Integrated water resources management approaches have been developed worldwide to improve water resources management practices. There are however, lingering issues with reference to the applicability of its integrated principles, especially when shifting from policy to practice (action). By conducting an exploratory case study in the Sao Paulo State, Brazil, this paper explores different stakeholders' perspectives regarding the water policy (Water Act of 1991). Through analysing institutional and water governance arrangements, the research assesses if current water policy is being translated into practice. Analysis suggests that the water policy and proposed principles are aligned with international approaches for water resources management. However, results also indicate that the principles by themselves are not sufficient to guarantee successful practice of a decentralised, participatory and integrated water resources management system. In a complex water management system, such as the one in the Sao Paulo State, coordination among different government levels and sectors is considered to be a key element to improve the likelihood of water policy implementation.

Introduction

Water management paradigms have changed considerably over time. Traditional approaches were essentially single-sector (water) oriented (Hooper, 2003). Recently, the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM)1 approach has been adopted internationally, both in developed and developing countries (Petit & Baron, 2009; Araral, 2010; Jønch-Clausen & Fugl, 2010; Gallego-Ayala, 2013; Veiga & Magrini, 2013). Countries such as Mexico, Australia, Spain and South Africa (Tian & Meyer, 2009), the USA, Canada, New Zealand (World Meteorological Organization (WMO), 2009), and Brazil (Gutierrez, 2010) have revised and/or enacted new national water policies and laws using integration as a key principle.

The IWRM approach is generally based on four central ideas: decentralisation, market incentives, river basin planning and participation (Abers & Keck, 2013). According to Jønch-Clausen & Fugl (2010), it should encompass integration of the natural system (e.g. quantity and quality, and surface and groundwater). Most importantly, integration should involve a holistic institutional approach (e.g. cross-sectoral integration, and stakeholder involvement across different levels), which is crucial for successful implementation of IWRM (Grigg, 2008; Jønch-Clausen & Fugl, 2010; Carmona et al., 2011).

Better understanding of the institutional and governance arrangements, and working rules (policies, laws and systems) that are used to determine roles and responsibilities of organisations (Ostrom, 1990), is fundamental. Especially because institutional barriers make it difficult for the implementation and practice of IWRM (Grigg, 2008). Governance arrangements should involve both structure and processes at different levels and among different sectors, stakeholders and jurisdictions (Hooper, 2006).

Scholars worldwide have been arguing the applicability of integrated principles, as they have concluded that shifting from policy to practice (action) has been problematic (Jeffrey & Gearey, 2006; Petit & Baron, 2009; Mitchell, 2011). Recent research conducted by Gallego-Ayala (2013) indicates institutional studies were considered as one of the dominant research topics in the IWRM field, reinforcing its importance. Similarly, scholars have been seeking more institutional studies in the water sector (Craps, 2003; Saleth, 2004; Videira et al., 2006,Jønch-Clausen & Fugl, 2010; Pahl-Wostl & Kranz, 2010).

To better understand the key issues related to implementation of IWRM, with particular relevance to institutional and governance arrangements, and the difficulties experienced in shifting from policy to practice, an exploratory case study was carried out in the Sao Paulo State, Brazil. This paper rationalises water governance arrangements in the State, by asking the following question: ‘Are key aspects of current water policy being translated into practice?’ It explores the key structure proposed by the water policy and compares it with the current practices, using a number of different stakeholders' perspectives to complement the discussion.

To answer the proposed research question the paper is organised into the following sections. Section 2 presents the methodology applied. Section 3 contextualises institutions and water governance arrangements in the Sao Paulo State according to the water policy. Section 4 reflects the result and discussion and highlights participants' perspectives regarding key water policy aspects and their relation to the institutional and water governance arrangements in practice. Alternatives to help reduce the gap between policy and practice are also proposed and discussed. To conclude, Section 5 reflects brief conclusions.

Methodology

The research was carried out in Sao Paulo State, Brazil, which provided in-depth learning with regard to the complex and multi-layered water management system (Punch, 2005; Leedy & Ormrod, 2009). Qualitative data was used and in-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted. Moreover, documents such as scientific articles, government reports and other publications were reviewed. Semi-structured interviews were chosen since the nature of the research question demanded that respondents had the flexibility to explain their positions (Neuman, 2006) and because it is an effective way of accessing participants' perception, meanings and definitions (Punch, 2005).

Two different sampling strategies were applied for the interviews. A purposive sample was initially used. Essentially the investigation required participants with good knowledge of the State Water Policy, familiarity with water-related aspects and direct involvement with water resources management and river basin committees. Invitations to participate in the interviews were sent by e-mail to the president, vice president and executive secretary of river basin committees and also to key water resources specialists involved with river basin plans development. To follow, a snowball technique was applied to increase the number of participants. At the close of the sampling study, 26 interviews were conducted with both government and non-government representatives.

To identify the key aspects of the policy and to focus on the research question presented in this paper, participants were asked to identify positive aspects and strong focus areas of the water policy.

NVivo software (version 10) was used to analyse the qualitative questions asked during the interview, which were firstly coded by a process of reading through participants' responses. This initial phase of the coding process involved highlighting key aspects of the Water Act of 1991 as suggested by participants, which assisted in condensing data and facilitated the findings. Codes were then reviewed to validate key concepts that appeared multiple times and similar themes were clustered and grouped under broader categories through consideration of identified patterns.

Finally, to explore if key water policy aspects are being translated into practice, the aspects mentioned by participants were compared against the institutional and water governance arrangements in practice in the Sao Paulo State. Results and remarks from the interview are used throughout this paper to exemplify issues under discussion.

Water resources management system in Brazil

Brazil has three administrative levels: local (city councils), state and federal. In each level, there is a sectoral structure of secretariats (in states and local) and ministries (in federal) who are responsible for different issues; for example: energy, water, agriculture and tourism (Tarqui & Silva, 2004; Gutierrez, 2010). Notably, only the state and national levels2 have constitutional rights for water resource management (Carvalho & Magrini, 2006; Veiga & Magrini, 2013). In conjunction with this, the constitution left the territorial management to be administered almost entirely at local level (Porto & Porto, 2008); specifically the control of water supply and sanitation companies (Braga et al., 2008).

Historically, water management in Brazil has been centralised, tending to favour certain sectors of the economy, such as hydroelectricity (Engle & Lemos, 2010). In 1997 the National Water Act introduced a new policy approach, based on principles of integration, decentralisation, and public participation (Engle et al., 2006; Gutierrez, 2010).

The water policy introduced by most Brazilian states in the past two decades sought to ensure water availability for current and future generations and should occur through the implementation of management instruments, namely water basin plans, water framing, information systems, water use permits, and water charging. They are all structurally similar to each other and to the National Water Act of 1997.

The National Water Resources Management System is a political and institutional mechanism that defines the form of participation of stakeholders in water policy implementation. It creates consultative and deliberative collegiate bodies with government and non-government representatives. Representation is among national, state and local governments (these three categories cover up to 50% of representation) and civil society entities that act in the basin and users of the water (these two categories cover at least 50%). Additionally, it defines responsibilities for a variety of institutions at differing levels of government and sectors. Schematically, the system is structured as in Figure 1.
Fig. 1.

National system for water resources management in Brazil (adapted from Ministério de Meio Ambiente, n.d.).

Fig. 1.

National system for water resources management in Brazil (adapted from Ministério de Meio Ambiente, n.d.).

The State and National councils are composed of government and non-government representatives. Each council has responsibility to arbitrate disputes, coordinate the relations between various levels, and plan, regulate and control water use and preservation. The ministries and secretariats, in both federal and state government, respectively, are responsible for policy formulating and establishing plans and programmes. The state and national management agencies are regulatory agencies with administrative, financial and structural functions (Godoy, 2007). The river basin committees set priorities for water management, facilitate conflict resolution, approve the river basin plans and design and implement charging systems (Carvalho & Magrini, 2006; Abers & Keck, 2011; Kirchhoff et al., 2012). Finally, the water agencies manage the funds from charging systems and provide technical and administrative support to the decision-making process (Godoy, 2007).

Institutional and water governance arrangements within the Water Act of 1991

The Sao Paulo State (Figure 2), located in the southeast region of Brazil, enacted its act in 1991 (Water Act of 1991), before other states and even before the federation. It has the largest population (about 40 million), industrial complex, and economic production in the country (Carvalho & Magrini, 2006).
Fig. 2.

Sao Paulo State, Brazil (adapted from Lorenzeto de Abreu, 2006).

Fig. 2.

Sao Paulo State, Brazil (adapted from Lorenzeto de Abreu, 2006).

To address the needs of 645 city councils, the Water Act of 1991 divided the Sao Paulo State into 22 river basin units and proposed a participatory water resources management system. For consistency, the Water Resources Management System defined forms of participation for different entities and institutions. It created the State Water Resources Council and river basin committees, defined their composition and determined their responsibilities and competences. Additionally, it regulated competences for other direct and indirect government management agencies responsible for water resources management in the State.

Both the State council and the river basin committees are consultative and deliberative collegiate bodies composed of government and non-government representatives. They are different from the systems in other states and the national system, as these collegiate bodies in Sao Paulo comprise an equal number of representatives from the civil society, local government (city council) and state government.

At the state level there are two major agencies directly responsible for water resource management: Water and Energy Agency (DAEE) and Environmental Agency (Cetesb). The former is currently linked to the Sanitation and Water Resources Secretary, which is responsible for quantitative water aspects, especially the issuance of water use permits. The latter, associated with the Environment Secretary, is responsible for qualitative aspects of water related specifically to protection and conservation.

Findings and discussion

The interviews were conducted with 26 key water-related experts between September and December of 2013. Of these, 16 (62%) represented government stakeholders and 10 (38%) non-government stakeholders. Government officials included representatives from public research institutes, local government (city councils) and state government entities. Non-government participants included water resources management specialists and scientists (universities) and representatives from civil society entities (professional associations and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs)).

Overall, participants are or have previously been a river basin committee member (85%) and have more than 10 years' experience in water resources management (77%). The majority considered themselves experts in water resources (85%) and environmental issues (81%), with a smaller number represented in urban planning (38%) and sanitation (27%).

Key aspects of the Water Act of 1991 (Water Policy)

When participants were asked if they were familiar with the Sao Paulo State Water Policy (Water Act of 1991), all 26 (100%) answered ‘Yes’, reinforcing participants' selection. The idea being that the sample design selected participants that would provide better information about the topic under investigation (Leedy & Ormrod, 2009), with consideration of their experience of the central phenomenon (Marshall, 1996).

Participants positively supported the Water Act of 1991 and the respective water policy in terms of its intended objectives, design and structure, which highlights the importance of the policy as a guideline in the Brazilian context, as it was enacted before other states' policies and even before the National Water Act of 1997.

Participants were also asked to identify positive elements of the policy. All 26 participants (100%) pointed out positive elements of the policy. Answers were categorised (Table 1) through pattern matching: they were firstly coded, then themes emerged from data, leading to main categories.

Table 1.

Positive elements of the Sao Paulo State Water Policy*.

Categories Themes Number of comments** Number of comments by category*** 
State Water Resources Fund Established the State Water Resources Fund (FEHIDRO) 2 (3%) 2 (3%) 
Types of Participation Included local (municipal) aspects 3 (4%) 3 (4%) 
Policy Guidelines Highlighted the importance of laws for water sources protection 2 (3%) 6 (8%) 
Established guidelines for water management in the State 4 (5%) 
Policy Instruments Established the Water Policy management instruments 10 (13%) 10 (13%) 
Integrated Water Management System Established the Integrated Water Management System 1 (1%) 17 (23%) 
Reorganisation of the institutional system 2 (3%) 
Established Water Basin Committees 6 (8%) 
Define a tripartite composition for the Water Basin Committees (state, local and civil society) 8 (11%) 
Policy Principles Proposed a decentralised management 7 (9%) 37 (49%) 
Proposed an integrated management 7 (9%) 
Defined the Water Basin as the territorial unit for water planning and management 8 (11%) 
Proposed a participative management 15 (20%) 
Total 75 (100%) 75 (100%) 
Categories Themes Number of comments** Number of comments by category*** 
State Water Resources Fund Established the State Water Resources Fund (FEHIDRO) 2 (3%) 2 (3%) 
Types of Participation Included local (municipal) aspects 3 (4%) 3 (4%) 
Policy Guidelines Highlighted the importance of laws for water sources protection 2 (3%) 6 (8%) 
Established guidelines for water management in the State 4 (5%) 
Policy Instruments Established the Water Policy management instruments 10 (13%) 10 (13%) 
Integrated Water Management System Established the Integrated Water Management System 1 (1%) 17 (23%) 
Reorganisation of the institutional system 2 (3%) 
Established Water Basin Committees 6 (8%) 
Define a tripartite composition for the Water Basin Committees (state, local and civil society) 8 (11%) 
Policy Principles Proposed a decentralised management 7 (9%) 37 (49%) 
Proposed an integrated management 7 (9%) 
Defined the Water Basin as the territorial unit for water planning and management 8 (11%) 
Proposed a participative management 15 (20%) 
Total 75 (100%) 75 (100%) 

*Results considering responses from 26 key water-related experts interviewed.

**Numbers in parentheses represent percentages from the total number of comments.

***Numbers in parentheses represent percentages from the total number of comments by category.

According to the participants' perspective, policy principle was the most cited category, representing almost half of the comments provided (49%). The creation of the Integrated Water Management System, especially the river basin committees, was the second highest category, with 23% of comments. They were followed by the following categories: policy instruments (13%), policy guidelines (8%), types of participation (4%) and state water resources fund (3%).

One of the most innovative aspects of the policy, differing from previous water management approaches, was the introduction of the policy principles, combined with the creation of new institutions. For this reason, three major themes of the policy principle category were selected, those being, decentralisation, participation, and integration, which emerged during the data analysis process, and are discussed in detail below.

Decentralisation

The Water Act of 1991 proposed the adoption of river basins as territorial management units, which introduced a new decision level in the field of water resources management. These river basin units materialised the decentralisation principle and represent the regionalisation of management and the decision-making process.

Seven participants (27%) emphasised the importance of decentralisation under the new policy approach. For example, Participant 8 voiced the principle's importance while stating that it was ‘not only physical decentralisation but also of management’. It empowered management at lower levels, which before was completely ‘centralised in the capital’ (Participant 8). Participant 4 reinforced this while mentioning that ‘We have a country that was built around a lot of centralisation.’

Decentralisation can be considered a sound way to bring decisions closer to those who affect or are affected by decisions, as it empowers lower levels. The Water Act of 1991, together with the river basin units proposed that the river basin committees, which provide the materialisation of another principle (participation), represent both government and non-government stakeholders (Porto & Porto, 2008; Gutierrez, 2010).

Participation

The participation principle was the most mentioned positive aspect of the policy and was cited by 15 participants (or almost 60%). Participant 22 emphasised that ‘the big difference to the Water Code of 1934 was the participatory process'. Participants underlined the importance of the civil society participation, not only in the discussion, ‘but more important, in the decisions' (Participant 4). They also highlighted the inclusion of other segments (sectors) to the management of a public good, which was previously just under the water sector management, as per the comment below:

‘Now water resources management includes participation of various segments, enabling a discussion, a more open view’ (Participant 15).

This situation helped to increase interface among sectors, unifying ‘forces, which could be sometimes politically antagonistic’ (Participant 23).

In addition, participants highlighted the importance of the inclusion of local aspects through the participation of the city councils. Participant 1 acknowledged that ‘the city council knows what is needed, the problems and difficulties …’. The inclusion of the city councils is particularly important, as many issues that have impact on water are currently exclusively being managed by local governments, for example, the territorial management.

Participation provided a twist in the way the water sector is being managed and its share of responsibilities. The participation of the civil society, other sectors and the city councils in the river basin committees represents an opportunity for the involvement of a variety of actors that can contribute in the water-related discussion. This is extremely important especially knowing that water-related decisions affect and can also be affected by other sectors, such as energy, agriculture, tourism, development, and health.

Integration

The principle of integration was cited by seven participants (27%) as important under the new water resources management system. This aspect was highlighted by Participant 22: ‘… integration considering the whole system, institutional integration’. Scholars have concluded that water must be integrated into the general economic development planning processes and should encompass a coordinated management within other sectoral policies (Gutierrez, 2010; Jønch-Clausen & Fugl, 2010). Participant 20 similarly highlighted the importance of the integration principle, as per the comment below:

‘The policy was a milestone because it could put in the form of law principles that were being discussed about a decade, such as decentralisation, participation and integration with other public policies, I mean, long before the discussion of the word transversally, it already consecrated the integrated system’ (Participant 20).

The policy proposed natural and institution integration, as it proposed the creation of river basin committees (collegiate bodies) and included a variety of stakeholders from different government levels and sectors and the civil society under water discussion and management. This is important progress, considering that previous water resources management focused on quantitative and qualitative aspects of water and was mostly conducted by two government institutions at a state level (DAEE and Cetesb).

According to participants, the principles of decentralisation, participation and integration are the most important aspects of the Water Act of 1991. These findings support results from previous studies, where the water policy in Brazil was considered to be aligned with some international IWRM ideas (Silva, 2008).

Institutional and water governance arrangements in practice

While the water policy was considered well designed and up-to-date under the international scenario, the principles by themselves cannot guarantee changes in the way the system functions in practice. The policy can be considered long on principles but short on enforceable legal instruments (Abers & Keck, 2013). For this reason, a comparison between the above-mentioned key water policy principles (decentralisation, participation and integration) and the institutional and water governance arrangements in practice was conducted.

Centralisation vs decentralisation

Over the last 20 years, since the establishment of the water policy and proposition for decentralisation of the river basin units, many barriers have been identified in practices, which influence effective transitions from a centralised system to a decentralised system.

As anticipated by Luchini (2000), the adoption of river basin units and creation of river basin committees require devolution of power by public agencies. However, an institutional change may take many decades, as resistance to transfer power, information and decision usually occur (Charbit, 2011). Rocha (1998) concluded that there is permanent tension between an old system (centralised and compartmentalised) and a new system (decentralised and integrated), as agencies and entities resist relinquishing power. After almost 17 years, Rocha's findings are still current, as in practice, a change in institutional behaviour has not happened. Instead there is a superposition of both systems (Tarqui & Silva, 2004).

The water policy was designed considering the French model, but it did not take into consideration that France is a country with strong administrative decentralisation (Tarqui & Silva, 2004). In other words, decentralisation in a unitary system like France means something quite different than in a federal system like Brazil, where government units have overlapping responsibilities. In Brazil centralised decisions compete with, but do not fully override, decentralised ones.

In the Sao Paulo State, responsibilities for water resources management are shared among different levels and sectors of government. Some capacities are assigned to only one level, others to more than one, leading to concurrent jurisdictions and confusion regarding roles and responsibilities (Oliveira, 2007). Relations between levels and sectors in Brazil are characterised by conflicts and domain overlap (Tarqui & Silva, 2004). Participant 20 agreed with this and highlighted that:

‘There is division of competences, but it is tenuous, the limits are not absolute’ (Participant 20).

In Brazil the same territory can be managed by different government levels and sectors. This implies a superposition of areas for planning purposes (Bohn et al., 2008), where the same river basin can have rivers administrated by more than one State and by the Union (Braga et al., 2008).

An example of multi-jurisdictional responsibilities in a municipal area in the Sao Paulo State, is where one river basin overlaps and is administered at a state and federal level, with consideration that these river basin units have ‘not yet been incorporated in practice’ (Participant 11).

The existence of jurisdictional overlaps endorses the complexity the water resources management field operates under, where responsibilities are shared amongst different government levels and sectors. Additionally, Participant 12 noted that, ‘It does not help having various committees that are deliberative, if there is no hierarchy between these deliberations. Then you have a competition of processes.'

In theory, the idea of bringing together government, private sectors and civil society actors is to operationalise the notion of IWRM, in practice however, they are unable to carry out their tasks (Abers & Keck, 2013). The river basin units represent tentative decentralisation of power and decisions. In practice, it has created obstacles, as river basin units do not coincide with other sectors' divisions, most commonly at an administrative level in Brazil (local and states). There is urgent need for discussions relevant to identifying how to, in practice, integrate river basin committees' decisions and deliberations with other administrative divisions.

Fragmentation vs participation and integration

Another important aspect under IWRM is to promote integration among levels and sectors and encourage participation of different stakeholder groups. Government agencies in the Sao Paulo State were designed with the idea of compartmentalisation and specialisation of departments, with limited or no integration. In this sense, an adjustment to the policy for an integrated approach did not occur with the changes in institutional behaviour.

Abers & Keck (2013) concluded that even if legislation endows river basin committees with formal authority, it does not necessarily happen in practice. Additionally, Braga et al. (2008) mentioned that usually states lacked the institutional apparatus compatible with requirements of complex management systems.

In this sense, the arrangements in the Sao Paulo State can be considered fragmented, both between government levels (vertical fragmentation) and within government sectors (horizontal fragmentation). Vertical fragmentation, where agencies at different levels share responsibility for a resource (WMO, 2009; Nielsen et al., 2013), is exemplified at the state level by there being one agency responsible for issuing water permits while at the local level a number of agencies are responsible for water supply and sanitation. On top of that, there are river basin committees, in an intermediate management level, with deliberative power-making decisions related to water.

Water management and territorial management exemplify horizontal fragmentation, referring to the division of responsibility within one government level (WMO, 2009; Nielsen et al., 2013). Participants 9, 11, 12, 21 and 25 highlighted the fragmentation between government departments. Participant 12 summarised this situation while stating that under current institutional arrangements, ‘one system diminishes the other, they do not align … And the trend is to have a sectoral view of water protection. We cannot think of water resources disassociated from land management.’

A better understanding of horizontal fragmentation is important, as water management challenges lie outside the water sphere (Edelenbos & Teisman, 2013; López-Gunn et al., 2013). This is mainly because different kinds of activities can affect the hydrological systems, such as: agriculture, industry, economy, deforestation and mining (WMO, 2009; Nesheim et al., 2010; Nielsen et al., 2013); and water plays a central role in other sectors' development (Jeffrey & Gearey, 2006).

Besides the vertical and horizontal fragmentations, another important issue that requires urgent discussion in the Sao Paulo State is the existence of an intra-sector (water) fragmentation. The secretaries and agencies dealing with quantitative and qualitative water aspects are separated. See the comments below:

‘You have water quality being addressed in one secretariat and quantity in other’ (Participant 25).

‘I believe there is a competition between the environment and water resources departments’ (Participant 11).

Under this arrangement, linkages between agencies rely fundamentally on collaboration by stakeholders from these institutions but not on regulations and laws. The river basin committee plays an important role, as it is the arena where both agencies can negotiate. Committees are located in a lower level of the institutional arrangement and as discussed above still have limited deliberative power in practice. Molle & Hoanh (2011) anticipated that integration should be done through a concentration of all water-related issues and powers under the same Ministry, or in this case, secretariat, allowing sectoral conflicts to be internalised reducing horizontal fragmentation.

International evidence demonstrates that fragmentation between levels and sectors represents an important challenge for integrated management (WMO, 2009; Nielsen et al., 2013) and for effective implementation of the water policy reforms (Tankha & Fuller, 2010). There is no doubt that the current institutional and water governance arrangements in the Sao Paulo State enhance fragmentation, and do not align with the principles proposed by the Water Act of 1991.

Despite the fact that the current water policy is based on principles of decentralisation, integration and participation, the situation in practice is quite different. A gap between policy and practice was observed in the Sao Paulo State which limits the achievements of water policy objectives and policy implementation.

Coordination as a key aspect under institutional and water governance complexity

Complexity is an embedded characteristic of water resources management systems. Pollard & du Toit (2011) previously highlighted that governance is about the management of complex, dynamic and unpredictable systems. Edelenbos & Teisman (2013) complemented this idea by arguing that water governance is about achieving effective interaction between levels. The attempt to form a decentralised, participative and integrated water management system enhances complexity as a higher number of participants, levels and sectors are included under the water discussion.

In order to address the problems discussed in this paper, with focus to tentatively reduce the gap between policy and practice, a number of things should be challenged, such as enhancement of power for committees' deliberations, better discussion regarding roles and responsibilities under the water resources management field and an attempt to overcome fragmentation. There is an urgent need to discuss if it is appropriate to undertake a reform in current institutional arrangements to at least integrate water institutions and agencies at the state level.

While that decision is not taken, and in addition to the solutions proposed and presented above, coordination among different government levels and sectors is a key element to be pursued to help to reduce the gap between policy and practice. This implies less initial structural and formal changes by focusing more on modifications in attitudes and behaviour.

In this sense, despite the number of levels and the creation of an additional management level (river basin units) by current water policy, decentralisation should be much more about finding a balance between ceding power to lower levels and at the same time maintaining coordination at upper levels. A two-way process is necessary, where upper levels cede power but still conduct the process.

Additionally, integration and participation cannot be guaranteed by only putting different institutions like the river basin committees in the same room. It is more about figuring out how to get them to coordinate. A key issue is to further explore how committee decisions can influence other levels' and sectors' decisions.

Conclusions

This paper explored different stakeholders' perspectives regarding the water policy (Water Act of 1991). It also assessed if current water policy is being transformed into practice by analysing current institutional and water governance arrangements.

Findings demonstrated and reinforced that the policy is aligned with international approaches for water resources management. On the other hand, results also indicated that the principles of decentralisation, participation and integration (proposed by current water policy) by themselves are not sufficient to guarantee a decentralised, participatory and integrated water management system in practice. In reality, the scenario is extremely complex and key institutional and water governance problems were detected.

For example, there is still a centralised government with strong influence over the decision-making process, institutions have concurrent jurisdictions and there is confusion regarding roles and responsibilities. Additionally, both vertical and horizontal fragmentations add more complexity to the situation, together with fragmentation within the water sector and domain overlaps.

A number of solutions were proposed and presented to address the institutional and water governance problems. Coordination among different government levels and sectors was considered a key element under the discussion, with the idea being that coordination could help to find a balance between lower and upper levels, and at the same time, improve integration and participation in current forums (river basin committees).

This study has important limitations, such as the sample size and potential bias in participants' response. Findings cannot be generalised. However, they can be used as a starting point for a discussion regarding a gap between policy and practice and ways to overcome this problem.

It is important to highlight that Brazil and especially the Sao Paulo State is experiencing major drought and a water availability crisis. This research was designed in 2012 and interviews were conducted at the end of 2013. The focus here was not to discuss this particular situation or to highlight how the southeast region of Brazil is suffering. Without doubt, the crisis reinforces some research findings, particularly the difficulty of translating principles into practice and implementing current water policy.

Acknowledgements

This research is part of a PhD conducted by the first author at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. The authors would like to thank the Faculty of Business, Education, Law and Arts for their support, and especially participants and their organisations in the Sao Paulo State for their time and input during the data collection. Additionally, also thanks to the reviewers and the journal editor for comments on a previous version of the paper.

1

There is no universally accepted definition of IWRM. The definition proposed by the Global Water Partnership (GWP) has been used by scholars in the water sector (Global Water Partnership, 2000, p. 22) as follows: ‘IWRM is a process which promotes the co-ordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.’

2

Surface water bodies in federal territory or crossing more than one state or the boundaries of other countries have federal domain. All other surface water and groundwater bodies have state domain (Porto & Porto, 2008).

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