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Across Latin America, legal recognition of nonstate water management regimes continues to be a sought after strategy for updating and improving rural water sectors. While diverse state and nonstate (as well as domestic and international) actors have promoted such policy interventions, our understanding of the conditions under which these prove effective in water management and access terms is lagging, both empirically and theoretically. The limited assessments that do exist of the formalization or “legalization” of community-based water management regimes (e.g. Peru and Bolivia) have presented mixed political and practical outcomes. Further research, spanning irrigation and drinking water regimes, is required to inform a more comprehensive understanding of this policy trend and its implications for water governance.
Drawing on interviews with rural water committees, domestic and international NGO staff, and government officials in Nicaragua (2015-2016), this paper contributes a case study examination of these politics of recognition. Specifically, the paper assesses the implications of a 2010 law granting recognition to over 5,000 committees managing drinking water in the country’s rural areas—where roughly half of the national population resides. In regard to policy outcomes, the paper highlights emerging issues at the state-society interface related to local institutional compliance, community access to state financial and human resources, and legality of water sources. Importantly, these initial findings suggest that many of the water governance benefits and challenges of the new law diverge across subnational contexts, owing to several factors: preexisting social networks and alliances; national and subnational state capacity and resources; as well as environmental changes threatening water supply, access, and infrastructure. Ultimately, the paper argues for the importance of looking “beyond the laws” to understand the intersection of policy and legal frameworks with water management practices, state-society relations, and environmental change across diverse contexts in Latin America.