Is IWRM (Integrated Water Resources Management) sometimes a barrier to effective water resource management?

23 February 2014

Photo: Bill Harding

Photo: Bill Harding

The concept of Integrated Water Resource Management, nowadays commonly known by its acronym IWRM, has been around for a very long time.  Nowadays the IWRM paradigm, if we can call it that, dominates within political and institutional decision making processes.  But has this been healthy?  Has, in fact, the integration of specialisations across all water resource components been comprehensive enough to derive a truly holistic and, moreover pragmatic, IWRM protocol?  From my own experience I do not believe that this is the case.  In a paper just published in the International Journal of Water Resources Management, authors Giordano and Shah, present a cogent argument that echoes some of my concerns.

Their abstract reads as follows (you download the whole paper if you so wish):

Integrated water resources management provides a set of ideas to help us manage water more holistically. However, these ideas have been formalized over time in what has now become, in capitals, Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), with specific prescriptive principles whose implementation is often supported by donor funding and international advocacy. IWRM has now become an end in itself, in some cases undermining functioning water management systems, in others setting back needed water reform agendas, and in yet others becoming a tool to mask other agendas. Critically, the current monopoly of IWRM in global water management discourse is shutting out alternative thinking on pragmatic solutions to existing water problems. This paper explains these issues and uses examples of transboundary water governance in general, groundwater management in India and rural–urban water transfer in China to show that there are (sometimes antithetical) alternatives to IWRM which are being successfully used to solve major water problems. The main message is that we should simply get on with pragmatic politics and solutions to the world’s many individual water challenges. 

In summary, the overriding concern is that the problem, its nature and specificity notwithstanding, often has to be panel-beaten into a form that can be addressed by IWRM prescriptions, rather than having the option to derive a case-specific, practical and pragmatic solution.  Any approach that suggests that all water resource management problems can conform a specific set of prescripts is more ecosystem management than ecosystem management, and often reflects on a lack of comprehensive skills and experience within the group(s) who draft such policies.  This is bureaucratic characteristic born of a need to create policies and rules.

Effective water resource management needs to be sufficiently elastic and ensure that the manner in which the policies are formulated does not exclude thinking and skills that may be fundamental to finding real solutions.  As Giordano and Shah note, IWRM’s rise to discourse domination has shut out alternative thinking on water challenges.  Their conclusions will, no doubt, cause many who make a living out of drafting this type of policy to fume and gripe but they need to take the message to heart.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *