What is Integrated Water Resources Management?

Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is an approach that promotes the coordinated 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.

This includes more coordinated development and management of:

- Land and water
- Surface water and groundwater
- The river basin and its adjacent coastal and marine environment
- Upstream and downstream interests

However, IWRM is not just about managing physical resources; it is also about reforming human systems to enable people, both men and women, to benefit from those resources.

At its simplest, IWRM is a logical and appealing concept. Its basis is that the many different uses of water resources are interdependent. That is evident to us all. High irrigation demands and polluted drainage flows from agriculture mean less freshwater for drinking or industrial use; contaminated municipal and industrial wastewater pollutes rivers and threatens ecosystems; if water has to be left in a river to protect fisheries and ecosystems, less can be diverted to grow crops. There are plenty more examples of the basic theme that unregulated use of scarce water resources are wasteful and inherently unsustainable.

Management is used in its broadest sense. It emphasizes that we must not only focus on development of water resources but that we must consciously manage water development in a way that ensures long term sustainable use for future generations.

Integrated management means that all the different uses of water resources are considered together. Water allocations and management decisions consider the effects of each use on the others. They are able to take account of overall social and economic goals, including the achievement of sustainable development. This also means ensuring coherent policy making related to all sectors. As we shall see, the basic IWRM concept has been extended to incorporate participatory decision-making. Different user groups (farmers, communities, environmentalists) can influence strategies for water resource development and management. That brings additional benefits, as informed users apply local self-regulation in relation to issues such as water conservation and catchment protection far more effectively than central regulation and surveillance can achieve.

Integrated Water Resources Management is therefore a systematic process for the sustainable development, allocation and monitoring of water resource use in the context of social, economic and environmental objectives. It contrasts with the sectoral approach that is still applied in many countries. When responsibility for drinking water rests with one agency, for irrigation water with another and for the environment with yet another, lack of cross-sectoral linkages leads to uncoordinated water resource development and management, resulting in conflict, waste and unsustainable systems.

The process further involves participatory approaches which include discussions, planning and negotiations between stakeholders of the basin on important issues to achieve social equity, economic efficiency and environmental sustainability.

Determining the content for an IWRM strategy

1. Define strategy goals and objectives based on national development goals and water-related challenges.

2. Define measurable targets and indicators for goals and objectives.

3. Identify necessary changes in infrastructure, service-delivery systems, and governance that are needed to achieve the targets.

4. Develop a plan of action for implementing these changes that takes into account (a) relative priority, (b) political feasibility and (c) cost. Note: Give priority in the short-term to actions that are relatively simple to implement and help develop impetus for change through quick and visible gains.

5. Implement short-term action plan with thorough monitoring and evaluation. Adapt long-term strategic management as per insights derived from monitoring and evaluation.

Once the areas targeted for change will depend on a country’s particular goals, water challenges, and current situation, there are not specific actions for inclusion in an IWRM strategy. However, there are basic criteria for good governance [110 KB] .

Mapping out a plan of action: weighing options

Once areas to target for change have been broadly identified, the challenge becomes mapping out a more detailed plan for action. This involves examination of:

• What is feasible given the current political, economic and social context?
• What types of change should be prioritized? Do some changes need to happen first to make others possible?
• What are the relative costs and benefits between various change options?
• How do the changes work together as a mutually reinforcing package?

Improving water governance is not just limited to government. Raising awareness, access to information and building the capacity of civil society organizations is also a part of most successful action packages. And it does not focus only on the water sector. Often changes will need to encompass policies on trade, land management, agriculture, energy, environment and others.

Technical Brief

For more detailed information about IWRM strategy, planning, monitoring, evaluation indicators and integrated approaches, please click on the briefs below: