Updated - Monday 28 June 2004
It is more than 12 years since the International Conference on Water and Environment in Dublin (The Dublin Conference) brought the concept of “integrated water resources management” on to the global development agenda. In that time, IWRM has become universally accepted as the way to manage scarce water resources in a sustainable way.
Widespread acceptance of the IWRM concept is not surprising. There are too many examples of what can go wrong when development and management of water resources is left to individual sector agencies: over-pumping of groundwater for irrigation leaving life-sustaining handpumps high and dry; pollution by industrial and domestic wastewater making rivers unusable by downstream farmers or domestic consumers and destroying aquatic ecosystems; high reservoir levels for power generation inhibiting flood mitigation; etc, etc.
“Integration” has an intrinsic appeal, which is only increased as demand for finite water resources grows and climatic changes threaten to reduce the amount of water available at critical times. Unfortunately, implementing IWRM involves more than an act of faith. The water sector’s legislative and institutional development springs from times when water resources were considered (and indeed, usually were) plentiful in relation to the demands placed on them. As a result, in most countries, separate agencies and ministries had responsibility for the development and management of water resources for agriculture, municipal water supply, sanitation and wastewater disposal, power generation, navigation, and environmental protection.
This institutional quagmire is a major obstacle to IWRM. Even in the industrialised countries, where institutions are generally more robust and human and financial resources less constrained, the challenge of blending IWRM with privatisation, public participation and regulation has rarely been met to the satisfaction of all sections of society. For developing countries, where resources, skills and institutional structures are seriously constrained, rapid progress towards full IWRM is little more than a pipe dream. But, that does not mean that the IWRM concept should be abandoned – far from it. The principles of integrated management are vital for all the water sub-sectors at community level, in local, regional and national government, and, especially, at catchment/river basin level.
That is why the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Cape Town in 2002, called on all countries to: “develop integrated water resource management and water efficiency plans by 2005, with support to developing countries”.