Working paper

Governance of a complex system: water

24 Feb 2014

This paper sets out a complex adaptive systems view of water governance.


Fresh water is a life - enabling resource as well as the source of spiritual, social and economic wellbeing and development. It is continuously renewed by the Earth’s natural recycling systems using heat from the sun to evaporate and purify, and then rain to replenish supplies. For thousands of years people have benefited from these systems with little concern for their ability to keep up with human population and economic development. Rapid increases in population and economic activity have brought concern for how these systems interact with human social and economic systems to centre stage this century in the guise of a focus on water governance.

What do we mean by governance and how might we better understand our water governance systems to ensure their ongoing sustainability? This paper sets out a complex adaptive systems view of water governance. It draws on the academic literature on effective governance of complex systems and effective water governance to identify some principles for use in water governance in New Zealand. It illustrates aspects of emerging water governance practice with some examples from New Zealand which have employed a multi-actor, collaborative governance approach. The paper concludes with some implications for the future evolution of effective water governance in New Zealand. Collaborative governance processes are relatively unfamiliar to New Zealand citizens, politicians and other policy actors which makes it more important that we study and learn from early examples of the use of this mode of governance.

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