What is IWRM?

Water is a critical but often overlooked element in sustainable development. A water governance paradigm is required if effective, long lasting solutions to water problems are to be found.

Such a paradigm is encapsulated in the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) concept, which has been defined by GWP as "a process which 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."

This integrated approach explicitly challenges conventional, fragmented water development and management systems. The emphasis is on coordinated decision making across sectors and scales. Recognising that exclusively top-down, supply-led, technically-based, and sectoral approaches to water managment are imposing unsustainably high economic, social, and ecological costs on human societies and on the environment. 

As a process of change which seeks to shift water development and management systems from unsustainable forms to more sustainable ones, IWRM has no fixed beginning and will probably never end.

The global economy, our society, and the environment are dynamic, hence IWRM will need to be responsive to change and capable of adapting to new conditions and changing human values.

IWRM is not an end in itself but a means of achieving three key strategic objectives.

  • efficiency to make water resources go as far as possible;
  • equity in the allocation of water across social and economic groups;
  • environmental sustainability, to protect the water resources base and associated ecosystems.

It would be easy for a policy maker faced with the prospect of wholesale governance change to conclude that it is all too complex with too many difficult trade-offs and choices to make. It may seem much easier and certainly politically safer to maintain current policies and practices and avoid confronting the vested interests who gain from the status quo. However, doing nothing is not an option; problems will simply get worse and be more difficult to tackle.

IWRM should be viewed as a process rather than a one-shot approach - one that is long-term and forward-moving; iterative rather than linear in nature. There is no such thing as a perfect IWRM system.

Posted: 2013-07-22


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