Freshwater as a Global Commons: International Governance and the Role of Germany

Elke Herrfahrdt-Pähle, Waltina Scheumann, Annabelle Houdret, Ines Dombrowsky
Content Type
Special Report
German Development Institute (DIE)
Water is essential for all life on earth and is a key prerequisite for attaining many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Many countries, however, suffer from physical water scarcity, a lack of access to a safe water supply and sanitation, water pollution or hydrological extremes (droughts and floods) due to climate change. The generality and severity of water problems lead many to speak of a global water crisis. While this crisis mostly manifests at the local or in some cases transboundary level, two global issues are often overlooked. First, global trends such as climate change and the spread of water-intensive consumption and trade patterns are key triggers that cannot be addressed at the local level alone. Second, the aggregation of local or regional water problems may add up to a universal threat to sustainable development. In the face of current challenges, (fresh) water should be conceptualised as a global common good, and global water governance should contribute to improving its protection. This study reveals that the current global water governance architecture is a highly fragmented and incoherent regime consisting of numerous norms, paradigms and actors, each covering single aspects of global water governance. Given the diversity of issues, a “classical” formation of one comprehensive international water regime in the form of a framework convention, and equipped with a specific global governance institution (such as for climate stability, biological diversity or the prevention of desertification) has so far not emerged. The authors suggest a global water governance regime that could evolve from the improved interplay of the existing elements of global water governance (i.e. norms, targets, paradigms and actors). This could be complemented by two innovations at UN level: installing an Intergovernmental Body on Water allowing for mandated decisions on water in the UN system, and a Scientific and Practice Panel on Water improving the science-policy interface. Such an approach that combines global norms and joint guidelines to be adapted to local contexts and needs may be able to increase urgently needed political support for governing water as a global commons, beyond the nation-state interests and their perception of water resources as sovereign goods.
Environment, Water, Governance, Sustainable Development Goals
Political Geography
Europe, Germany, Global Focus