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Earth System Governance Challenges:
Local Conceptualization of Water Governance and Realm of Possible Actions in Saudi Arabia

Andy Spiess

GCC Network for Drylands Research and Development (NDRD)
University of Hamburg, Department of Economics and Policy, Center for International Relations
e-mail: spiess (at)


Water management policies evolve and transform over time in response to drivers of change, such as climate variability, demographic trends and as a consequence of socio-economic advances. Yet the present-day magnitude and intensity of these drivers mean adaptation procedures and risk management practices for the water sector must occur at an increasing pace in order to avoid ecosystem collapse or water crises. Nonetheless, policies that implicitly subsidize or support a wasteful and environmentally destructive use of resources are still pervasive in all of the Arab Gulf states, while noteworthy environmental improvements still face formidable political and institutional constraints to the implementation of the necessary far reaching and multisectoral approach. The situation is further aggravated by typical institutional weaknesses, such as multiplication, overlap and low level of integration of various state agencies, absence of effective coordination and participatory decision making processes, lack of collaboration and partnerships, short-sighted budgetary planning, dysfunctional legal frameworks, lack of well-defined national research strategies as well as inadequate institutional capacity building and enabled society.

While global environmental change is inducing major transformations with far reaching implications for the existing disequilibria in the water-energy-food-environment interface, international discourse often exerts a strong depoliticizing effect by focusing on neutral concepts, which avoid controversies that need to be developed and properly addressed. While effective water governance in theory must advance participation in the processes for deciding how water is used; promote innovation and learning among stakeholders, as well as foster adaptation to changes in water availability, the regional context matters and determines the nuances in local conceptualization of water governance as well as the realm of possible actions.

In view of the fact that research on water governance contributes to the emerging field of adaptive environmental governance and our understanding of how social change occurs, this paper will identify some of the major shortcomings within the special context of the Saudi Arabian socio-cultural environment in light of formulating suggestions for more effective water policies in order to respond to uncertainty and increasing scarcity. Adaptive capacity is more than a matter of installing new technologies, but involves the existence of processes and frameworks that enable solutions to be identified and implemented as specific constraints arise and context change. In other words it eventually requires transforming society and its value systems. Conclusions highlight that policy recommendations for mitigating environmental threats are currently conceptualized around the assumption that Western-derived standards of conduct be adopted in non-Western politico-cultural contexts and will therefore will have a tendency to be ineffective.


Climate Change, Adaptive Capacity, Institutional Framework, Water Policy, Saudi Arabia

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Paper presented at the "Climate Change and Desertification - Monitoring, Modeling and Forecasting - Wengen Workshop on Global Change Research - Edition 2007", Wengen, Switzerland, September 10-13, 2007