). Conjuntura de recursos hídricos. Retrieved from

  • Ardanaz, M., Leiras, M., & Tommassi, M. (2014). The politics of federalism in Argentina and its implications for governance and accountability. World Development, 53, 26–45.

  • Barros, V. R., Boninsegna, J. A., Camilloni, I. A., Chidiak, M., Magrín, G. O., & Rusticucci, M. (2015). Climate change in Argentina: Trends, projections, impacts and adaptation. WIREs Climate Change, 6(2), 151–169.

  • Barth, F. T. (2002). Aspectos institucionais do gerenciamento de recursos hídricos. In A. C. Rebouças, B. Braga, & J. G. Tundisi (Eds.), Águas doces no Brasil: Capital ecológico, uso e conservação (pp. 563–577). São Paulo, Brazil: Escrituras Editora.

    Google Scholar 

  • Beder, J., Bianchi, P., Cedrés, F., Fuentes, M., Pittaluga, B., & Taveira, G. (2013). Agua potable en Maldonado: Aportes para la gestión en la cuenca de Laguna del Sauce (Taller Interdisciplinario III). Maldonado, Uruguay: Licenciatura en Gestión Ambiental.

    Google Scholar 

  • Berardo, R., & Gerlak, A. K. (2012). Conflict and cooperation along international rivers: Crafting a model of institutional effectiveness. Global Environmental Politics, 12(1), 101–120.

  • Berardo, R., Meyer, M., & Olivier, T. (2013). Adaptive governance and integrated water resources management in Argentina. International Journal of Water Governance, 1(3/4), 219–236.

  • Biggs, R., Schlüter, M., & Schoon, M. L. (Eds.). (2015). Principles for building resilience. Sustaining ecosystem services in social-ecological systems. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brasil. (1997). Lei 9.433/97, de 8 de janeiro de 1997. Retrieved from

    Google Scholar 

  • Carlisle, K., & Gruby, R. L. (2019). Polycentric systems of governance: A theory model for the commons. Policy Studies Journal, 47, 4.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Conejo, J. G. (2000). O sistema paulista de gerenciamento de recursos hídricos e a cobrança pelo uso da água. In A. C. de Mendes Thame (Ed.), A cobrança pelo uso da água (pp. 127–135). São Paulo, Brazil: Instituto de Qualificação e Editoração LTDA.

    Google Scholar 

  • Defensoría del Pueblo de la Nación Argentina. (2018). Informe anual 2018 [PDF file].

  • del Castillo Laborde, L. (2008). The Rio de la Plata River basin : The path towards basin institutions. In O. Varis, A. K. Biswas, & C. Tortajada (Eds.), Management of transboundary rivers and lakes: Water resources development and management (pp. 269–292). Berlin/Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Deliberación Ciudadana sobre el agua (Deci Agua). (2016a). Documento de trabajo para el Panel Ciudadano. Montevideo, Uruguay: Universidad de la República.

    Google Scholar 

  • Deliberación Ciudadana sobre el agua (Deci Agua). (2016b). Coloquio sobre el funcionamiento de Comisiones de Cuencas. Montevideo, Uruguay: Universidad de la República.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dietz, T., Ostrom, E., & Stern, P. C. (2003). The struggle to govern the commons. Science, 302, 1907–1912.

    Article  ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Folke, C., Hahn, T., Olsson, P., & Norberg, J. (2005). Adaptive governance of social-ecological systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 30, 441–473.

  • Guivant, J., & Jacobi, P. R. (2003). Da hidro-técnica à hidro-política: Novos rumos para a regulação e gestão dos riscos ambientais no Brasil. Cadernos de Pesquisa Interdisciplinar em Ciências Humanas, 4(43), 2–26.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harris, L. M., & Roa-García, M. C. (2013). Recent waves of water governance: Constitutional reform and resistance to neoliberalization in Latin America (1990–2012). Geoforum, 50, 20–30.

  • Hordijk, M., Miranda Sara, L., & Sutherland, C. (2014). Resilience, transition or transformation? A comparative analysis of changing water governance systems in four southern cities. Environment & Urbanization, 26(1), 1–17.

  • Huitema, D., & Meijerink, S. (2017). The politics of river basin organizations: Institutional design choices, coalitions, and consequences. Ecology and Society, 22(2), 42.

  • Huitema, D., Mostert, E., Egas, W., Moellenkamp, S., Pahl-Wostl, C., & Yalcin, R. (2009). Adaptive water governance: Assessing the institutional prescriptions of adaptive (co-)management from a governance perspective and defining a research agenda. Ecology and Society, 14(1), 26. Retrieved from

  • Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos (INDEC). (2010). Censo Nacional de Población, Vivienda, y Hogares. Retrieved from

  • Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos (INDEC). (2016). Gobiernos locales por provincias, según provincias [Data file].

  • Instituto Nacional del Agua (INA). (2010). Prospectiva hídrica [PDF file].

  • Jacobi, P. R. (2004). A gestão participativa de bacias hidrográficas no Brasil e os desafios do fortalecimento de espaços públicos colegiados. In V. Coelho & M. Nobre (Eds.), Participação e deliberação (pp. 270–289). São Paulo, Brazil: Editora 34.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kettelhut, J. T., Rodríguez, F. A., Garrido, R. J., Paiva, F., Neto, O. C., & Rizzo, H. (1999). Cobrança e outorga pelo uso da agua. In M. A. de Freitas (Ed.), Estado das águas no Brasil 1999 (pp. 1–10). Brasilia, Brazil: ANEEL.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kuppel, S., Houspanossian, J., Nosetto, M. D., & Jobbágy, E. G. (2015). What does it take to flood the Pampas? Lessons from a decade of strong hydrological fluctuations. Water Resources Research, 51, 2937–2950.

  • Langhoff, M. L., Geraldi, A., & Rosell, P. (2017). El concepto de ciclo hidro-social aplicado a los conflictos por el acceso al agua: El caso de la disputa por el Río Atuel entre las provincias de La Pampa y Mendoza, Argentina. Papeles de Geografía, 63, 146–160. Retrieved from

  • Lebel, L., Anderies, J. M., Campbell, B., Folke, C., Hatfield-Dodds, S., Hughes, T. P., & Wilson, J. (2006). Governance and the capacity to manage resilience in regional social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society, 11(1), 19. Retrieved from

  • Luyet, V., Schlaepfer, R., Parlange, M. B., & Buttler, A. (2012). A framework to implement stakeholder participation in environmental projects. Journal of Environmental Management, 111, 213–219.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Mancilla García, M., & Bodin, Ö. (2019a). Participation in multiple decision-making water governance forums in Brazil enhances actors’ perceived level of influence. Policy Studies Journal, 47(1), 27–51.

  • Mancilla García, M., & Bodin, Ö. (2019b). Participatory water basin councils in Peru and Brazil: Expert discourses as means and barriers to inclusion. Global Environmental Change, 55, 139–148.

  • Mazzeo, N., Steffen, M., Inda, H., Goyenola, G., Clemente, J., Teixeira de Mello, F., … Sciandro, J. (2015). Navegando una transición múltiple. In P. Cruz, V. Fernández, A. Lorieto, L. Repetto, C. von Sanden, & B. Vienni (Eds.), Recursos hídricos: Usos, tecnologías y participación social. Un enfoque Interdisciplinario (pp. 29–36). Montevideo, Uruguay: Unidad Académica del Espacio lnterdisciplinario, Universidad de la República.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mazzeo, N., Zurbriggen, C., Steffen, M., Barquín, J., Gadino, I., Díaz, I., … Trimble, M. (2019). Combinando estrategias. Descentralización y centralización en la gestión del agua en Uruguay. In A. Cardarello & P. Ferla (Eds.), Descentralización enUruguay. Propuestas para avanzar en la agenda (pp. 59–72). Montevideo, Uruguay: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ministerio de Vivienda, Ordenamiento Territorial y Medio Ambiente (MVOTMA). (2017). Plan nacional de aguas. Montevideo, Uruguay: MVOTMA.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nelson, R. M. (2018). Argentina’s economic crisis (Congressional Research Service Report No. IF10991) [PDF file]. Retrieved from

  • Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2018). OECD economic outlook. Paris, France: OECD Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ostrom, E. (2005). Understanding institutional diversity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ostrom, V., Tiebout, C. M., & Warren, R. (1961). The organization of government in metropolitan areas: A theoretical inquiry. American Political Science Review, 55, 831–842. Retrieved from

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Özerol, G., Vinke-de Kruijf, J., Brisbois, M. C., Casiano Flores, C., Deekshit, P., Girard, C., … Barbara, S. (2018). Comparative studies of water governance: A systematic review. Ecology and Society, 23(4), 43.

  • Paavola, J., & Hubacek, K. (2013). Ecosystem services, governance, and stakeholder participation: An introduction. Ecology and Society, 18(4), 42. Retrieved from

  • Pagnoccheschi, B. (2003). Política nacional de recursos hídricos. In P. E. Little (Ed.), Políticas ambientais no Brasil: Análises, instrumentos e experiências (pp. 241–258). Peirópolis/Brasília, Brazil: IIEB.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pahl-Wostl, C. (2015). Water governance in the face of global change: From understanding to transformation. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pahl-Wostl, C., Lebel, L., Knieper, C., & Nikitina, E. (2012). From applying panaceas to mastering complexity: Toward adaptive water governance in river basins. Environmental Science & Policy, 23, 24–34.

  • Plummer, R., Baird, J., Moore, M. L., Brandes, O., Imhof, J., & Krievins, K. (2014). Governance of aquatic systems: What attributes and practices promote resilience? International Journal of Water Governance, 2(4), 1–18.

  • Pochat, V. (2005). Entidades de gestión del agua a nivel de cuencas: Experiencia Argentina [PDF file]. Retrieved from

  • Pochat, V., Natenzon, C. E., & Murgida, A. M. (2006). Argentina: Country case study on domestic policy frameworks for adaptation in the water sector [PDF file]. Retrieved from

  • Poupeau, F., Razafimahefa, L., Robert, J., Mercier, D., Massardier, G., & Jacobi, P. R. (2018). Water conflicts and hidrocracy in the Americas: Coalitions, networks and policies. São Paulo, Brazil: IEE/USP.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rockström, J., Falkenmark, M., Folke, C., Lannerstad, M., Barron, J., Enfors, E., … Pahl-Wostl, C. (2014). Water resilience for human prosperity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rojas, F., & Wagner, L. (2016). Conflicto por la apropiación del río Atuel entre Mendoza y La Pampa (Argentina). HALAC, 6(2), 278–297.

  • Santos, C. (2010). Agua en Uruguay: Lucha social y la emergencia de nuevos esquemas de politización. Theomai, 22, 76–85. Retrieved from

  • Steduto, P., Hoogeveen, J., Winpenny, J., & Burke, J. (2017). Coping with water scarcity: An action framework for agriculture and food security. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stringer, L. C., Dougill, A. J., Fraser, E., Hubacek, K., Prell, C., & Reed, M. S. (2006). Unpacking “participation” in the adaptive management of social–ecological systems: A critical review. Ecology and Society, 11(2), 39. Retrieved from

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Subsecretaría de Recursos Hídricos de la Nación (SSRH). (2017). Plan nacional del agua [PDF file]. Retrieved from

    Google Scholar 

  • Thiel, A., Blomquist, W. A., & Garrick, D. E. (Eds.). (2019). Governing complexity: Analyzing and applying polycentricity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tucci, C. E. (2004). Desenvolvimento dos recursos hídricos no Brasil [PDF file]. Retrieved from

  • Vida Silvestre Uruguay. (2018). ECCOSUR. Retrieved from

  • Wilder, M. (2010). Water governance in Mexico: Political and economic apertures and a shifting state-citizen relationship. Ecology and Society, 15(2), 22. Retrieved from

  • Zurbriggen, C. (2014). Políticas latinoamericanas en la gestión del agua: De la gobernanza neoliberal a una gobernanza pública. Agua y Territorio, 3, 89–100.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI), SGP-HW 056, to the project “Transforming water governance in South America: from reaction to adaptation and anticipation”, of which M. Trimble is PI and P. R. Jacobi and M. Pascual are Co-PIs. P. R. Jacobi acknowledges Fapesp Thematic Project (2015-03804-9) on Environmental Governance in São Paulo Macrometropolis facing Climate Change, of which he is Coordinator. N. Mazzeo acknowledges the “Programa Grupos de Investigación” of CSIC-UDELAR. M. Trimble, C. Zurbriggen and N. Mazzeo acknowledge the support of the National Research and Innovation Agency through the National System of Researchers of Uruguay (SNI-ANII). The authors thank Isabel Gadino for her assistance with the figure.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Micaela Trimble .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2021 Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Trimble, M. et al. (2021). Reconfiguring Water Governance for Resilient Social-Ecological Systems in South America. In: Baird, J., Plummer, R. (eds) Water Resilience. Springer, Cham.

Download citation

Publish with us

Policies and ethics