An IWRM primer
Updated - Tuesday 08 August 2006
The Dublin principles
The 1992 Dublin Conference established four guiding principles for managing freshwater resources:
- Fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment.
- Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policy makers at all levels.
- Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water.
- Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good.
These four “Dublin Principles” are at the heart of the IWRM concept. In the Dublin Statement, they have important qualifications and amplifications (see Box 4 of the main paper)
A freshwater crisis
The principles, and the drive for integration across all water sectors came about because of an escalating feeling of crisis about the sustainability of freshwater resources. That feeling has grown as population growth, improved living standards, industrial development, environmental awareness and food security goals have put more and more pressure on the finite water resource flux provided by the hydrological cycle. Box 1 in the main paper quotes statistics from the Stockholm Environment Institute’s 1997 Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World to show how per capita availability of water resources is predicted to decline rapidly. In Asia, annual renewable water resources were estimated to be 4,000m3 per person in 1995, declining to 2,300m3 by 2025. Africa shows an even more marked decline from 5,700m3 per person in 1995 to 2,500m3 in 2025. Figures for individual countries highlight a mounting situation of “water stress”.
Competition among different water user groups often leads to conflicts; it usually means that available water goes to the most powerful groups, leaving the poor further marginalised; and little attention is paid to the impacts of one group’s water use on the availability for others downstream. The kind of conflicts and wasteful use that can arise are illustrated in Box 2 of the main paper.
Resolving conflict and achieving equity
IWRM is seen as a way of avoiding or resolving conflicts over water resources and of achieving three key goals: equity, efficiency and sustainability. According to GWP’s definition: “IWRM is a process which promotes the co-ordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.” There have been other definitions (see Box 5 of the main paper), but the prime elements of IWRM are captured in the GWP version. The concept is illustrated diagrammatically in Figure 1.in the main paper. It is when moving from definition to process that obstacles start to appear.
Co-ordinated development and management implies joint planning activities by the many sectoral bodies. The natural unit for IWRM is the river basin, though this will rarely be an administrative unit for the individual sector agencies or national ministries involved. Basin authorities are common enough in the industrialised world, and on major international rivers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Even with the substantial resource inputs available to them though, most such authorities have encountered serious political battles and institutional complexities to establish any kind of control over the management of their water resources. The idea of a new tier of bureaucracy, mixed with difficult enough challenges from decentralisation and public/private partnerships, poses too many additional problems for most governments to take on board with enthusiasm.
Scaling down the concept
The conceptual jump necessary to make IWRM practical is one of scale. Instead of envisaging IWRM as a complex legislative and institutional system under the control of one “super agency”, it needs to be viewed as a progressive process in which the end point is reached through a web of individual initiatives that gradually remove the sectoral constraints. As the main document puts it: “… local level agreement and capacity building on better sharing and use will have greater impact than new national laws or international level treaties.” At this point it is worth looking again at the amplification of Dublin Principles 2 and 3, which emphasise the need for decision-making “at the lowest appropriate level” and the need to “equip and empower women to participate at all levels in water resources programmes.” It is by mobilising people’s intuitive recognition of the need to safeguard precious water resources for all their benefits that progress can be made up the chain to manage resources more efficiently. Once water managers in the different sectors are convinced of the need to take into account the wider implications of their plans and actions, the move towards full IWRM will develop momentum.
Water is an economic good???
Dublin Principle No 4 was contentious when it was being framed and has remained so ever since. Even with the qualifying clause that “.. it is vital to recognize first the right of all human beings to have access to clean water and sanitation at an affordable price”, many development specialists resist the hardline economic tone of Principle 4. Does it mean, for instance, that the poorest domestic consumers and rice farmers must pay at least as much for every litre of water they receive as the industrialist using it to produce steel or electronic goods? Years of debate have led to a broadly acceptable reformulation in which water is to be managed as an “economic and social good” and there is a clear distinction between the “value” of water and the charges or tariffs for different consumer groups. The arguments and the compromises about Principle 4 are spelt out in Box6 of the main paper. In the new consensus, there is a recognition that the benefits to health and well-being of improved drinking water make domestic use the highest value.
A more recent conceptual development, with poverty reduction as its driving force, is to link IWRM into a “livelihoods” approach to human development. That means viewing water as most poor people do – as a route to escaping poverty through small-scale production as well as improved health and convenience. The concept is the subject of another IRC TOP and is also extended into support for small farmers in both land and water management in the paper Integrating livelihoods into Integrated Water Resources Management. published by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) Africa Region.