Humans have changed the global water cycle but governmental bodies designed to govern water struggle to keep up. A new legal perspective may help overcome institutional misfits and improve water security.


International water governance and legal efforts, like UN-Water and the EU Water Framework Directive, , have not managed to keep up with the realities of how the global water cycle has been altered by human impacts, according to a recent paper by GEDB researcher Hanna Ahlström  and colleagues from Uppsala University, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Stockholm university.

Adapting law to reality

The global water cycle entails the circulation of water in its liquid, solid, and vapor phases as it moves through the atmosphere, the land, and the rivers, lakes, and oceans. It consists of three major processes: evaporation, condensation, and precipitation and this cycle is fundamental for securing access to freshwater.

The authors point out that current governance architecture only accounts for some of the global hydrological cycle dynamics and mainly target blue water, i.e. water that comes from the ground, from a river, a lake or a dam, not green water, that comes from natural precipitation.

“This is problematic as the majority of global water flows through ecosystems, and human appropriation, are green water flows and human consumption of green water is over three times as large as that of blue water”, they write.

However, combining the emerging “Earth system law” concept with existing policy and legal principles are suggested by the authors as an approach to start addressing this.

Earth system law is a legal perspective that aligns with, and responds to, all the Earth system’s complexities and the multi-disciplinary governance challenges arising from the no-analogue state in which the planet’s climate and biosphere currently operates.

”It is a perspective that can be used within international environmental law and other legal disciplines to broaden and deepen the understanding of the problem at hand and should not be misinterpreted as a new legal discipline”, explains Hanna Ahlström, who together with Jacob Hileman led the project.

Creating a better fit between managment and water-cycle 

The article also describes five key aspects of human induced destabilisation of the global water cycle that are particularly challenging for current conventional water-management, first introduced by in a 2021 paper by Wang-Erlandsson and Malin Falkenmark: (1) delay, (2) Redistribution, (3) Intertwinements, (4) Permanence and (5) Scale.

Earth System Law could be a way to better deal with these problems and “strengthen the institutional fit” between established governance systems and the global water cycle, the authors suggest.

“One key problem is that most water governance institutions are aligned with administrative or watershed boundaries, whereas human impacts on the water cycle increasingly occur across such borders”, says co-author Lan Wang-Erlandsson, Stockholm Resilience Centre.

“An important aspect is governing water as a cycle, not merely as a resource,” explains Hanna Ahlström. “With the latter standpoint you lose understanding of vital connections, and this knowledge is important in order to create conditions that can secure access to clean water for all.  This perspective that can be incorporated into, and in support of, existing institutions to better inform decision-making at all levels of governance,” she concludes.

The article is part of a special issue on Earth System Law in the journal Earh System Governance

Ahlström, H., J. Hileman, L. Wang-Erlandsson, M.M. García, M.L. Moore, K. Jonas, A. Pranindita, J.J. Kuiper, I. Fetzer, F. Jaramillo and U. Svedin. 2021. An Earth system law perspective on governing social-hydrological systems in the Anthropocene. Earth System Governance 10:100120.