Analyzing water management: Meaning-making and narratives

Introducing Dr Farhad Mukhtarov
Child reaching hands forward to drink water from faucet

Dr Farhad Mukhtarov has been working as an Assistant Professor of Governance and Public Policy at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) since 2018. He works at the intersection of water governance and public policy, studying how water, policy and society shape each other. In this interview, part of our Assistant Professor Portrait series, we introduce you to his work.

How to interpret the collapse of the Soviet Union; was it something fortunate? As a person raised in Azerbaijan, having experienced this major historical event as a child, Dr Farhad Mukhtarov knows well how ambiguous the narratives attached to such impactful power shifts can be. They depend to a great extent on the point of view of the interpreter.

Take, for instance, the human capital in the former power bloc and its gradual decline in the post-1990 world. Its importance is often not fully recognized in the European narrative, whereas the story is complex. Just like the identities of the Azerbaijanis that pertain to such major changes. On Mukhtarov the experience might have left an imprint. His later interest in narratives, frames and metaphors that can shape policies might be rooted in his past, as these subjects became pivotal elements in his work as an academic.

Thinking about the 1990s, Mukhtarov recalls the harshness of those years. Many problems were sweeping Azerbaijan. The war with Armenia, poverty, crime, drug abuse, the HIV-virus. As a talented chess player, he was fortunate to have the opportunity to widen his horizon. He regularly travelled in Azerbaijan and abroad to play in tournaments. This sparked his interest in other cultures. After studying international economic relations in Azerbaijan, Mukhtarov moved to Budapest. His uncle and mentor, an expert on water engineering, served as an inspiration. At the Central European University, founded by George Soros, he obtained a Master’s degree in Environmental Sciences & Policy. The experience was intellectually stimulating and he decided to pursue a doctorate at the same institution. A fellowship in Oxford during his PhD was formative. It determined the design of his dissertation - a multi-country comparison of water policies with a focus on knowledge transfer.

He then came to the Netherlands to work as a researcher at the Instituut Voor Milieuvraagstukken (IVM) of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Technical University (TU) Delft. After that, he returned to Azerbaijan to work as an Assistant Professor at ADA University in Baku. When Utrecht University (UU) offered him a position, he decided to move back to the lowlands.

Five years ago he started working for ISS, a place that allows him to conduct research in the way that suits him best: critically. Here, he can cross boundaries whilst sensing the kinship of a community that values the analysis of framing, meaning-making and contextualization. It has resulted in Farhad winning a grant to lead a project on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports on water and to publications on models of knowledge transfer in water management and many more.  

You have written various articles on Dutch water diplomacy. What characterizes the Dutch approach?

‘Many countries around the world engage in water diplomacy. The expertise of the Dutch lies in delta areas, large infrastructure projects, drainage and polders. They have internationalized their knowledge of water management and engineering. They incentivize other countries to reach out to them for help with water challenges related to climate change. There are three power mechanisms that support their water diplomacy.’ 

Can you explain how these mechanisms function?

‘On the material level, there is aid from Dutch ministries. This can be help with water supply and sanitation projects. This support is relatively small, meant as a teaser to build relationships that can lead to bigger projects later. Secondly, the Dutch approach is supported by a strong ideological or promotional strategy. The Netherlands brands itself as a global hydrohub, meaning: a nation that is seen as an eminent centre in the field of water management. Thirdly, on an organizational level, the alliances and partnerships that the Netherlands have built are of great importance.’

In certain cases, you need frugal solutions and not large water projects.

The Dutch claim to be a ‘neutral broker’ in the field of water management. But in fact, as you discuss in your articles, this is questionable. Water policies are business with great interests at stake.

‘The Dutch have achieved miraculous things in the field of water management. There are success stories. However, there are also elements in the Dutch approach that can be criticized. Often, knowledge transfer from place A to place B is seen as linear. Thus, complex and different social realities are not sufficiently taken into account. It is important to take the time to experiment and change an initial design as projects evolve. This is not always done as timeframes are fixed and delays can be expensive. Frugal innovations are not financially viable. But in certain cases you just need small-scale cheap solutions instead of large projects that deliver big profits.


‘There is something else. While the Dutch were constructing their delta works, they experienced opposition from fishermen. Consequently, the plans were adjusted. This is how the Dutch democracy works and the lobby for such changes is valuable. In countries in the Global South, this model may not exist in all places. Yet such influences make for better plans and outcomes.

‘I am one of the critical voices among academics, journalists and people working in the sector pointing to such issues. The positive note is that we are being heard by Dutch institutions and things are slowly changing. There is more attention to social inclusivity, that is, including the less powerful voices in the design of water projects abroad.’

Climate change is a shark, with water as its teeth.

In March, the United Nations held the UN 2023 Water Conference. The last UN held water conference was in 1977. How do you perceive the renewed global interest in water?

‘Since that last conference, the UN have integrated the subject of water in the concept of “Sustainable Development”, presenting economic, social and environmental development as a "win-win-win" situation. It is an attractive image, but we all know by now that this is impossible and painful trade-offs are necessary. A popular metaphor has it that if climate change is a shark, water is its teeth. Climate change shows itself through water. It is important that the UN discusses water separately.’ 

Watch Dr Farhad Mukhtarov in this video

Dr Farhad Mukhtarov on World Water Day

What are your expectations; will the outcomes of this conference lead to change?
‘The setup of the conference was traditional and conventional, framing water in a technical and managerial way. There was an underrepresentation of political voices from the Global South and not sufficient attention to human rights, which was disappointing.

Engin Akyurt

'Yet there were some interesting voices that resonated with me. Take the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, with co-chairs Mariana Mazzucato, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Johan Rockström and Tharman ShanmugaratnamI.

They propose to treat water in a holistic manner, to price water and subsidize the poor who cannot pay the full price. In addition, they criticize the way "blended finance" (public and private money financing major water-related projects) has operated until recently. Now the public sector often serves as the guarantor of private investment, taking the investment risks on itself. Mazzucato called such arrangements “predator-prey partnerships”. Instead, states should form equal partnerships with private parties. The current trend is private sector-driven development. The OECD is one of the main promotors of this trend. I am worried about privatizing water further. I have written about this with colleagues in relation to COVID-19.

How to move forward?

‘It is crucial to engage in a dialogue and listen to what water means to people, what their lived experience of water is. Projects should not solely be driven by profit but also by public good considerations. Hope can come from projects that allow space and time for learning, experimenting and adapting. Such examples must be studied, amplified and lobbied for.’

Thank you very much for this interview. Looking forward to your forthcoming publications!

Meet some of our other professors

Assistant professor

Compare @count study programme

  • @title

    • Duration: @duration
Compare study programmes