During the 1990s southern African countries led water policy developments through a ‘new regionalism’, spurred by drought. However, they encountered difficulty in implementing new reforms. This report examines political contradictions in reform processes across regional, national and local levels, drawing on research in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique. It shows how implementing distant concepts involves complex local political negotiation. It questions how easily ‘good resource governance’ can be devolved within complex, changing socio-political environments. Shifting property rights regimes—including donor-related macro-economic adjustment—generated new political classes and state-society actors, involving new understandings and meanings of resources and ownership. Key issues arising are: local generatation and retention of revenues, links between local knowledge and decision making, ‘grey areas’ of non-commercial use beyond domestic levels, and challenges and competition over formal and informal systems of authority. Access to natural resources has to be a starting point for policy-makers and planners not simply in sectoral institutions but in those that serve some form of ‘cross-cutting’ role, for instance local district councils and municipalities.