Why IWRM is important for WATSAN
Updated - Monday 04 October 2004
Needs and priorities
Although it is an over-simplification, it is generally accepted that, in terms of quantity, the needs of the domestic water supply and sanitation sub-sector are small, particularly when compared with those of agriculture. The important caveats are: only good quality water meets the needs of domestic consumers, so the resource base is smaller; domestic supplies must be highly reliable at all times of year, which raises their proportion of the total in dry seasons and droughts; the livelihoods approach links small-scale productive uses with basic WATSAN needs and that can mean as much as a four-fold increase in the per capita demand; in big cities, domestic and industrial demands are both higher than the usual main consumer – agriculture. (Read more about demand comparisons in the section “WATSAN needs are not trivial” in the main paper).
The delivery of enough clean water to safeguard health and meet basic human needs is a top priority in most national water policies. However, debate about how much water has to be “ring-fenced” for domestic supplies is by no means one-sided. For countries where food security is a vital part of the sustainable development agenda, limiting irrigation supplies so that wealthy urban consumers can wash cars and water gardens is not an appealing strategy. The WATSAN sector also has an embarrassingly high waste factor built into its needs equation. With 50% or more of abstracted water “unaccounted-for” (i.e. lost through leaks, illegal connections or inadequate metering and billing practices), it is hard to make the case for high domestic reserves.
Even where policy makes WATSAN needs a priority, political realities often mean that domestic consumers lose out when supplies become critically short. Ironically, it is at the times when health and social needs really should dominate the equation that the economic arguments of more influential industrialists and farmers make water a truly economic (and political) good. That is when IWRM can be especially useful. Joint water management decisions that involve all the sectors, and particularly that include the views of users, are less likely to lead to conflict over scarce supplies.
Interfaces and impacts
As well as the direct competition for available water, the WATSAN sub-sector is impacted by and has impacts on other sub-sectors at a whole range of interfaces. Not all the impacts are negative and an important benefit of IWRM is that it makes it possible to take advantage of synergistic developments to keep down costs and make optimum use of water. Among the positive impacts of intersectoral co-operation so far as WATSAN is concerned are:
- Multi-purpose water resource development means that the comparatively high unit costs of developing new sources of drinking water can be brought down by “piggy-backing” on projects to deliver the much higher volumes needed for irrigation. Dam and reservoir costs can also be shared with the power and flood control sub-sectors, so long as operational rules ensure that each sub-sector’s requirements are catered for.
- Joint programmes to treat domestic and industrial wastewater in municipal treatment facilities can help to bring down the dauntingly high costs of treating domestic sewage (with the important caveat that some industrial wastes inhibit biological treatment processes, so careful planning and close surveillance are necessary).
- With the right safeguards, domestic wastewater is an important source of both water and nutrients for peri-urban farmers, reducing their demands on freshwater resources as well as bringing evident environmental benefits. A good example of both benefits and risks of using untreated wastewater for irrigation comes from the twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad in southern India (see Box 13 of the main paper).
- Aquatic ecosystems contribute significantly to the purification potential of natural waters, provided that their purification capacity is not exceeded by excessive pollution. So, ensuring an “environmental reserve” in water allocations benefits the WATSAN sector directly, as well as contributing to poverty alleviation by providing sources of nutrition and employment.
- At community and micro-catchment level, participatory planning of domestic water and sanitation improvements along with agriculture/horticulture and small-scale industry (the livelihoods approach) improves both the local economy and the environment. The scope for mixed use is well illustrated in the example from Dagua, Colombia, in Box 12 of the main paper).
As well as fostering these positive impacts, IWRM seeks to prevent or mitigate some negative ones:
- Abstractions and diversions by upstream irrigators can seriously deplete supplies for urban water users, and sometimes rob rural communities of precious supplies from shallow handpumps. The problem is widespread in India, as Boxes 10 and 11 of the main paper explain. Over-abstraction is often a seasonal problem that can be avoided if IWRM principles are applied, though solutions may involve renegotiation of historic water rights in some areas.Pollution is an obvious and serious destroyer of water resources for all purposes and the WATSAN sub-sector is a major culprit. Untreated domestic and municipal waste pollutes rivers. Waterborne sewerage may help to clean up living environments, but then often results in highly polluting discharges to rivers, streams or the ocean. It is anyway questionable whether disposal of sewage by floating it away in drinking-quality water makes sense - particularly where water is in any case in short supply. WATSAN agencies can also be victims of pollution by agriculture (pesticides and nitrates in groundwater) and industry (chemical and biological contamination of water and soil). By encouraging recycling, reuse and appropriate treatment of wastes, IWRM can ease some burdens and benefit all the sub-sectors.
It is clear that all sub-sectors can benefit from IWRM. The drive for IWRM though has primarily come from the wider water resources sector, with WATSAN agencies remaining comparatively aloof. To some extent this is related to the very local nature of domestic water and sanitation. Broader catchment-based issues can seem less relevant to the promoters of community-based participatory programmes to bring improved water and sanitation services to poor rural households or peri-urban squatter settlements. It is increasingly apparent though that these priority targets of WATSAN programmes have much to gain from being part of a movement towards IWRM. Isolation is not an option. There is not enough water available to allow the inefficiencies and waste of uni-sectoral development. By contrast, the potential gains of multi-sectoral planning and development offer a far greater prospect of extending water and sanitation coverage towards achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. As we will see in the next section, it is at community and micro-catchment level that IWRM implementation needs to start, and WATSAN offers an appealing entry point for IWRM initiatives.