Can water management policies be separated from politics?

Although the campaign for the European Parliament elections is in full swing, speeches about public water policies are rare, even nonexistent. However, flood management, resource issues and water quality are very much a part of daily life for Europe’s citizens. Sylvain Barone, Irstea researcher, presents his analysis of the development of public water policies and their place in political debates in the book Les politiques de l’eau [The Politics of Water].


How have speeches on water management evolved since the 1960s? How are modern water policies created? What logic do they use, which stakeholders are involved and to what effect? These are the subjects discussed in the book Les politiques de l’eau [The Politics of Water], co-authored by Sylvain Barone, political science researcher at the G-Eau JRU at Irstea Montpellier. We asked the author three questions to gain insight into his analysis and opinions as a political scientist on the way in which water policies are designed and on the importance given to them in political debate.

You believe that the inclusion of water in the political debate is a paradox, both omnipresent yet completely absent. Can you explain this?

Sylvain Barone: We often speak of water during a crisis when extreme Coming togetherevents (lethal floods, historical droughts, dramatic pollution) make headlines in the media. Subjects linked to water are therefore often approached from an alarmist perspective and on an irregular basis by journalists or politicians. However water is often absent from the public debate in “normal” periods.

This distance between water in politics and water policies themselves is partly due to the highly technical nature of the issues. Water also has its own specific management scales (groundwater, river basins) that are different to the political or administrative scales more familiar to citizens (municipalities, regions, etc.).

Another point to highlight is the wide variety of public initiatives in this field, which makes these difficult to identify for the general public. The authorities or national agencies that are officially in charge of such initiatives are generally limited in scope to a single environmental dimension. Yet large infrastructure projects, agricultural irrigation, electricity production and public health are also all connected to water. Although this fragmentation between multiple stakeholders is fairly typical of environmental policies as a whole, it makes the interconnections difficult to see.

Finally, we should not overlook the fact that it suits some stakeholders to restrict access to the decision-making process and to negotiate arrangements in great secrecy.

As a political scientist, you maintain that water management belongs to its “political time” in modern societies. What are the main rationales that underpin the design of water policies?

Sylvain Barone: Although national and local water policy trends can vary significantly, by studying their evolution from the end of the 18th century and focusing on the present day, we have uncovered four key trends or rationales that partially overlap: a philosophy of nationalization, particularly by creating large-scale development and infrastructure; a clear search for “integrated” management capable of taking into account the overlap found in challenges linked to water; increased importance of environmental concerns; and the neo-managerial shift in governmental actions that is an interpretation by public administrations of a neo-liberal policy trend.

Each of these rationales has limits and is subject to criticism. Nationalization is criticized by proponents of liberalism. Others focus on social concerns and call for the populations concerned to be brought into the decision-making process. Still others aim to preserve the resource by moving the focus from supply to demand.

The idea of integrated management has become unavoidable for water stakeholders across the world, but has been criticized due to its “catch-all” and depoliticizing nature, driving the idea that an optimal water management process exists and hiding the existence of credible alternatives. This idea, in which user participation is a key part of the water policies, sometimes barely conceals a traditional negotiation process between dominant stakeholders.

The greening of water policies has had a real impact, particularly in France. However, it also has its limits, particularly in relation to compromises made with agricultural and industrial interest groups. How can we not also see that environmental discussions are increasingly used to justify ancient practices, such as building dams, that are now being presented as a necessary response to the effects of climate change?

As for the neo-managerial philosophy, the water sector has been much more resistant than others to various types of privatization, whether of networks or engineering. Water markets are only relevant to a handful of countries. Basically, the neo–management hasn’t had its “big moment” in the water sector!

Your book finished on an optimistic note, with the idea that water policies could even enhance the democratic debate. What do you mean by this?

Sylvain Barone: The effects of water policies are often analyzed in relation to their environmental or economic impact. A uniquely political focus makes it possible to shift our perspective and see that these policies are also areas in which power is wielded, where compromises are reached and where a desire for reform comes up against social complexity and often leads to unexpected results.

The relationship between water policies and democracy raises fascinating questions, particularly this one: how can water policies foster democracy? There are several possible ways to achieve this, such as by providing more opportunities for users and their representatives to be involved in complex decisions, by treating the various groups involved in a more equal or commensurate manner or by also building trust between public authorities and citizens. As political scientists, we aren’t just focusing on the way in which water policies could become more democratic, but also on the way in which these policies could encourage more democratic practices and ways of thinking beyond the issue of water.

For further information: Barone, Sylvain and Mayaux, Pierre-Louis, Les politiques de l'eau [The Politics of Water], Paris, LGDJ - Lextenso Editions, Collection Clefs, 2019, 153p.

Also look for: A new handbook of political sociology for engineers and town planners

By Gabrielle Bouleau, Scientific Deputy Director at Irstea

A handbook to analyze public policyEngineers and town planners who deal with public decisions often express a need for support during the thought process and in their methodological approach to understand political implications and how they intervene in this context.

Written for engineers and town planners, this handbook provides guidance for analyzing the creation of public issues, the design, adoption and implementation of public policies in France.

Illustrated by many examples taken from the water and environmental sectors, it analyzes political action by focusing on:

  • the stakeholders involved in the political process;
  • the various stages involved in public initiatives before a decision is made;
  • the political significance of the initiative;
  • its implementation once the decision is made.

Bouleau, Gabrielle, Manuel d'analyse des politiques publiques à l'usage des ingénieurs et urbanistes [Public Policy Analysis Handbook for Engineers and Town Planners], Paris, Presses de l'Ecole Nationale Des Ponts et Chaussées, 2019, 124 p.