Bras. Political Sci. Rev.2014;8(1):131-7.

Explaining Successes and Failures of River Basin Committees in Brazil

Léo Heller

DOI: 10.1590/1981-38212014000100007

A new political-institutional framework for water management was inaugurated in Brazil with the promulgation of Federal Law n° 9.433 of 1997. The model defined by the legislation was the result of a complex debate between political agents, specialists and service users, and generally received very positive reactions celebrating the fact that Brazil was carrying out a reorganisation of the sector attuned to contemporary global trends – more horizontal, decentralised, participatory and… effective. This model would allow for the environmental, economic, political, social and territorial dimensions of water use to be coordinated all at once. Hence, a river basin is defined as a territorial unit for implementing the water resources policy and a basin committee as a managing body for this territorial unit, with important responsibilities including conflict resolution, approval and monitoring of water resources plans, and setting up of systems for charging for water use.

A decade and a half after the launching of the National Water Resources System, there is already a large amount of assessments on the arrangement, especially of its greatest innovation, the participatory management model put into practice by means of the basin committees. The assessments published by the academic community, however, are far from being consensual. The authors oscillate between stating the democratic potential and innovative character of the committees and their belief in the superior nature of this participatory process compared to the previous model (aspects of this position can be found, for example, in ; ; ); a balanced view recognising its potential and the great challenges to its success (see, e.g., ; ; ; ); and even more sceptical views, sometimes from opposite ideological positions, regarding the possibility of making “the participatory dream” brought about by the Law come true (see, e.g., ; ; ; ; ). This scepticism of the nature of participation in consultative and decision-making collegiate bodies is shared by a number of authors, who have pointed out the limited participation by civil society related, among other factors, to the quality, legitimacy and accountability of representation; the oligarchisation, co-optation and control of councils; and the suppression of conflicts and diversity of conceptions, intentions and projects (; ; ; ; ).

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Explaining Successes and Failures of River Basin Committees in Brazil

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