Public water taps in Tanzania: a new centre study used social network analysis to map out and analyze how social networks affect the governance of water resources. Photo: R. Kautsky/Azote

The social web of water management

Novel network analysis can boost water resources management in Tanzania

The governance of water resources is just as complex and interconnected as the hydrological processes it aims to influence. 

In a new study in Journal Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, centre researchers Christian Stein, Henrik Ernstson and Jennie Barron, used social network analysis to map out and analyze how social networks affect the governance of water resources.

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Stein and his colleagues mapped the interaction between actors influencing both blue water (the liquid waters in rivers and lakes), and green water (the soil moisture used by plants) in the catchment of Mkindo in Tanzania.
They describe how different organisations are related to each other and how these relationships provide opportunities and constrains for integrated land and water resources management.
New approach raising considerable interest
Stein and his co-authors wanted to demonstrate how social network analysis can be used to analyse the relational patterns that influence water resources governance.
"We wanted to show how social network analysis, a well-established technique from sociology and organisational research, could be applied to water resource management at the landscape scale," says Christian Stein.
Their findings raised considerable interest from participants at the 11th WaterNet symposium, which took place 27-29 October 2010 in Zimbabwe. WaterNet is a regional capacity building and research program on Integrated Water Resource Management in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Beyond the formal structures
Much research has been done on trying to reveal how different policies emphasising the state, markets or users groups affect water resources governance. However, a lot of this research tends to focus on formal administrative structures and policies, which may have little to do with the complex everyday interaction between natural resource managers and users.

Researchers have argued that social networks can be more important than formal institutions. However, social networks have only quite recently been studied in the field of natural resources governance.
A recent centre book is in fact one of the first to fully explore the use of social network analysis in natural resource governance.
Recognizing existing social relations
A key message from Stein and his colleagues is that decisions impacting water management involve a range of stakeholders related to each other through complex formal and informal governance arrangements.

The study shows that water governance is much more complex than suggested by formal policy.

"By using network analysis we have revealed certain underlying patterns of how these networks are structured, helping to make visible some of the informal interactions that influence water resources management and governance," Stein says.
A promising approach
Any transformation path towards more sustainable and resilient water use and management will need to work through these complex webs of social relations.

Stein, Ernstson and Barron recommend that attempts to address gaps and weaknesses in governance should recognize and build upon already existing social network structures.
"Social network analysis provides a promising approach to identify stakeholders and describe certain aspects of the social complexity that underpins water resources governance. It has proven valuable for making existing social networks more visible and for analysing individual actors and networks that underpin catchment scale governance," says co-author Henrik Ernstson.

Source: Stein, C., et al. A social network approach to analyzing water governance: The case of the Mkindo catchment, Tanzania. J. Phys. Chem. Earth (2011), doi:10.1016/j.pce.2011.07.083

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See whiteboard seminar with centre researcher Beatrice Crona explaining social network analysis:

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Stein, C., et al. A social network approach to analyzing water governance: The case of the Mkindo catchment, Tanzania. J. Phys. Chem. Earth (2011), Volume (36), Issue (14-15) and pages 1085-1092 doi:10.1016/j.pce.2011.07.083

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Christian Stein's research focuses on the social dimension of water resources management and the tradeoffs between water for agriculture and other ecosystem services.

Henrik Ernstson is an ecologist/sociologist, who draws on systems ecology, sociology, and political ecology to explore the governance and politics of urban ecologies. 

Jennie Barron's research is focussed on water management in field to meso-scale watersheds for food production, livelihood improvements and agro-ecosystems sustainability.


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