Making it work: governance for green roads for water

Key messages

  • In Adaptive Resilience the road infrastructure as it is is optimally used for water management and climate resilience with additional – usually low cost – water control measures: it requires complementary programs; training for roadside users and farmers; special green funding arrangements for supplementary programs and Memorandum of Understanding between main sector departments.
  • In Pro-active Resilience road infrastructure is from the onset designed to serve multiple objectives beyond transport: it requires multi-functional investment formulation; new integrated designs; training for engineers; modelling for specific challenges; special green funding arrangements for additional costs.
  • These changes are helped by trust and integrity, cooperation with other sectors, focus on sustainability and community engagement.
  • To get the process going may entail different steps: fact finding; getting sectors to talk; identify champions; work on early implementation; work on different fronts; capacity building and research and consolidation in working methods.

Using roads for water management is a new practice. Introducing this new practice requires not only that new techniques are mastered, but also that governance is adjusted. The overall change is for road development and water management to be more intimately linked. The desired state is for road alignments and designs to include water management objectives (see also Section 1.3). Together with this, working methods need to be adjusted ideally: in preparatory surveys (see Annex 7), in design, in budgeting and in community contacts (see Chapter 14). None of these changes is insurmountable or complicated: they just need to be done.

This chapter describes the current governance in the road sector, the impediments and the direction in which governance should move to be more responsive to the opportunities that green roads for water offer (Section 13.2). Using roads as instruments for water management and climate resilience and more reliable connection requires a different method of working. Section 13.3 zooms in on this, giving experiences in different countries where the road for water practice is being introduced. Section 13.4 discusses different methods that may be used to introduce the change.

There are several challenges in the road sector that affect the uptake of new practices, be it the integration of beneficial water management in road development and maintenance or the promotion of economic opportunities that road development can possibly bring (Diagram 13.1).


The first challenge is integrity. As it is a sector in which large amounts of money are moved around, corruption and corruption scandals are often around the corner. The consequence of this is, of course, a misuse of resources and a lax implementation of work standards, but also a culture of controversy, compromised leadership and instability in the management of the organization. The shadow of corruption is often as damaging as the corruption itself.

Diagram 13.1. Improved governance for green roads for water
Diagram 13.1. Improved governance for green roads for water

A second challenge is that there is no integration with other sectors. It is hard to quantify, but from experiences in the roads for water programs of different countries, it is evident that the road sector often operates in isolation and this needs to change (section 13.3). There is often very limited or no awareness within the road sector about the positive impact they can bring to water management and climate resilience or on the economic development they can trigger and even improve with appropriate measures. There is often an obsession in protecting the road against all external influences—and concern that water management measures will affect the road rather than improve the conditions. The single focus also shows in practices such as closing borrow pits after they have been used, even though this is costly and not effective, or in planning minimal cross drainage based on cost considerations rather than on effect on hydrology. There are also impediments where roads are purposely built at too low a cost—solely to have the road in place, with disregard to its sustainability or the impact on the environment.

Bangladesh: discussing the integration of roads and footpaths for better management of drainage and water levels in low lying polder areas with a large range of stakeholders
Bangladesh: discussing the integration of roads and footpaths for better management of drainage and water levels in low lying polder areas with a large range of stakeholders

A third challenge in the road sector is that community engagement is not common. Whereas in the water sector, for instance, participatory water management has been commonly practiced since the late 1980s, and stakeholder engagement has been promoted as one of the central elements of integrated water management since 2000, there is no equivalent in road development. The scope and mechanisms for community management in the road sector are discussed in detail in the next chapter.

Finally, in the road sector—particularly for unpaved roads—there is, in many countries, more attention for new construction than there is for maintenance or functionality in general. Maintenance of the rural road network is heavily underfunded almost everywhere. In some cases, the construction of new roads is politically very expedient and much attention is given to getting the road in place, even at gradients that are not sustainable or without cross drainage, thus playing havoc with the environment around the road. Maintenance is not only underfunded, but in many instances it is also completely forgotten and ignored. A larger focus on road sustainability will bring the quality of the roads and its environment more into focus.

A larger focus on climate resilience with roads will require different levels of engagement with other parties (see also above). The framework for road resilience described in section 1.3 helps parties to understand the challenges and opportunities and the need to have different stakeholders involved. It distinguished three level of resilience:

  • Protective Resilience: protect the road infrastructure against climate change effects, no attention to the larger picture;
  • Adaptive Resilience: make best use of the road infrastructure and adapt to changed hydrology with range of measures around the road;
  • Pro-active Resilience:: redesign road infrastructure to optimize water management/climate resilience of the area.

These approaches have different implications for the stakeholders involved. If the sole objective is to protect the road (Protective Resilience) against changed climate with, for instance, better pavements or large cross drainage, then the main stakeholders are the road authorities. However, if the focus is on making use of the road as it is with water harvesting measures and making secondary use of the road body for water management (Adaptive Resilience), then agricultural and water authorities are the main players with consent of the road authorities. However, if road infrastructure is critically assessed and designed so as to serve different functions (resilience plus 2)—transport, water management, disaster preparedness, and climate resilience—then multiple stakeholders have to be on board.


Table 13.2. below describes the activities and changed working methods under each of the resilience approaches. In the protective “basic” approach, road designs are changed—requiring higher costs with cost implications—and catchment programs may be started along the most vulnerable road sections. In the adaptive) approach, farmers and agricultural/water organizations undertake complementary measures around the road infrastructure. This requires sensitization of related authorities: in agriculture, water resources, environment and disaster risk reduction—to be facilitated with training for farmers and implementers, special additional funding arrangements and MoUs between road authorities. An example of this is the agreement in Kenya between the Water Sector Trust Fund and the Kenya Road Board—whereby the Trust Fund takes care of funding additional measures, such as storage ponds. In the third pro-active level of resilience (resilience plus2), different sectors work together. New practices are tried out and also captured in guidelines and new designs. This is also reflected in new working methods whereby road development is not only the responsibility of road authorities, but is shared and discussed with many others and the conceptualization of a road project takes into account the multi-functionality (for a recommended Terms of Reference for team working on this see Annex 7). An example of the wider cooperation is the Interministerial Committee on Roads for Water that was established in Uganda.

Resilience approachActivitiesMain stakeholdersChanged working methods
Protective: Basic resilience “to protect the road”New specification on cross drainage and road surface

Catchment management for road protection

Road Authorities, some coordination with Land Management Authorities.Increased construction budgets

Catchment protection program

Adaptive: Resilience Plus 1 “make best use of the road”Training farmers and implementers on road water management techniques

Integrate roads for water in existing catchment management programs

Complementary investments in road for water measures

Combining road maintenance arrangement with water management measures

Agriculture Authorities

Water Authorities

Disaster Risk Reduction Authorities—working complementary

Complementary programs

Training for roadside users and farmers

Special green funding arrangements for supplementary programs

Memorandum of Understanding between main sector departments (road, water, disaster risk management)

Pro-active Resilience Plus 2 “modify the design and function of the road”Change road building and watershed management guidelines

Creation of task forces within main government departments (road, water and agriculture)

Creation of inter-ministerial steering committee

Integration in main country policies and programs (green growth, climate resilience, agricultural growth)

Including the approach in university curriculum

Working with main infrastructure funders

Road Authorities

Agriculture Authorities

Water Authorities

Environmental Authorities

Disaster Preparedness

Infrastructure investors—working together

Multi-functional investment formulation

New integrated design and guidelines

Training for engineers and experts of all related sectors

Modelling for specific geographies

Special green funding arrangements for additional costs

Inter-sectoral task forces

Today, roads for water management has been introduced in different countries. While there is interest everywhere, the speed of uptake varies. This is partly related to the overall governance systems in a country, including the management culture.

The uptake in Ethiopia, for instance, was fast. A large lever existed and could be used—the Watershed Programs, orchestrated by the Regional Bureaus of Agriculture. This mobilized large numbers of people every year in the lean season (see also 14.4). Water harvesting measures were systematically integrated in this program and large-scale Resilience Plus 1 measures were reached fast. In addition, in Ethiopia, moreover, there is a strong “can do” mentality. The concept of roads for water was quickly owned by the regional governments and also incorporated into the Five Year Plans.

This may be compared with Kenya, where the decentralization of 2013 placed large parts of budgetary resources, including the responsibilities to build and maintain rural roads with the counties, numbering 47 in total. With this move, the Kenya Rural Roads Authority (KERRA) assumed an advisory rather than a commanding role. To introduce a new practice thus requires a larger number of decisions, i.e. at each county. Also, in Kenya there is no equivalent of the Watershed Campaigns found in Ethiopia—so even at a county level there is no single mechanism to introduce the additional water harvesting measures.

In introducing green roads for water, it is thus important to understand the driving forces in the road and water sectors to assess the best opportunities to introduce the green roads for water practice: are their organizations with large leverage? How are responsibilities distributed between central government and local government for different categories of roads? What is the distribution between construction and maintenance? Are roads maintained? Are there private sector players (like toll road operators)? What are the main opportunities to improved road quality or water management, and where do things hurt? How politicized is road development? Are there coordinating arrangements between the road sector and the water, environment, climate or disaster risk reduction sector? How does the road sector score in climate or resilience funding?

In introducing roads for water activities in a given country, there are a number of lessons:

  • Getting people to talk. There has often been zero communication between the road sector and other sectors and bring the different perspectives together can open up a lot of appreciation and fertile ideas.
  • Do basic fact-finding—to better understand the driving forces (as above) and identify the win-win opportunities on green road for water, it is important to do basic fact-finding in a region or a country to define the opportunities and provide an anchoring point. In sharing the findings of such fact-finding, it is important to and cast the net wide—and brief the main organizations related to roads, water and land management but also associations and civil society groups that may own the program.

    Malawi: first discussion on roads for water with representatives of road sector, water sector, agriculture and universities
    Malawi: first discussion on roads for water with representatives of road sector, water sector, agriculture and universities
  • Find champions. There are individuals with a mission drive, large convening power and ability to convince—within government, experts or funding agencies—that can fast-track the uptake of roads for water program, particularly if they are working for organizations that have high leverage.
  • Work on implementation early on. Almost all the green roads for water measures are “no regrets”: they hardly can do a wrong; in the worst case they may not be so effective. Many opportunities to introduce green roads for water (especially the ones in the Plus 1 category) require limited additional funding and can be done with local initiative. The preparation of flow dividers and spreaders, the clever use of road spoil (chapter 5), the gating of road culverts, the conversion of borrow pits (chapter 7) are all examples of measures that do not require extensive preparation and can be undertaken very quickly to start the change.
  • Do not get grounded in pilots. There is a pressure with innovative approaches to first test them and demonstrate them in pilots. This, however, is not advised: there is a large risk of getting stuck in such pilots: they take a long time to complete and even longer to prove their points. Pilots are always contextual—what works in one place does not necessarily work elsewhere, so the capacity to convince is limited. They risk losing the momentum.
  • Work on different fronts. It is important not to focus on a single activity in introducing the new approach, but to work on different fronts—engagement with champions, motivational trainings, early adaptation projects and documenting and broadcasting result, so that different experiences reinforce one another.
  • Think of capacity building and research. These are useful but slow drivers. They help engage future generations of experts but they do not usually create momentum. When training, motivational events are more important in the early stage—to create enthusiasm and interest—and connect with people who have introduced roads for water programs in their own areas.
  • Consolidate in due time. In the first instance, it is important to get the programs moving and look for early adaptation. At a later stage the learning needs to be consolidated in guidelines and new designs, supplemented by good practices from other areas, and supported by new ways of working where possible (see also section 13.3).