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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - IRI THESys

Water Policy

Which rules define how we deal with water? Who lays down those rules? Who enforces and effectuates them? And how are these issues currently changing in Europe? Andreas Thiel, Guest Professor of Environmental Governance, Einstein Junior Fellow and IRI THESys member, is researching the transformation of water and marine governance from an agricultural and institutional economics’ point of view through the case studies Germany, Spain and Portugal.

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Foto: Ines Buchmann

“I´m interested in how a society organizes its relationship to and utilization of the natural environment”, says Prof. Andreas Thiel. Prof. Thiel has been the leader of the project “TransReScale” for the last two years, in which he takes into account the state’s regulatory role in combination with the actors whose existence and actions create such organization forms in the first place.

Institutional analysis understands governmental forms of organization first of all as contracts and laws which regulate; in the context of water and marine governance, examples would be the monitoring of water quality or measures against climate change. “Depending on the constellation, existing governance structures have to be changed to develop new sets of regulations – and then, we have to look if these rules work,” says Prof. Thiel, an economist and spatial planner by training.


The Elbe in Thuringia cannot be separated from the Wadden Sea in Schleswig-Holstein

Water resources present a special challenge to administrative organizations. Water doesn´t remain within a country’s borders, but rather flows either as ground water that is located invisible underground or interconnects as surface water over long distances; it must nevertheless be coordinated and managed.
The Elbe for example is located in ten German federal states, all of which have a say in its management. “The dykes here are often different heights, which leads to visible breaks in the landscape where the river crosses a state border,” says Thiel. “But it is more problematic when states on the Elbe basin in which the chemical industry is important don´t care about Schleswig-Holstein´s problems in the Wadden Sea. These processes are inextricably linked and have to be considered.” That´s one of the reasons why in recent years new regulations have been put in place with the intention of increasing coordination and creating overarching management units between the states for the purpose of interstate exchange and mutual coordination. Such statutory provisions come from the European Commission in the form of European legislation frameworks.


National resource management is strongly affected by traditional conflicts

Today 70-80% of the environmental legislation is made at European level and passed down to member states; examples include the 2002 Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the 2009 Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). Such legislative frameworks establish a new type of regulation within Europe that significantly change administrative structures, processes of coordination, planning and implementation.  

“The interesting thing is that the European Commission dictates the same guidelines and models of organization for each member state although their problems and conflicts are extremely different,” says Thiel. For example, while we have enough available water in Germany and struggle instead especially with pollution problems, the problem of water scarcity in Spain and Portugal is dominant, in addition to pollution problems.

Against this backdrop, Andreas Thiel considers which impacts both the type of water-related conflicts and the different political structures (i.e. central state vs. federal state) have on the organization of the three countries’ resource management.