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Unintended Water Allocation: Gaining Share from Indirect Action and Inaction

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that two types of process affect the allocation of water between users. The first of these are a set of intentional strategies, which dominate the literature on water allocation. These include institutional allocating mechanisms and the purposeful appropriation of water. The second type of process is unintended and occurs through indirect action or inaction. Through this second type of process, people, sectors, and places nevertheless gain water share. Unintended allocation arises from within the ungoverned spaces and “wicked problems” of land and water transformations in two interrelated ways: (1) via external changes in non-water sectors and (2) via internal changes within the water management sector. This unintended or hidden type of water allocation process is largely overlooked. Yet, it is potentially important because volumes of water moved through unintentional allocation can be large, and it can undermine well-intentioned policy interventions in the water and land management sectors.

Keywords: water allocation, unintended allocation, water management, institutional allocating mechanism, water share, appropriation of water


This chapter addresses the ways that people, places, and sectors gain or lose their share of water resources. Normally, changes to water share are framed in terms of allocation: the deliberate decisions taken to distribute water between competing claimants. We focus instead on an overlooked set of processes that cause unintended and often hidden changes to water shares. These unintended processes are conceptualized here as byproducts of policies or other interventions that have objectives other than allocating water. Examples include the effects of land-use change on local sectoral water budgets or the wider impacts of introducing more efficient irrigation technologies such as drip or sprinkler systems. In each case, the purpose of intervention is not to allocate or reallocate water, but nonetheless the intervention affects—potentially quite significantly—existing allocations.

We propose the conceptual oxymoron of “unintended allocation” to cover this process. This term juxtaposes the deliberate and deliberative nature of allocation with the inadvertent, often unintended, and largely overlooked water outcomes that arise from change elsewhere within river basins. Despite this apparent contradiction, tentative exploration of the concept with researchers and practitioners suggests that it resonates with those working on problems of water allocation.1 Thus, the idea of unintended allocation is a helpful addition to contemporary framings of allocation and is a useful lens through which to understand hitherto underexplored aspects of how water shares change between users.

Contemporary framings of allocation from the academic and practitioner fields (Dinar et al. 1997; Speed et al. 2013; WWF UK 2007) consider not only the design of (p. 249) institutional mechanisms but increasingly now look toward how power shapes their performance (Hellegers and Leflaive 2015). While water resource managers and policymakers assess different design options for institutional water allocation mechanisms, academics (particularly political ecologists and geographers) use power and politics to refine their analysis of changing patterns of water shares in river basins. The relationships among the contemporary framings of allocation are shown in figure 11.1. The bidirectional arrows in the diagram highlight the linkages and interdependencies between processes, which will be discussed later in this chapter. The exploration of theory begins by outlining how water allocation is conceptualized in the contemporary literature. The chapter will then define unintended allocation in more detail, provide examples, and highlight the conditions under which unintended allocation is likely to be volumetrically significant. The chapter closes by examining the implications for policy and research agendas within the water community.

Unintended Water AllocationGaining Share from Indirect Action and InactionClick to view larger

Figure 11.1 Three types of process that change the share of water between users

Changing Share through Institutional Mechanisms

The task of changing water shares in response to shifting demand is typically understood in terms of deliberate, intentional decision-making, implemented through institutional mechanisms. There are three main types of institutional mechanisms: (1) market mechanisms, (2) administrative decisions, and (3) collective demand management (Dinar et al. 1997). The choice of mechanism is dependent on local- and national-level factors, including the property rights regime (private, public, or collective), the (p. 250) level of water allocation (user-group, sub-catchment, catchment, or national level), and existing institutional arrangements. Different combinations of these mechanisms may overlap within a single river basin (Bruns et al. 2005). For example, in China’s Yellow River Basin, an administrative basin allocation plan—a form of quota system—operates alongside nascent water-rights trading schemes (markets), which locally allocate water from agriculture to industry (Hooper 2016).

Market Mechanisms

Market mechanisms allocate water through the price-enabled trade of private water rights. We interpret such transfers as being explicitly oriented toward the intentional allocation of water from sectors where water is, in economic terms, less needed or useful to sectors where it is more needed or useful. Market mechanisms are perhaps the most researched institutional mechanism for water allocation (see, e.g., Chong and Sunding 2006; Garrick et al. 2013; Saliba 1987), and they come in many different types. The form of any given market mechanism depends variously on the timeframe for a water trade—for example, a water right can be traded permanently or it can be traded for use temporarily during a specific irrigation season—and the difference between the transfer of outright ownership and the transfer of usufruct (use) rights.

Most research on markets examines allocation within the agricultural sector, but inter-sectoral markets have also been studied in regions such as Australia, Chile, and the western United States (see, e.g., Bauer 2004; Crase et al. 2004; and Howe and Goemans 2003). Research on different types of water markets in different locations points to their qualified success under certain conditions. Nonetheless, their implementation faces many challenges. One challenge relates to infrastructure and the problem of how to physically move water from the seller to the buyer. A second challenge relates to the design of the market, a complex issue for policymakers and researchers and one that requires different designs in different settings. Issues include the problem of disseminating the information needed to set prices (Bjornlund and McKay 2002); the appropriate level of transaction costs needed to balance the minimization of third-party impacts against market efficiency (Easter et al. 1998); and the design of property-rights regimes on which markets are based (Schlager 2005; Whitford and Clark 2007).

Administrative Mechanisms

Administrative water allocation mechanisms are used where the state holds and controls water rights using permits, rules, licenses, and quotas. Here, the degree of intentionality in allocation is high because these “command and control” mechanisms explicitly regulate the supply of water to targeted sectors to drive water to other sectors. This mechanism of allocation is common in developing countries and transitional economies such as India and China (Meinzen-Dick and Ringler 2008). Typically, administrative (p. 251) mechanisms give little consideration to the economic value of water; hence, administrative systems are often associated with greater equity, in that they often protect economically low-value but socially important uses of water. However, they are also more prone to rent-seeking than market mechanisms (Renger 2000), in that they enable some actors to capture additional water share by exerting influence over decision-makers and the bureaucracy. Far less research has focused on administrative mechanisms as compared to their market counterparts, despite the fact that they are arguably more common (e.g., given their use in the world’s two largest countries by population, China and India).

Collective Action and Demand Management

Collective action, the third main form of institutional mechanism considered here, refers to localized, non-state-based or state-enabled activities to manage water. The aim of collective action as it relates to intentional water allocation is demand management within a co-managed system, so as to save water for supply to other uses. An archetypal example of this form of allocation is famously presented by Ostrom (1993) within irrigation systems. Collective action tends to operate at local levels, for example, through water users associations (WUAs). However, the extensive literature on WUAs reveals that the effectiveness of these institutions for intentional water allocation cannot easily be generalized because of the highly localized, flexible, and diverse nature of mediations for changing the share of water between users. For example, Boelens et al. (2014) find that water allocations in Andean water systems are much more about reproducing social bonds between upstream and downstream communities, which are shaped and reshaped by “water territories” within a social agro-ecological landscape. From their research (and that of others) our interpretation is that water allocations between community users of water are largely intentional but may appear to the outsider to be highly informal and transitory both in terms of decision-making and outcomes.

Intentionality: Selecting Intents

Institutional mechanisms implement “allocation intents” which, in turn, are based on different principles of allocation. The choice of principle is largely determined by the national approach to water (though this may not always be the most coherent of frameworks), which sets the objective for decision-making related to how much water each user, sector, or place should be given. The most commonly applied principle is economic efficiency, but there are many others, including equity (Wilder and Ingram, this volume) or social and environmental justice (Movik 2014; Patrick 2013; Syme and Nancarrow 2006, 2008). The intent to allocate may also be informed by national goals, such as the need for domestic food security or the human right to water.

Guided by allocation principles and objectives, countries and/or river-basin organizations discuss and deliberate the mix of institutional mechanisms and establish legal, (p. 252) support, and monitoring systems that promote their development. Despite differences in the intent of allocation principles and objectives, they hold in common the property of intentionality. This means that their explicit purpose is to change water shares between users. However, despite the clarity of their intent, the principles and objectives of allocation and the institutional mechanisms chosen to implement them cannot on their own explain the distribution of water shares observed in river basins. Instead, allocation decisions must be viewed in terms of the context of the wider political economy.

Changing Share through Power

Power and politics are critical elements in explaining how users gain a share of water and how shares change between users. The significance of power lies in the ways that institutional mechanisms and allocation principles are made malleable by political and economic interests. While principles of allocation outwardly determine allocation decisions, there are other (national, regional, and international) factors that influence water decision-makers. Thus, water allocation decision-making cannot be viewed solely from the perspective of institutional mechanisms operating in isolation, but instead must be seen as an inherently political process (Allan 2003).

A further complication is that the scope of allocation decision-making is often constrained by earlier choices in river basin development. Examples of such choices include the design, location, and lifespan of large water infrastructure and the historical distribution of water rights for now-powerful water users. A recent example of the complexity of deliberate attempts to change water share can be seen in California. Here, the recent drought has highlighted the very tangible difficulties of allocation decision-making in the context of long-standing allocation disputes between cities and irrigators, in an economic and infrastructural environment geared toward maintaining the existing distribution of water shares (Polk 2015). Allocation decisions, therefore, are influenced by political economy at local and national levels and by the constraints of path-dependence from river basin histories (Heinmiller 2009; Molle 2008).

The realization that power and politics has a profound influence over water allocation is reflected in the increased volume of research focused on its role at both transboundary and subnational levels (see, e.g., Chakrabarti 2013; Hellegers and Leflaive 2015; Wester 2008). At the transboundary level, the use of power in otherwise technical framings of allocation is exemplified by the application of Lukes’s (2004) framing of power to develop the theory of hydro-hegemony (Zeitoun and Allan 2008). This theory relates to allocation between riparian states in international water settings, for example, in the Jordan and Nile river basins. The lens of hydro-hegemony makes the relationship between water control, political and economic relations, and upstream‒downstream riparian position in the river basins more visible.

Analysis of power also helps to clarify the movement of water between users at the subnational level in allocation between sectors. This is particularly true for studies (p. 253) focused on water allocation to cities, where several concepts based on power and politics have been used to explain how institutional mechanisms are influenced or circumvented. Much of this research is influenced by Swyngedouw’s (2004) work on hydro-social cycles, which has influenced urban-centric water allocation theories. See, for example, Celio et al.’s (2010) exposition of Hyderabad’s “appropriation” of water, in which irrigation infrastructure and institutions are co-opted by the city as its water demand grows. Another illustration is Scott and Pablos’s (2011) use of the concept of “policy regionalism” to understand the expansion of Monterrey’s hydraulic reach—the extent of the city’s area of water influence—through negotiations that circumvent established power relations. A third example is Feldman’s (2009) discussion of the role of charismatic leadership and the “ideology of destiny” to explain how the cities of Los Angeles and Atlanta win water resource conflicts. Together, these differing approaches to the analysis of power at transboundary and subnational levels highlight the limitations of examining allocation using approaches based on water policy alone.

Despite the astuteness of power in hiding its intentions and closing down debate (Stirling 2008), “power” nevertheless shares the property of intentionality with institutional mechanisms of water allocation. Both are intentional in shaping which tools and sectors become favored over others, a facet open to analysis by political and social scientists. This contrasts with our emphasis on the unintended/unforeseen movements of water that occur as byproducts of non-water allocating processes. For these redistributions of water, neither institutional mechanisms nor power suffice to directly explain changes to water shares. Instead, our focus is on the ways that water users and uses become unwittingly linked together in complex river basin systems.

Defining Unintended Allocation

Unintended allocation refers to a set of external and internal processes, operating beyond water allocation mechanisms or the intentional application of power, that affect water shares in ways that are unplanned and unforeseen. These processes are often byproducts of interventions found elsewhere: either geographically external to the water sector or buried within the detailed technologies and practices of a water sector. This physical or conceptual remoteness means that these factors are not easily captured by analyses focusing on institutional mechanisms or frameworks based on power and how it shapes access to resources. Moreover, the latent and dispersed nature of unintended allocation means that it is often undocumented, difficult to trace, and poorly understood.

This chapter identifies two forms of unintended allocation. “External processes” are actions outside of the water resource management sector and operating at multiple scales that influence water availability in indirect ways, for example, via the numerous impacts of urbanization on river basins. The second form, “internal processes,” relates to changes in the technologies and infrastructures of water management, particularly (p. 254) interventions to raise efficiency. As modernizing technologies are introduced, they alter water relationships between places through their impacts on return flows.

External Processes: Urbanization, Modernization, and Land-Use Change

River basins experience change and transition external to the water management sector, for example, urbanization, industrialization, agricultural modernization, and policies to improve the natural environment. All of these broad transitions alter water flow pathways and the spatial and temporal availability of water. By withdrawing and consuming water, these activities drive unintended allocation. This section uses the example of urbanization to show possible ways that water shares between sectors are affected by a range of indirect, unintended allocating processes.2 These processes include the ways that businesses and residents seek water outside of centralized distribution systems when water services are poor or absent; the impact of land-use changes on water budgets; and the consequences of the increasing volumes of urban wastewater generated as cities grow. The first two processes have localized effects on water users, whereas urban wastewater generation may exert wider impacts on downstream areas and the wider river basin.

Cities, particularly those in the Global South, obtain water through multiple flow pathways, many of which are informal (Ahlers et al. 2014; Molle and Berkoff 2009). Informal water flows to urbanizing areas may take many different forms, including domestic groundwater abstraction, water tanker markets, and illegal or unregulated abstraction from surface water sources. The unintended allocation is brought about by the aggregate effect of these numerous, decentralized modes of informal water supply in urban areas. While there is a growing recognition of the role of nonstate water service providers in peri-urban areas (see, e.g., Ranganathan 2014), these activities are rarely the main focus of water allocation research because the aggregate, volumetric impact is not accounted. As a result, the winners and losers of changes to water shares brought about by informal water use are often difficult to discern. Rather, these processes are categorized as ad hoc and secondary and are given various labels including implicit, illegal, and stealth forms of water transfer and allocation (Meinzen-Dick and Ringler 2008; Molle and Berkoff 2009; Rosegrant and Ringler 2000). Thus, urbanization brings with it an informal, unintended allocation effect that is not made explicit in allocation plans. Yet, for some cities, these informal water flows comprise a significant proportion of the total urban water budget. For example, in the Indian city of Chennai, estimates suggest that 35 percent of water for domestic use comes from informal, nongovernmental sources (Venkatachalam 2015).

A second external process driving unintended allocation to cities occurs through land-use change as urban areas expand into agricultural land (Kendy et al. 2007; Pandey and Seto 2014; Yan et al. 2015). Converting land to urban uses can suppress agricultural water demand in places where the area under cultivation is reduced. The relationship (p. 255) between urbanization, land, and water allocation has been explored by Kendy et al. (2007) who argue that urbanization reduces inter-sectoral water conflict when land is converted from agricultural to urban uses. Using an example from the Chinese city of Shijiazhuang, they show that urban water uses tend to be less consumptive, with proportionally higher return flows, than agricultural water applications. This is because municipal water use tends to result in less evaporation than occurs when the same volume of water is withdrawn to irrigate crops. Moreover, urbanization also affects local water availability given its impact on the permeability of the local land surface. Often, urbanization leads to a reduction in groundwater recharge because impermeable roads and other urban spaces cause storm water to run-off rather than percolate into the ground. Therefore, the expansion of urban footprints across agricultural land “releases” water to the wider basin, acting as an unintended form of allocation. Kendy et al.’s study clearly connects urbanization and water allocations through changes in land use, a contention now seen more frequently in the water allocation literature (see, e.g., Yan et al. 2015).

A third possible form of unintended allocation brought about by urbanization is driven by the generation of increasing volumes of urban wastewater. The allocation effect arises because a large proportion of water entering a city is released as wastewater. Thus, from a mass balance perspective—water in versus water out—urbanization, and the resultant upsurge in wastewater availability, can be viewed as an unintended allocation to sectors downstream of urban spaces. This assessment is reflected in the growth of literature characterizing cities in terms of their potential to deliver water resources to sectors such as irrigated agriculture (Kurian et al. 2013; Van Rooijen et al. 2010). For example, a recent report suggested that the cumulative wastewater produced by India’s cities alone could irrigate 1.1 million hectares if released to waterways (Amerasinghe et al. 2013).

Wastewater flows from cities can therefore be understood as a volumetrically significant source of water, made available not from deliberate attempts to allocate water between sectors, but as an unintended byproduct of urbanization. This effect is exemplified by case studies of the city of Hyderabad (Amerasinghe et al. 2009; Gumma et al. 2011; Van Rooijen et al. 2005). Hyderabad’s role—as both a receiver of water acquired from ever-larger bulk water transfers and a source of perennial wastewater for downstream agriculture—usefully illustrates how cities can pass water between upstream and downstream sectors and act as unintended allocating units.

(p. 256)

Internal Processes: Arcane Water Management Technologies

With regards to the second type of unintended allocation, termed “internal processes,” we believe that arcane norms and practices in water technology and design may establish conditions internal to water management that promote unintended water allocation. We use the term “arcane” to signal that while such practices and protocols may be natural and normal within water engineering professions, they are usually inaccessible, incomprehensible, or deemed inconsequential by most social scientists and policymakers. Furthermore, such practices may be long-established as the sole way of selecting, designing, and managing water infrastructure—in turn making critical discussion of their reasoning and effects difficult even among engineers or engineering-minded social scientists and water users (Boelens and Vos 2012). These forms of inaccessible and unconsidered choices are further abetted by an absence of widespread and concurrent hydrological networks for measuring supply and demand, which means society often cannot know the consequences of actions taken in the course of normal professional practice. For the purpose of this chapter, we have identified three such internal processes.

First, changes in the technology and infrastructure of water control are one such internal process that results in unintended allocation. Recognizing how water infrastructure affects water share builds on the earlier work of Meinzen-Dick and Ringler (2008), who identified a form of allocation they termed “implicit.” Examples of implicit allocation include attempts at canal lining or the introduction of drip irrigation, conducted with the aim of “saving water.” Such actions may be taken when water is (correctly or erroneously) thought to be declining due to short- or long-term meteorological drought, or to keep water within the river or groundwater for environmental purposes. Without control of both withdrawal and consumption, such actions may lead to an expansion of irrigated area or a more intensive cropping regime, both of which lead to net increases in depletion. Examples of unintended allocation can be found arising from the switch from gravity to drip irrigation in Morocco (van der Kooij, 2017) and changes to groundwater flows following the lining of the All-American Canal (Calleros 1991). In Wyoming, the switch from gravity to sprinkler irrigation led to a Supreme Court ruling on which user owned the resulting savings (Lankford 2013a), and thus an explicit legal recognition that such technological innovations constituted a form of reallocation.

Second, passive but outmoded irrigation designs and protocols also influence the water shares that basin users receive. The greatest share of withdrawals from rivers in semi-arid and arid basins is for irrigation (CAWMA 2007). Setting aside water drawn by boreholes, nearly all these withdrawals take place through irrigation headworks (also known as intakes or offtakes depending on perspective and local practice). The design and sizing of these headworks have a considerable influence on de facto water sharing in basins where irrigation is present. Furthermore, this influence changes in parallel with the changing hydrology of the basin due to seasonality or climate-induced variability (p. 257) (because an irrigation withdrawal will have a larger effect on the proportion of residual downstream flows during a drought than during a normal or wet period).

Drawing on observations in Tanzania, Lankford (2004) critiqued commonly conducted water demand calculations for irrigation for the manner in which they unwittingly prioritized irrigation systems rather than water sharing between irrigation systems and the downstream basin. The creation of a fixed-peak water supply for an irrigation system via a concrete weir (where intake gates using an undershot orifice are set at a height below the weir sill) results in a physical bias toward the irrigation system. During dry seasons or droughts, this intake design, if not adjusted or regulated, can lead to all the river water entering into the irrigation system and thus very low or zero flows below the river intake. Such “designed in” biases would be minimized if proportional intakes were employed. These are intakes that are physically designed to divide the variable river flow into flows for both the river and irrigation system which vary in flow rate but are fixed in ratio to each other. This proportional division remains constant (or near constant) over a range of flows. The fact that proportional intakes were not employed in the irrigation systems studied in Tanzania by Lankford, despite high streamflow variability warranting such an approach, can be attributed to engineering cultures and institutional mechanisms that are unable to adapt (Diemer and Huibers 1996). Such systems are more prevalent in parts of Asia.

Third, the cumulative effect of water abstracting, conveying, and storing infrastructure in a river basin (which can be likened to “architecture”) helps to drive water shares. The architecture of water infrastructure seeking to control water flows in river basins is built up incrementally over time. As such, it is subject to changing fashions and beliefs, which Lankford (2013b) termed “hydromentalities.” Examples of hydromentalities include aggrandization (where large dams fall in and out of favor); miniaturization (where large numbers of small-scale technologies such as treadle pumps are promoted); and environmentalism (where nature is ascribed with infrastructural functions such as flood mitigation and water storage). The legacy of these fashions in a river basin, combined with short- and long-term shifts in meteorology, gives rise to allocations of water not intended by the designers of any one type of infrastructure. In other words, it is difficult to get an overview of the cumulative impacts of water structures on water allocation as a basin moves dynamically from flood to drought. Lankford et al. (2009) argued that shares of water for an important wetland and riverine flow through the Ruaha National Park in Southern Tanzania were determined by the cumulative effect of upstream irrigation infrastructure, built sequentially on approximately five to six different tributaries of the Ruaha River.

Conditions for Unintended Allocation

Given the exploratory nature of the concept of unintended allocation, and building upon the examples discussed so far, we tentatively suggest that it requires, and occurs (p. 258) in the context of, four specific conditions. The first is the level of relative water scarcity. A second enabling condition involves the nature of ungoverned spaces of planning for land and water. Third is the lack of hydrological literacy among actors and institutions outside the water sector. Fourth is the presence of multiple intended and unintended allocation processes operating simultaneously within a river basin.

Water Availability and Scarcity

Water availability and the relative level of water scarcity provide the backdrop for many forms of unintended allocation. Where water demand has reached the limits of supply, the interconnectivity among users increases (Molle 2008). As interconnections grow in number and intensity, the potential for unexpected interactions between users increases as well, as the “slack” in the basin’s water resources system is reduced. Hence, unintended water allocation may be more likely in river basins experiencing water stress than in those where changes to water availability are not as prominent. Simply put, agriculture-to-urban unintended allocations are likely to be more common in highly populated and rapidly changing river basins (as found, e.g., in India) than in basins that can be characterized as mainly agrarian with a low total population and low urban population (as found, e.g., in Zambia). More specifically, this difference plays out because in Indian river basins there are many more transactions between a larger number of sectors, uses, and users. This in turn amplifies the chances for unintended allocations between them.

Ungoverned Spaces of Land and Water

Ungoverned spaces of land and water arise in locations where water flows are rapidly changing over space and time and are unmonitored and poorly regulated. Water moving and captured via formal and informal pipes, channels, storage bodies, groundwater, tankers, and small containers paints the picture of ungoverned spaces. These technologies allow for the pathways of water flows to be altered in multiple ways, and from their cumulative effects set the scene for unintended allocation. The example of urbanization and the expansion of peri-urban spaces3 exemplifies the context of an ungoverned space. The peri-urban areas of some of the world’s most rapidly growing cities are spaces of dynamic transition where change is rapid and bureaucracy is often either absent or porous, in the sense of Benjamin’s (2004) denotation of multiple and fluid channels of influence between officials and the public. In such settings, the rapid expansion of the urban area combined with poor or absent urban water governance contributes to high levels of both informal arrangements for water access and land-use change. Instead of a single, formal, state-administered system, these cities host multiple water service delivery models, many of which depend on a diverse range of informal providers sourcing water outside centralized piped networks (Ahlers et al. 2014). These include water tankers, private domestic wells, water kiosks, and various types of vendors selling small (p. 259) volumes of water. These pluralistic modes of provisioning water alter water budgets between the agricultural and urban sectors in ways that are not accounted for in conventional water allocation plans.

Hydrological Literacy

We propose that poor hydrological and technological literacy enables unintended allocation. By hydrological (il)literacy, we refer to a combination of effects: a lack of core hydraulic and hydrological expertise; weak interdisciplinary knowledge of how to include economics, people, and nature in technological decisions; limited scholarly knowledge of the epistemic debates by which certain technical decisions are favored; a preference for existing practices and a disinclination to develop iterative, adaptive designs; and a failure to recognize and adapt the learning and knowledge systems in which engineering and engineers find themselves (e.g., leading to decisions on how water infrastructure should be approached as a question of system architecture).

We argue that hydrological literacy arises both within water sectors and among key external actors and institutions that engage the sector. Regarding the latter, municipal and rural planners and decision-makers often fail (perhaps understandably) to consider the potential impacts of policy on water resource availability. There is therefore a disconnection between planning and water cycle outcomes. We think this is particularly true for land-use planning.

Yet a lack of hydrological reflective thinking and capability is also found within the water sector. We distinguish two main factors. First is the limitation imposed by inadequate human and financial resources. For example, irrigation engineering is increasingly undermined by insufficient training and replacement of retiring staff. Second is the epistemic and ontological status of approaches to water management. By this, we mean the extent to which current widely accepted and unquestioned practices of water management erode our ability to engage with non-sanctioned topics and phenomena. An example is how the Dublin Principle of “water as an economic good,” articulated by water experts in the run-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, created a global move toward markets. This shift occurred despite concerns that pricing water may not be practicable in certain river basins (Molle and Berkoff 2007; van Koppen et al. 2007) and that, where markets could not function, other drivers of allocation unintentionally operated. For example, in Tanzania, the physical dimensions of irrigation intakes steered water shares.

Low water literacy is compounded by the inherent difficulties of tracing water flows—a challenge even for hydrologists—and the widespread lack of data. Efforts to modernize and improve the efficiency of irrigated agriculture in Spain through large-scale investment, for example, have not resulted in significant water savings and have brought about the unintended consequence of higher energy use (Lopez-Gunn et al. 2012). Thus, unintended allocation is prevalent where the interconnections among wider developments in river basins—agricultural, urban, or industrial—are not examined in terms of their connections to the water cycle.

(p. 260) Separating and Isolating Cause and Effect

Unintended allocation is also enabled by the temporal and spatial separation of cause and effect, combined with multiple trends operating simultaneously in river basins undergoing ever greater levels of both water demand and water sourcing. This indistinctness is aided by the complexity of water flow pathways being altered by concurrent policies and activities, which affect an already complicated natural water cycle. For example, this traceability gap between the intervention and changes in water share is exacerbated when local water demands across a basin are met by a combination of groundwater, surface water flows, stored water, soil water, and rainwater harvesting. Together, these local sources of demand and supply express themselves at the basin level as cumulative “sector segments” of the total pie of water allocation. But identifying and isolating the impacts of one allocation intervention alone is made more difficult in such circumstances.

Significance and Implications for Theory and Policy

Unintended water allocation has significant implications for river basin planning because it causes water to move between users in ways not envisaged by resource planners. River basin allocation planning is predicated on the assumption that water can be controlled through institutional mechanisms and infrastructure. Yet, unintended allocation, which by its very definition is often hidden and poorly accounted for, can give rise to volumetrically significant changes to water shares.

We offer a few insights for developing theory and policy. First, the interaction of the three influences on water allocation (power/politics, intended allocation, and unintended allocation) as depicted in figure 11.1 will require further conceptual development. We surmise that work on these three influences will be best informed by comparative studies conducted across river basins where expressions of the influences differ. For example, research in UK rivers will most likely see institutional mechanisms predominate, while water allocation in India is more likely to be characterized as shaped by power and politics plus unintended allocation.

Second, experts on water and related fields should seek to understand and engender greater awareness of the systemic links between activities external and internal to water sectors. This will require further research. Greater awareness may not be easy to come by; the distinctive characteristic of unintended allocation is that it arises within contexts that negate knowledge, learning, and deliberation. The latter caution notwithstanding, we hypothesize that if and when unintended allocation is more clearly recognized, political actors, both state and nonstate, will start to bear down more explicitly on this type of water distribution. In figure 11.2, we redraw figure 11.1 as circles denoting the effective influence of each of the three sources of water allocation and suggest that “politics and (p. 261) power” will gravitate toward forms of unintended allocation to shape and reshape privilege. As unintended allocations come more sharply into focus, it will also be necessary to recognize the various obscurities and obfuscations through which political elites seek to hide and yet control unintended allocation.

Unintended Water AllocationGaining Share from Indirect Action and InactionClick to view larger

Figure 11.2 Future attraction of politics and power toward unintended allocation

A Future Research Agenda

This chapter has introduced the concept of unintended water allocation and provides a theoretical foundation on which to build a future research agenda. By exploring the different framings of allocation, the chapter showed that there is a gap in the literature on the drivers of changing water share that cannot be addressed using conventional theories of water allocation stressing institutional mechanisms or those applying concepts related to power. Instead, this chapter has highlighted various modes of unintended allocation and hinted at the conditions that are likely required to support or render significant this form of water allocation.

We have hesitated from estimating the volumetric significance of unintended allocation, as this will be site-specific and require monitoring systems that are currently absent (one of the conditions that gives rise to unintended allocation). Furthermore, there may be instances where even though at an annual basin level the total quantities might be small, the consequences of unintended allocation might be very acute at a local scale and at “boundary” interfaces. Recognizing these “pinch points,” we believe that closing basins experiencing high levels of urban growth and rapid technological change will require a significant governance effort to understand, accommodate, and possibly counter unintended allocation. This effect is likely to be exacerbated by climate change in two ways. First, increased climate variability is likely to make the untangling (p. 262) of unintended allocation more challenging for researchers and policymakers. Second, river basin interventions aimed at adaptation increase the scope for modes of unintended allocation to take place.

A preliminary discussion of these ideas at the IWRA World Water Congress in 2015 yielded a significant number of possible case studies in different geographies and having different effects on water availability. Such possibilities range from the impacts of agricultural modernization in Spain and countries where efforts to raise irrigation efficiency are beginning to result in investment in modern irrigation systems to the impacts of water accounting and allocation regulation in Canada. The variety of cases anecdotally presented suggests a variety of factors and metrics that could be used to construct a typology of unintended allocation (e.g., spatial and temporal distances from intervention to effect; impacts on water quantity, quality, and timing; and the overt level of “intention”). Furthermore, Congress delegates distinguished between forms of unintended allocation that had been informally acknowledged by basin planners and those having completely unexpected impacts on water shares. An initial stage for further research would be to compile cases studies and compare their differences and similarities, in order to provide additional information on likely forms of unintended allocation, the conditions under which they occur, and their volumetric and timing significances.

Concluding, we hypothesize that as water sufficiency diminishes and river basins close, the exigent attention paid to all determinants of water allocation will increase. Treating only overt water allocation impositions (e.g., pricing and water rights) while omitting subtle influences from unintended allocation is likely to result in ineffective applications of formal water allocation tools. Furthermore, climate change-induced water variability only adds to the pressure to get this research and policy agenda right, because it will be under dynamic and changing hydrological conditions that additional opportunities to grab water share will covertly arise.


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                                                                                                                                  (1.) Conceptual development of unintended allocation was greatly enhanced through a special session of the IWRA World Water Congress in 2015. This chapter benefits from the input of the audience to this session, particularly the anecdotal examples used to illustrate different forms of allocation.

                                                                                                                                  (2.) Urbanization also drives direct, intentional allocation between sectors, for example, through bulk surface water facilitated by institutional mechanisms.

                                                                                                                                  (3.) Peri-urban spaces are transitional zones at the leading edge of cities, often lying outside the administrative urban boundary. They are characterized by their highly dynamic, heterogeneous nature in the space between the rural and urban spheres.