Uncovering the intricacies of coordination in polycentric water governance – A comparative case study on the modernization of irrigation in Spain
The governance of water requires coordination of actors across several policy sectors to deal with interlinkages and trade-offs between different types of water uses, as well as across scales, from the local to the national and international level. The importance of coordination has been recognized for decades, but is still seen as one of the major challenges in water governance, and empirical evidence on how different forms of coordination in multilevel natural resource governance come about, how they relate to each other, and how they perform, is lacking.
We undertake a comparative case study to analyse processes of coordination between public, private, and civil society actors in the context of the so-called “modernization of irrigation” in two Spanish river basin districts, the Guadalquivir and the Jucar. Against the background of increased needs for irrigation and reduced water availability due to climate change, public actors have invested substantially in the implementation of more efficient irrigation systems. However, increased irrigation efficiency can incentivize farmers to switch to more water-intensive crops or expand irrigated area, leading to a so-called rebound effect. Despite broad evidence that water rights need to be reduced to prevent such an effect, many farmers in Spain could keep their initial water rights, ultimately resulting in increased water use at the basin level. Objectives of the European Union Water Framework Directive were thereby circumvented (European Commission 2015). This policy failure is often explained by a lack of cross-sectoral and cross-level coordination. However, the reasons for the alleged lack of coordination, and the nuances of how and whether actors interacted at all, have not been sufficiently studied.
From a theoretical perspective, coordination in the public sector, can take many different forms, from actors exchanging information, to coordination through hierarchy, cooperation, or competition, as well as various combination of these diverse forms. Research gaps remain regarding the theoretical conceptualization of coordination, the distinction between different forms of coordination and how they relate to each other and are shaped by different contextual and institutional settings. To address these gaps, this paper combines polycentric governance (Thiel, Blomquist, and Garrick 2019) and the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (E. Ostrom 2005). We apply the concept of Action Situations and use the 7-rule typology. For data collection, we undertook semi-structured qualitative stakeholder interviews, and analysed policy documents and grey literature.
The empirical findings show that public, private and civil society actors of the water and agricultural sectors intensively communicate and exchange information, despite the mentioned critiques of lacks of coordination. We thus argue that it is important to disentangle and differentiate between different types of coordination. Further, we show that understanding these processes of coordination helps to explain policy outputs in the two case studies, thereby contributing to the empirical understanding of how to avoid a rebound effect. We conclude that formally stipulated coordination mechanisms by the EU, the national and regional levels are insufficient to address distributional issues and underlying conflicts of interest.