Throughout the world, the concern over the future of water resources has engaged governments, non-governmental organizations, and communities. Increasingly, countries implement water management policies that simultaneously address economic development and environmental sustainability. Underscored by the threat of global climate change, a new paradigm for water resource governance has emerged, which seeks to design and implement institutions that are democratic, economically viable, responsive to future change, and indicative of long-term sustainability. These reforms—inspired by the Dublin Statement of 1992—have ranged from privatization of water supply and basic sanitation to implementation of full-fledged water markets. This paper describes a research project focusing on one such experiment, Brazil's water reform, which has been implemented in the past 15 years. This research initiative, called the Watermark Project, involves a partnership of Brazilian and U.S. universities (including the University of Michigan), and spans the divide between policy and science by actively including policy makers in Brazil as partners.

    In Brazil, water management has historically been a top-down, sectoral (with water quality separated from water supply), centralized (at national and state levels), and conflict-ridden affair. To address a growing perception of crisis in the water sector and inspired by the new water governance paradigm, in the early 1990s a few Brazilian states enacted specific legislation to regulate their water use and management. In 1997, the federal government followed suit and enacted Law 9,433, which instituted the National Policy for Water Resources and created the National System for the Management of Water Resources.

    The new legislation introduced mechanisms for management of water resources more in tune with the democratization of state-society relations that followed the demise of the Brazilian military dictatorship in the mid-1980s. With variations across different states, these included: organization of management at the watershed level; decentralization of decision making and resources; design of a new system for the allocation of water rights; creation of different instances of public participation (especially the organization of river basin committees and consortia, and State and National Water Councils); insertion of water resources management within a larger realm of environmental concerns that challenged the traditional supremacy of economic criteria; and implementation of a bulk water user permit and charging system.[1] Because of the promise of broad public participation and decentralization, the creation of river basin committees and consortia is one of the most anticipated aspects of the new legislation. In principle, such participatory bodies are responsible for making most of the decisions concerning water use, quality, pricing, and allocation at the watershed level.

    River basin committees and consortia generally have a tri-partite composition: water users (including agribusiness, irrigation associations, and state-owned companies such as sanitation and water utilities); representatives from the public sector (at the state, municipal, and federal levels); and representatives of civil society (ranging from those representing private users, such as the federation of industries, to universities, professional organizations, NGOs, and community organizations). Committee responsibilities include establishing water charging systems, allocating revenues, designing and approving river basin water resource management plans, negotiating conflict, and promoting water-related activities in the basin such as environmental education and training. To date, over 100 committees and consortia have been established throughout Brazil.

    The Watermark Project was created in 2000 to study Brazil's water reform. Conceived as action research, it involves both academic and policy practitioners and assumes that ideals of participatory, integrated management can only be realized if social, cultural, political, and institutional perspectives are incorporated into a policy field largely dominated by engineering. It is committed to producing its results in both scholarly formats and in ways designed to make the data and knowledge generated available and usable to those directly involved. The project is coordinated by a group of scholars at three Brazilian universities (University of Brasilia, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and University of Blumenau) and two U.S. universities (Johns Hopkins University and U-M). The Watermark Project also works closely with a set of policy makers at the federal and state levels and with civil society organizations. More than 35 researchers and collaborators have thus far been involved in the project, educated in fields as diverse as physics and anthropology. Over 20 graduate students have designed theses related to this research, including five from U-M.

    In general terms, the project seeks to answer two key questions: 1) Under what conditions do participatory river basin committees and consortia become (or fail to become) dynamic centers of decision making and action, with the capacity to influence state and private actors? 2) Under what conditions do these bodies become spaces of democratic decision making and effective stakeholder representation?

    To answer these questions, a series of research activities were developed to investigate the environmental, social, political, and institutional contexts within which river basin management evolves and the organizational features of the deliberative bodies being established.

    To date the project has had three distinct phases. Phase I (2001-03), an exploratory research phase, brought together researchers and practitioners to design a qualitative methodology for data collection and analysis. This phase also included the production of two databases, one for socio-economic and demographic data, and another for coding meeting minutes of the river basin committees and consortia in order to investigate decision-making processes. Phase I concluded with the publication of a book and of 23 reports made available through the project's website <>.

    Phase II (2003-05) mostly consisted of field research. In this phase, a working group within the larger project designed, tested, and supervised implementation of a survey that was carried out across 16 river basins in different regions of Brazil. The Watermark survey queried 626 members of river basin committees and consortia, and was organized around five main modules: participation, representation, worldviews, socioeconomic demographics, and knowledge use. In addition, key informants in each basin were interviewed on subjects ranging from day-to-day committee activities to an assessment of goals accomplished.

    The main goal for Phase III (2005-the present) is further analysis of the data collected in the previous two phases, particularly the survey data. This phase of the project also aims to disseminate the research to actors involved in water policy making, particularly those in the Brazilian water-management community, through publications, meetings, and workshops. In 2005, the project formed a partnership with Brazil's Secretariat of Water Resources to develop joint applied activities with river basin committees and consortia as well as other stakeholders. This project includes organization of special workshops on each of the basins investigated to discuss survey results. Currently, a report for each water-basin is being compiled to serve as the basis for these stakeholder workshops.

    University of Michigan and the Watermark Project

    The following are among the past and current studies involving researchers from U-M's School of Natural Resources and Environment within the scope of the Watermark Project:

    1. Knowledge, institutions, and water management

    This study sought to understand the implications of the use of technoscientific information, especially seasonal climate forecasting, for the democratization of water management in three river basins (Lower Jaguaribe-Banabuiu, Paraíba do Sul, and Itajaí). Using in-depth interviewing with water managers and the Watermark survey of river basin committee and consortia members across the three basins, it explored whether the use of technoscientific knowledge fostered or constrained stakeholder participation. The argument here is that knowledge may promote deliberative democracy by informing stakeholders who, in turn, may become better prepared to participate in the dialogue that leads to consensus building and potential cooperation. On the other hand, if controlled by a few actors seeking to bolster their position vis-à-vis other stakeholders, knowledge can insulate decisions, exacerbate power imbalances between those with access to knowledge and those without,[2] allow for "elite" capture of decision-making processes and negatively affect the equitable distribution of water resources. Here, the difference between democratization and insulation rests on the rules of engagement of stakeholders and the practices regarding availability and accessibility of knowledge.

    Preliminary findings from this study show that the relationship between technoscientific knowledge and democracy in stakeholder committees is far from straightforward. While the use of technoscientific knowledge improved decision making in terms of outcome, such as more efficient and equitable management, and processes such as more democratic, transparent, and accountable decision making, its effects on deliberative participation were mixed. For example, although the majority of the water committee members surveyed reported that technical information makes decision making easier, they also pointed out that the disparate level of knowledge between técnicos and general members is the main constraint to democratization of decision making within the Committee, above economic and political power disparities.

    2. Old institutions and new approaches to sustainability: creative cooperation in managing waters of the Paraíba do Sul Basin

    This study focused on institutional changes brought by the implementation of the new water law in the Paraíba do Sul River Basin, whose complicated physical structure includes dams, reservoirs, and an out-of-basin transfer—all factors that make it of interest to other physically complicated systems.[3] It explored the factors that account for the Paraíba do Sul River Basin Committee's ability to implement reform-oriented institutions and how these new institutions have affected water management.

    Based on data collected from 26 interviews of former and current committee members and participatory observation of committee meetings, the study found eight factors across three areas that contributed to the committee's (known as CEIVAP) ability to implement reform-oriented institutions. First, the location of the basin in a hot economic zone made more resources available for implementation, and added to this were contextual factors including prior institutional experiments, Brazil's transition to democracy, and a severe drought in the basin.[4] Second, the new system incorporated the old system, thereby maintaining rather than destroying previous networks and social capital. The final six factors relate to the committee members themselves: strong shared problem identification, an awareness of differing perspectives among committee members, an ability to learn to work together, an understanding of their mutual interdependence, a strong sense of trust among members, and the "buy in" of significant actors within and outside of the committee.

    The study showed that the new institutional framework in the basin is characterized by (a) polycentrism; (b) multiple reform approaches; (c) redundancy; (d) decentralization; (e) actor pluralism; (f) increased confusion and contention; (g) a more creative, transparent, and effective process; and (h) more inclusive, but not equal, management. The ability of the committee to implement such reform-oriented institutions and to change the water management process is due in large part to social learning—an iterative process in which groups learn to handle shared issues. The eight factors described above set the stage for the social learning process, resulting in institutional change. CEIVAP proved particularly creative in adapting the framework to meet its needs on difficult issues such as responding to drought.[5]

    3. Adaptation to climate change and water management

    The increasing threat of global climate change has many researchers and policy makers vigorously working to lessen the anticipated impacts associated with these changes. As droughts and floods increase with climate change, water resources (both quality and quantity) are projected to become increasingly stressed and vulnerable.[6] Adaptation to climate change characterizes any response of a system to these changes which might lessen the impacts or take advantage of opportunities that are created by these changes. Therefore, the capability of a system to adapt to climate changes essentially characterizes the adaptive capacity of such a system. Adaptive capacity is thought to be greatly influenced by social characteristics within the system, such as institutional structure, knowledge transfer, and social capital. Researchers are currently struggling with how to measure a system's adaptive capacity. In addition, there are increasing efforts to operationalize the measurement of adaptive capacity.

    The recent transformation of water management in Brazil provides an excellent opportunity to perform an adaptive capacity analysis. While the adaptation to climate change field is relatively young, researchers broadly attribute "governance" as an important determinant of adaptive capacity. Therefore, important insight can be gathered from the Watermark Project by evaluating survey answers that analyze the level of participation and representation, the incorporation of technical information into the decision-making process, and the interconnectedness between managers, decision makers, and other stakeholders.

    This particular research project aims to develop a framework that analyzes adaptive capacity of the water management system in Brazil. The research utilizes the Watermark Project to look across basins and across scales to answer three important questions that highlight current gaps in the adaptation field. First, what specific indicators should be selected that not only add insight into specific basins, but might also be generalizable enough to apply to other water management schemes? Second, at what spatial scale is adaptive capacity best assessed? And finally, who will benefit from the creation of adaptive capacity knowledge, and how will the knowledge be mainstreamed into the planning process?

    The Watermark Project provides an excellent example of a research endeavor that coordinates efforts between various nations, institutions, researchers, and stakeholders. Not only does this project seek to uncover important social interactions, it also represents the importance of international research in training students in field research techniques, exposing them to other cultures, connecting U-M students with a broader network of researchers abroad, and fostering collaboration within a research team. In addition, this project strives to make the research available and useful to the basin organizations studied.

    Nathan Engle is a master's student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, Maria Carmen Lemos is assistant professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, and Lori Kumler is a doctoral student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at U-M. Rebecca Abers is associate researcher at the Center of Public Policy Research, University of Brasilia.

      1. M. C. Lemos and J. L. F. Oliveira, "Can Water Reform Survive Politics? Institutional Change and River Basin Management in Ceará, Northeast Brazil," World Development 32 (December 2004): 2121-37.return to text

      2. M. C. Lemos, "A Tale of Two Policies: The Politics of Climate Forecasting and Drought Relief in Ceará, Brazil," Policy Sciences 36(June 2003): 101-23. return to text

      3. Lori M. Kumler, "Old Institutions and New Approaches to Sustainability: Creative Cooperation in Managing Waters of the Paraíba do Sul Basin" (M.S. thesis, University of Michigan, 2005). return to text

      4. R. Formiga, L. Kumler, and M. C. Lemos, "The Politics of Bulk Water Pricing in Brazil: Lessons from the Paraíba do Sul River Basin," Water Policy (forthcoming).return to text

      5. Kumler, "Old Institutions and New Approaches to Sustainability."return to text

      6. J. J. McCarthy, et al., eds., Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).return to text