Contrary to dominant paradigms, the river basin is not the obvious unit within which to undertake water management given the diversity of functions inherent in water resource management. The Southern African experience is presented to illustrate issues that may arise when using the river basin for different functions. Functions best addressed at a larger ‘problem-shed’ level are identified and it is explained why some other functions should rather be performed at smaller, sub-basin scales. Using recent work on water governance, which emphasise polycentricity and network governance, it is suggested that a better understanding of the appropriate scales for different functions will support activities such as planning, monitoring and the protection of the aquatic environment that may best be focused at river basin scale.

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