Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is a process that promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximise the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.
Check out the IWRM Glossary to learn about specific terms related to IWRM.
The Water Crisis is a Governance Crisis
The global water crisis is mainly due to poor governance. There are several underpinning factors behind this water governance crisis:
- Failure to recognise the interconnected nature of water: Water resources are embedded in complex bio-physical systems. Yet the interconnected nature of water and its interactions with land, climate, energy, and human systems are poorly understood by decision makers. A failure to understand the hydro-climatic cycles and feedback mechanisms has resulted in a long list of drying lakes, rivers, and other bodies around the world, e.g., the Aral Sea.
- Fragmented institutional set-ups: Water is also a mobile resource. As a boundary-spanning and multi-scalar resource, it does not recognise any political or administrative boundaries (García et al., 2019). Water governance responsibilities are therefore often shared by several institutions working at different levels. Such fragmented and uncoordinated governance systems are poorly equipped to address complex water problems such as pollution control, competing demands, and disaster risk management (GWP, 1996).
- Single objective planning: The importance of economic efficiency, as well as reaping economic benefits from water-related interventions, is undeniable. However, maximising the economic benefits of water should not come at the expense of people and the environment that depend on the resource. The economic, social, and environmental costs of ineffective water governance arrangements need to be taken into account (Ménard and Saleth, 2011).
- Techno-fix short-sightedness: The traditional way of solving water issues has been primarily through supply-side infrastructural interventions such as installing pumps, building canals, and erecting dams. The management of this infrastructure, including the finance that is needed to maintain it properly, has often come as an afterthought. For instance, in sub-Saharan Africa, up to one third of handpumps and boreholes, intended to provide drinking water to rural populations, are dysfunctional (Fisher et al., 2015). Increasing the supply by providing water infrastructure is important, yet insufficient, in ensuring the long-term sustainability of water-related services.
- Top-down state-centric decision making: Water management decisions have been too often top-down and government-led. Bottom-up participation from institutions and bodies at lower levels has been limited, particularly in countries with centralised government regimes. Not taking into account the priorities and preferences of traditionally marginalised groups and individuals has led to increased inequality and democratic governance legitimacy concerns (Agarwal et al., 2000).
IWRM as a paradigm shift
Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources in order to maximise economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems and the environment (Agarwal et al., 2000). IWRM is a paradigm that was designed to replace a traditional, fragmented sectoral management style, which results in poor services and unsustainable water resource use (Table 1)
The IWRM approach finds its roots in the Dublin-Rio Principles, four key principles that were adopted at the 1992 Dublin Conference on Water and endorsed at the Rio de Janeiro Summit on Sustainable Development (Figure 2).
Figure 2. IWRM Principles (Source: Dublin Conference, 1992).
The evolution and alignment of the IWRM Approach
Since adoption of the Dublin Principles, the concept and underlying principles of the IWRM approach have been expanded and refined to reflect and build upon those of new emerging frameworks and agreements on water governance and sustainable development. The IWRM vision is aligned and contributes to the principles and realisation of:
- World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg 2002: emphasised the need to promote IWRM by enhancing water-use efficiency, facilitating public-private partnerships, developing gender-sensitive policies and programmes, fostering education and capacity building, and combating corruption (Rahaman and Varis, 2005).
- UN Declaration on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation (UN, 2010) strengthened the social equity dimension of IWRM and the need to consider a Human Rights Based Approach as part of the ‘integrated’ vision for improving water governance (UNDP-SIWI, 2017).
- Sendai Framework: finds a strong echo in the IWRM principles and approach, which has been additionally recognised as a conceptual basis for effectively addressing water related-disasters and adapting to impacts of climate change (UNDRR, 2018).
- High-Level Panel on Valuing Water: the IWRM approach is reflected in the Valuing Water Principles, adopted by the High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW) in 2018, which stresses the need to recognise and reconcile the various views and values that water brings to our societies and ecosystems (VWI, 2020).
- Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework: underlines the need to live in harmony by protecting natural resources, investing in conservation and nature-based solutions and strengthen our scientific understanding of the interlinkages and interdependencies between human and natural systems (UNEP, 2022).
- Paris Agreement: underlines, alike IWRM, the need to collaborate and build partnership across scales to enhance understanding and action towards building a resilient and sustainable future (UNFCCC, 2015).
- Agenda 2030 and the SDG: IWRM is strongly aligned with the principles and ambitions set by Agenda 2030 and is recognised as a cornerstone in the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goal 6 on ensuring access to water and sanitation for all (UN, 2018), being explicitly encapsulated as SDG target 6.5.
Action Framework for implementing IWRM
The action framework for implementing IWRM focuses on a four-pronged strategy (Figure 3). These four pillars of IWRM are interdependent, meaning that advancements in one of the pillars are not enough on their own for achieving a high degree of IWRM implementation. Our IWRM Tools are divided based on this four-pillar taxonomy, which is also reflected by the SDG 6.5.1 indicator on degree of IWRM implementation. Under each pillar, you will find sub-pillars that group together tools that support specific areas of water governance (e.g., planning, coordination, stakeholder engagement, financing, etc.). There is no single blueprint for IWRM, as the art of its implementation lies in selecting, adjusting, and applying the right mix of tools for a given situation.
Figure 3. IWRM Action Framework
IWRM's contribution to a water secure world
Water security is defined here as the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability
(UN Water, 2013)
A water secure world is one which harnesses water's productive power and minimises its destructive force. It is a world where every person has enough safe, affordable water to lead a clean, healthy and productive life and where communities are protected from floods, droughts, landslides, erosion and water-borne diseases (GWP and OECD, 2015; Grey and Sadoff, 2008). Water security promotes environmental protection as well as social justice and addresses the impacts of poor water management. A water secure world reduces poverty, advances education and increases living standards. It is a world where there is an improved quality of life for all, especially for the most vulnerable—including, women, children, elderly, people with disabilities and indigenous groups —who benefit most from good water governance and suffer most when it is lacking. A water secure world means ending fragmented responsibility for water and integrating water resources management across all sectors – finance, planning, agriculture, energy, tourism, industry, education, and health – thus contributing to peace, cooperation, sustainable development, and ecological protection.
IWRM offers a comprehensive framework to catalyse water governance towards achieving this vision of a water secure world. IWRM considers synergies and trade-offs between different development objectives, which provides a holistic approach to introducing water management options into broader national, sub-national, regional and international development planning in a strategic and structured manner. The integrated approach seeks to identify win-win water investments to increase economic productivity and growth that contribute to overall socio-economic well-being and ecological sustainability. By aligning and integrating interests and activities that are traditionally seen as unrelated or that, despite obvious interrelationships, are simply not coordinated, IWRM can foster a more efficient and sustainable use of water resources to achieve the SDGs. IWRM is not simply a process designed to carry us to a specific SDGs target, but a way of thinking that enhances our capacity to tackle multi-objective, multi-sectoral development planning such as is embodied by the SDGs, in the indivisible spirit in which the SDGs were defined. The transformative potential of IWRM therefore extends well beyond water from a sectoral perspective; it is a framework for achieving sustainable human development (Figure 4).
Figure 4. IWRM Water Security Framework