6 Comments

By Bryan Jenkins

WaterGovernanceWaiology2013In her work that won her the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics, Elinor Ostrom identified three types of governance models for common pool resources like water. One is the “Leviathan model” where there is direct government provision of services with integration of policy making and operational functions. The second is the “privatisation model” where there is private sector provision of services with government role as regulator. The third is the self-governing community model where there is community determination of resource management requirements.

We have seen the evolution of these different models in western countries. After WW2, the welfare state was the dominant approach of government. In relation to water management in NZ, the Ministry of Works had the prime responsibility for water management – a classic example of a Leviathan governance model. In the 1980s there was a shift to the neoliberal concept of the private sector being responsible for service provision and that the government’s role was that of regulator.

The Resource Management Act reflects this privatisation model. The RMA was designed on the premise that private interests know best what they want. Thus the responsibility for defining proposals was left to applicants. The RMA was also designed on the basis of “effects management”: applicants’ choices would be constrained by bottom lines set by government with legal oversight (i.e. the Environment Court). Consents for water use are issued as a form of private property right.

However, when sustainability limits are reached for common pool resources like water, it is not sufficient to rely on individual proposals for water use. This is because individual and collective preferences diverge – the basis for a “tragedy of the commons”. But Ostrom’s work indicates that the self-governing community model can achieve sustainable management of common pool resources. This led the Canterbury Regional Council to adopt collaborative governance approaches to the development of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS) and to the formulation of programmes to implement the strategy.

There is not one institutional design for a self managed community approach. Rather there is a set of principles that need to be met. In Canterbury there have been different institutional designs for the development of the CWMS compared to formulating implementation programmes. The CWMS was built around a public and stakeholder engagement process overseen by a multi-stakeholder Steering Group of water interests and reporting to the Canterbury Mayoral Forum. It identified that “business as usual” was not sustainable and that it was only possible to achieve sustainable development by considering existing uses of water as well as new uses and projects. There was no capacity for further water development unless the cumulative effects of existing use were reduced.

This led to the formulation of implementation programmes for 10 zones within Canterbury for catchment based issues (Zone Implementation Programmes – ZIPs) and a Regional Implementation Programme (RIP) for regional issues. Zone Committees were established with community, runanga and local authority members. The Regional Committee has a representative of each zone, community members, runanga and Ngai Tahu representatives, and local authority representatives and an independent chair. The RIP and ZIPs are work-in-progress but there are encouraging signs of more sustainable forms of storage (e.g. the selection of the Waitohi storage as an alternative to the controversial dam on the Hurunui South Branch and control gates on Lake Sumner) and the setting of catchment nutrient limits that are in some cases below current levels of nutrient generation.

The outcome of the CWMS was given statutory backing through the recent Canterbury Regional Policy Statement while the process of giving statutory backing to the RIP and ZIPs through the Land and Water Plan is well advanced.

Collaborative governance has created a new water management paradigm in Canterbury. Collaborative approaches have been endorsed by the Land and Water Forum and in the recent government freshwater reform proposals.

However this governance approach is still in its formative phase and the real test will come with on-the-ground implementation. This is likely to require a different institutional design to strategy development and implementation programme formulation. New Zealand models of collaborative governance need to incorporate treaty partnership approaches with community decision making approaches. There is also the issue of the governance of the regional council. In Canterbury, the collaborative concepts were developed under an elected council and are being implemented by the temporary commissioners but the long term governance arrangements are unclear.


Ostrom E (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Dr Bryan Jenkins is Professor of Strategic Water Management in the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management, a joint centre between Canterbury and Lincoln Universities.