Managing Drought and Water Scarcity in Federal Political Systems

Dustin E. Garrick, Lucia De Stefano, and Daniel Connell CONTENTS


During the summer of 2015, droughts and water shortages affected federal countries ranging from Australia, Brazil, and Canada to the United States, South Africa, and India. Drought involves coordination challenges in federal political systems where national and subnational governments each play a critical role. By blurring key roles and responsibilities, droughts create stress tests for transboundary water governance, requiring intergovernmental coordination between states (known as horizontal coordination) and multilevel coordination between states and national governments (known as vertical coordination). These governance challenges increase the importance of conflict resolution and other institutional mechanisms to share risks and enhance resilience to severe, sustained drought events.

According to the Forum of Federations, 25 countries have a federal political system, including many of the oldest federations, Australia, Canada, and the United States, with large geographic territories facing diverse challenges related to drought. Democratization has also brought federalism to countries with a long history of centralized governance, such as Spain and Ethiopia, where droughts are a recurrent feature of the hydroclimatology. Federations, therefore, vary in their policy approaches and institutional structures, particularly in the level of centralization of key governance tasks, and how this varies according to the duration, intensity, and severity of droughts.

In this context, sharing knowledge, experiences, and best practices developed across a spectrum of federal countries is a powerful way to build understanding and capacity to address present and future challenges posed by droughts and other extreme climate events. This chapter aims to advance our understanding of the factors and institutions influencing cooperation, conflict resolution, and capacity to adapt to drought and water scarcity in federations.

To do so, we develop case studies of drought management in federal political systems by addressing the following questions:

  • • What is the (recent) history of droughts in the country and its major river basins?
  • • What are the major sources of tensions and disputes between states, between states and the national government, and between the different interests within the basin?
  • • What are the institutional mechanisms available for responding to these tensions and coordination challenges?
  • • What are the lessons learned about barriers, enabling conditions, and strategies for cooperation and conflict resolution during drought?

Australia, Spain, and the United States are used to illustrate the diversity of approaches to address the coordination challenges arising during droughts. The three countries are prone to droughts. However, the countries vary in their federal system of water governance. On one end of the spectrum, Spain has a relatively centralized approach to water governance and drought planning. On the other end of the spectrum, the United States has a relatively decentralized system of water governance and drought planning concentrated at the state level, until more recent efforts were undertaken to strengthen national programs. Australia represents a mixed approach involving strong state and national roles. Therefore, this group of cases offers insights about the challenges and responses associated with droughts in federal political systems.

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