In 2010, the UN General Assembly declared the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights. Yet, findings from the Competing for Water research programme suggest that all too often, people in need of water for domestic purposes lose out to people and companies who claim access to water for productive purposes. Likewise, in many countries, specific water authorities at national as well as basin and watershed level have been formed and assigned the responsibility to allocate water according to the water policy and the associated legal framework. Yet, findings from the Competing for Water research programme show that real-world water allocation takes place through a wide array of institutions, ranging from the rural community, over agreements mediated by local lawyers, district officials and non-governmental organisations, to decisions made in the president's office. The Competing for Water programme entails empirical research conducted in Bolivia, Mali, Nicaragua, Vietnam and Zambia. Based on findings from this research, this paper identifies the discrepancies between statutory and actual water governance, analyses the underlying causes and explores the implications for ongoing water governance reform.