Normative ideals like Integrated Water Resource Management depicting the ‘good environmental governance’ have proliferated the last twenty years. However, evidence of effective implementation is scarce. The paper analyzes cases from India, the Mekong and Denmark where actors have sought to translate IWRM ideals into practice. The purpose is to demonstrate the importance of politics and power for water governance processes and their outcomes.The concept of social learning is applied in order to understand the dynamic interplay between actors, institutions and power in the political processes involved. It is argued that the political economy of water tends to vest the stronger stakeholders with an interest in upholding the status quo. Consequently, social learning typically centers on the ‘low lying fruits’ that does not challenge the prevailing distribution of resources. Strategic approaches looking outside the ‘water box’ are necessary to foster deeper changes in water resources management in both developing and developed countries.