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edit  ·  Toolkit IWRM
Key issues: IWRM Planning | National Water and Sanitation Planning | Decentralization of Water Decision Making

Experience and Case Studies:

Other articles:

Performance and Capacity of River Basin Organizations | River Basin Organizations | River basin councils | IWRM - Sustainable Water Governance on the National Level

Terms & Synonyms

Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM)

Official WHO Definition

Other Definitions


Interpretations and Explanations


Integrated water resources management is a systematic process for the sustainable development, allocation and monitoring of water resource use in the context of social, economic and environmental objectives.

At its simplest, integrated water resources management is a logical and intuitively appealing concept. Its basis is that the many different uses of finite 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 is wasteful and inherently unsustainable.

Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is a cross-sectoral policy approach, designed to replace the traditional, fragmented sectoral approach to water resources and management that has led to poor services and unsustainable resource use. IWRM is based on the understanding that water resources are an integral component of the ecosystem, a natural resource, and a social and economic good.

Agenda 21, Chapter 18 states that “Integrated water resources management is based on the perception of water as an integral part of the ecosystem, a natural resource and a social and economic good, whose quantity and quality determine the nature of its utilization”.

GWP2 defines as a process 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 approach promotes more coordinated development and management of:

  • land and water
  • surface water and groundwater,
  • the river basin and its adjacent coastal and marine environment, and
  • upstream and downstream interests.

It is also about reforming human systems to enable people to obtain sustainable and equitable benefits from those resources. For policy-making and planning, taking an approach requires that:

  • water development and management takes into account the various uses of water and the range of people’s water needs;
  • stakeholders are given a voice in water planning and management, with particular attention to securing the involvement of women and the poor;
  • policies and priorities consider water resources implications, including the two-way relationship between macroeconomic policies and water development, management, and use;
  • water-related decisions made at local and basin levels are along the lines of, or at least do not conflict with, the achievement of broader national objectives; and
  • water planning and strategies are incorporated into broader social, economic, and environmental goals.

An approach focuses on three basic pillars and explicitly aims at avoiding a fragmented approach of water resources management by considering the following aspects: 1) an enabling environment of suitable policies, strategies and legislation for sustainable water resources development and management 2) putting in place the institutional framework through which to put into practice the policies, strategies and legislation 1) setting up the management instruments required by these institutions to do their job.

Key principles of IWRM

  • Water policies should focus on both the management of water (demand) and the provision of water (supply);
  • Government regulatory frameworks are critical in fostering the sustainable development of water resources;
  • Water resources should be managed at the lowest appropriate level (i.e., in communities and villages as opposed to in capitals); and
  • Women should be recognized for and supported in the central role they play in the provision, management and safeguarding of water

Applying IWRM

IWRM is a challenge as it depends upon effective, transparent governing institutions (see institutional building). Rigid functional divisions within governments as well as international development agencies work against the types of cross-cutting, holistic approaches to development planning and resource management that IWRM requires. Building capacity for integrated programming, when ministries organized along sectoral lines and poverty reduction and environmental protection/management plans are drawn up separately, continues to be difficult.

IWRM should be viewed as a process rather a one-shot approach -one that is long-term and forward-moving but iterative rather than linear in nature. As a process of change which seeks to shift water development and management systems from their currently unsustainable forms, IWRM has no fixed beginnings or endings. There is no one correct administrative model. The art of IWRM lies in selecting, adjusting and applying the right mix of these tools for a given situation. Agreeing on milestones and time-frames for completing the strategy is critical for success. Implementation may take place on a step-by-step basis, in terms of geographical scope and the sequence and timing of reforms. Scope, timing, and content of measures can be adjusted according to experience. This offers room for change, improvement and process adjustment, provided that the proper bases for sound decision making have been established. In developing a strategy and framework for change, it is important to recognize that the process of change is unlikely to be rapid.

The main application happens on basin and local (see: Institutional support at local level)- i.e. meso and micro level.

Stages in IWRM Planning and Implementation
Stages in IWRM Planning and Implementation

Origin of the the integrated water resources management approach

In the course of civilization, people have come to understand that water is the principal element of nature that has to be managed thoroughly based on the integration of various waters, users and impacts that determine sustainability, efficiency and safety of access to water. It is those living in the new millennium that get to witness a growing water deficit in nearly all parts of the Earth. Today, annual per capita fresh water resources available for use come to 750 m3. By 2050 this figure will decrease to 450 m3 per second even without account of climate change. This means that over 80% of the world’s countries will cross the UN water deficit line [1].

The contemporary framework of integrated water resources management was put forward at the renowned Dublin conference in 1992 as four principles that became the basis for future global water reform [2].

Principle 1. Fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment

Fresh water is a finite resource. This is supported by the quantitative review of global water cycle, which suggests a fixed annual volume of water. Fresh water is a natural resource that needs to be maintained by ensuring effective management of water resources. Water is needed for different purposes, functions and services, therefore, water management should be integrated and take account of both demand for and threat to this resource. This principle assigns a river basin or a catchment area to be a water management unit, which is the so-called hydrographical approach to water management.

Principle 2. Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policy-makers at all levels

Water is a resource that affects all. True participation is ensured only when all stakeholders are involved in the decision making. A participatory approach involving all stakeholders is the best strategy to achieve long-term accord and consensus. Participation means taking responsibility for and acknowledging impact of this sector on other water users and water ecosystems as well as committing to increasingly effective use and sustainable development of water resources. It should be noted that participation does not necessarily result in consensus, therefore, arbitrage and other conflict resolution mechanisms should be ensured. Governments should work to ensure participation of all stakeholders, in particular, vulnerable groups of the population. It should be admitted that today poor groups of the population will benefit least from a mere participatory environment without enhanced participation mechanisms. Decentralizing decision making to the lowest level is the only strategy to enhance participation.

Principle 3. Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water

It is generally accepted that women play a key role in the collection and safeguarding of water for domestic purposes and, in many instances, agricultural use. At the same time, women play a less powerful role than men in the management, problem analysis and decision making related to water. IWRM demands the role of women to be acknowledged. In order to ensure full and effective participation of women at all levels of decision making, account should be taken of approaches that public agencies use to assign social, economic and cultural functions to men and women. There is an important link between gender equality and sustainable water management. Participation of men and women playing a decision making role at all levels of water management can expedite the achievement of sustainability, while integrated and sustainable water resources management greatly contributes to gender equality by improving access of both women and men to water and water-related services, thus serving their daily needs.

Principle 4. Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic and social good

Within this principle, it is vital to recognize first the basic right of all human beings to have access to clean water and sanitation at an affordable price. Managing water as an economic good is an important way of achieving efficient and equitable use, and of encouraging conservation and protection of water resources. As soon as water is collected from a source, it has a price as an economic and social good. Past failure to effectively manage water resources is associated with failure to recognize the economic value of water.

Water cost and charge are two different things that should be clearly differentiated. As a regulating or economic mean, water cost in alternative uses is important to efficiently distribute water as a scarce resource. Water charge is used as an economic tool to support vulnerable groups and influence their water saving and efficient use behaviors by providing incentives to manage demand, cost recovery and readiness of individual users to pay for extra water management services. Recognizing water as an economic good is a key decision-making tool to distribute water among different sectors of the economy and different users within sectors. It is particularly important when water supply cannot be increased.

Goals of integrated water resources management

While declaring the goal of the IWRM principles as a milestone to achieve sustainable co-existence of human beings and the environment, it should be born in mind that such integration should be ensured through three dimensions, which are area, social hierarchy and time. All beneficiaries, rather than water organizations alone, should work together to achieve the integration of these elements and dimensions. Here, political and scientific circles such as natural, social, political and technical sciences should take a lead in the matter.

IWRM is a new approach to water management that promotes activity and collaboration between communities, society and water users and, at the same time, ensures involvement of the government and local leaders to achieve the Millennium Goals set forth at the UN Summit in 2000. Specifically, these are:

  1. By achieving equitable, sustainable and guaranteed access to water, IWRM leads to reduced loss of produce resulting from disrupted water supply and, consequently, helps increase incomes and reduce poverty (for example, in Malaysia poverty has reduced from 60% to 0 over the last 30 years).
  2. By developing related sectors, internal and external investment and release of water, IWRM creates an environment for additional production, which promotes employment and income. For example, national incomes of Kazaly and Aral regions of Kzylorda oblast nearly doubled over 2002-2006 due to sustainable use of the Syrdarya delta!!!
  3. By creating sustainable drinking water supply and improving quality of water in rivers and other sources, IWRM contributes to better health of the population.
  4. By recognizing the principal role of water for ecosystems and ensuring release of water for natural purposes, IWRM helps environmental management and recovery.
  5. Finally, IWRM enables integrated use of water energy to increase water energy production, which contributes to sustainable energy supply during peak periods.
  6. By involving many people, IWRM promotes water education and awareness.

Read more: FAQ:What is integrated water resources management?


  1. Water a Shared Responsibility. The UN World Water Development Report 2. UNESCO-WWAP. 2006
  2. The Dublin Principles for Water as Reflected in a Comparative Assessment of Institutional and Legal Arrangements for Integrated Water Resources Management. By Miguel Solanes and Fernando Gonzales-Villareal. TEC Background Paper No. 3, Global Water Partnership, Stockholm, Sweden, 1999

WHO Lexicon page (translations and examples)

See also

most recently edited WaterWiki articles on IWRM
  1. National IWRM Diagnostic Report Papua New Guinea
  2. National IWRM Diagnostic Report Samoa
  3. National IWRM Diagnostic Report Vanuatu
  4. National IWRM Diagnostic Report Cook Islands
  5. Promoting IWRM and Fostering Transboundary Dialogue in Central Asia
  6. National IWRM and Water Efficiency Plan for Kazakhstan
  7. Integrated Water Resources Management in Action
  8. IWRM in Uzbekistan
  9. Energy and Environment Group Global Cooperation Framework
  10. Integrated Water Resources Management:A Framework for Action in Freshwater and Coastal Systems
  11. Kazakshtan First Draft National IWRM and WE Plan
  12. Towards sustainable water resources management - a strategic approach
  13. Proposed Integrated Land and Water Resources Management System (ILWRMS) for the Bang Pakong river basin: lessons from a user needs assessment
  14. Setting the Stage for Change - IWRM Status in 2005
  15. Kazakhstan National IWRM and Water Efficiency Plan Concept Note
  16. IWRM from a policy transfer perspective
  17. Image:Leaflet Promoting IWRM in CA.pdf
  18. UNW-DPAC IWRM Reader
  19. National Policy Dialogues on Integrated Water Resources Management
  20. Adaptation to Climate Change through Effective Water Governance in Ecuador

External Resources

GWP Toolbox (Direct Link) by Global Water Partnership

Cap-Net's online tutorial [1]

UNDP's own Definition & Approach


Performance and Capacity of River Basin Organizations

UNECE Website on National Policy Dialogues on IWRM


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