Towards an improved diagnostic approach to handling complex boundary judgments in water governance

Dr. Rob de Loë, School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability

Governance failures are widely recognized as a key reason why, despite sustained attention over previous decades, many longstanding water problems continue to go unsolved around the world. A major challenge in analyzing and addressing water governance problems is making boundary judgments – deciding which factors to include or exclude – in the face of complexity. Improving water governance requires accounting for a diverse and sometimes unclear set of internal and external factors that cause water problems. For example, important drivers, actors, and institutions may be both internal or external to a water governance system, depending on how problem boundaries are defined.

Adopting the watershed as the basis for water governance is a classic boundary judgment. When we use watershed boundaries to organize governance, we’re deciding that the problems we’re trying to solve can be addressed within the watershed. That may well be the case, but sometimes the most important decisions that affect water conditions inside a watershed are being made by people and organizations far removed from that watershed.

How do we decide what the right boundaries are for water governance? How can we determine which external drivers should be considered, and which ones we can ignore? These are questions that confront researchers and practitioners alike. Globally, recognition is growing that we’re not always making the right boundary judgments for water governance – but making better ones is extremely challenging. As a starting point, improved diagnostic approaches are needed to help us deal with the complexity of contemporary water governance problems.


James Patterson (currently a post-doctoral researcher at VU Amsterdam) and I developed a systemic, structured diagnostic framework that can be used by researchers and practitioners to identify and account for relevant internal and external factors in water governance problem-solving. Our framework builds on Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework (SES), and is influenced by systems thinking, institutional analysis and other previous efforts to develop diagnostic approaches. We pay particular attention to external factors that are often neglected, while being sensitive to the capacity and legal-institutional constraints of policymakers and practitioners. The approach is flexible in allowing for high-level scans, or in-depth investigations based on a host of other modelling and analysis approaches. The overarching goal is the identification of tangible improvements and small wins to improve water governance systems within a bigger-picture perspective of the diverse causes of water governance challenges. We take a user-oriented perspective to support researchers and policymakers in practice, and break new ground by providing an inclusive framework for diagnosing complexity in water governance, and making more effective boundary judgments.


The various steps distinguished in the diagnostic framework are presented in Figure 1. The analysis begins by carefully defining the “action situation” (an SES term that refers to the setting where people have come together to make decisions and take actions to address a common objective). Water allocation decision making is an example of an action situation where governance occurs. The four steps in the diagnostic approach are simply a way of identifying key internal and external factors that influence a particular water governance “action situation”, and supporting critical reflection on appropriate boundary judgments.

Diagnostic approach for identifying internal and external factors influencing water governance

Figure 1: Diagnostic approach for identifying internal and external factors influencing water governance.

Water governance is already complex. The last thing practitioners need is additional unnecessary complexity. Therefore, at each step in the diagnostic approach, checking whether or not to continue is a key activity. For example, stopping the analysis after Step 2 is entirely legitimate if the analysis indicates that water-centric boundary judgments are appropriate; sometimes the watershed scale actually is appropriate, and it’s not necessary or useful to bring in considerations from outside the watershed.

In our paper, we use the case of nutrient management in Lake Erie to show how the framework can be used to re-think the boundaries of water governance. There is evidence that some of the drivers of re-eutrophication fall far outside the current boundaries of water governance (which are organized around water basins). For example, the decision in the early 2000s to promote bio-fuels in the United States was made by energy policy makers who were not part of the water governance system. These kinds of decisions can have impacts on the ground and in the water – as is the case in Lake Erie, where nutrient loadings are strongly linked to agricultural production practices that, in part at least, respond to the biofuels mandate. It can be extremely difficult to adjust the boundaries of water governance systems to incorporate external actors and drivers in water governance situations such as this – but failing to do so may undermine efforts to deal with water problems. To illustrate, it’s not clear at this time that the objectives Canada and the United States have set for nutrient reductions to deal with the re-eutrophication of Lake Erie can be achieved if external drivers (such as energy policy) are not accounted for.


Countless actors, drivers and institutions connected to water governance, but often treated as external to the water sector, influence how effectively water problems can and are being addressed. These drivers, actors, and institutions may originate far beyond the typical water-centric frame of a watershed or river basin, and may be linked to a wide range of other policy sectors (e.g. energy, food, environmental protection, land use planning, urban design, climate change adaptation, public health and community wellbeing, transport, global trade, or defense). These factors may be spatially, temporally, or institutionally distant from a particular water governance action situation, but nonetheless play a key role in influencing water-related outcomes. Evidence is growing that persistent and increasingly urgent water challenges faced around the world, from local to global scales, cannot be addressed without better understanding and accounting for a diverse range of internal and external factors. This shines a spotlight on the need to rethink how we make boundary judgements in relation to water governance.

Building on a strong foundation of insights from social-ecological systems, systems thinking and institutional analysis, my colleague James Patterson and I offer a practical diagnostic approach that can directly support diagnoses of boundary judgments. The framework we proposed is now being used by my students and post-doctoral researchers to assess the importance of external actors and drivers in water governance in various water governance action situations in Canada, including nutrient management, flooding, water allocation, and water stewardship. Our goal is to identify concrete ways in which water governance systems in these situations can be modified to better account for crucial considerations that shape our ability to solve water problems.

de Loë, R. C. & Patterson J. J. (2017). Boundary judgments in water governance: Diagnosing internal and external factors that matter in a complex world. Water Resources Management, 32, 565-581.

Contact: Rob de Loë, School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability

For more information about the WaterResearch, contact Amy Geddes.