Home / ToolBox / Policy Choices and Challenges: 1 Why and how IWRM

Policy Choices and Challenges

1 Why and how IWRM

This introductory section of the Global Water Partnership’s ToolBox for Integrated Water Resources Management is intended for policy makers and decision takers who need to make informed choices about appropriate water governance and management reforms. Such policy makers will be well aware that their country, region, or locality is facing severe water problems and they will have recognised that these problems cannot be tackled effectively with current policies, governance structures and management practices. They will typically be faced with diverse, often conflicting, opinions from water practitioners and other specialist advisors about the types of reform, which are necessary. Many will also know of reform attempts made elsewhere which have yielded limited benefits or have had unintended and undesirable consequences.

Neither this section nor the full ToolBox is prescriptive; there is no set blueprint for reform which will yield good results in all countries. Policy makers will need to make judgements about which reform measures, management tools or institutional arrangements are most appropriate given the particular cultural, social, political, economic and environmental circumstances which provide the contextual setting for the reforms. The section has been designed to help policy makers ask the right questions, to test whether reform proposals are capable of addressing the specific water problems of a country or locality, to evaluate whether suggested measures are compatible with existing endowments of financial and human capital; and to assess whether specific management tools can effectively be utilised on their own or can only fulfil their objectives if accompanied by a more far ranging packages of changes.


If effective, long lasting solutions to water problems are to be found, a new water governance and management paradigm is required. Such a new paradigm is encapsulated in the 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 eco-systems’ (Technical Advisory Committee 2000).

IWRM explicitly challenges conventional water development and management systems. It starts with the recognition that traditional top-down, supply led, technically based and sectoral approaches to water management are imposing unsustainably high economic, social and ecological costs on human societies and on the natural environment. If they persist, water scarcity and deteriorating water quality will become critical factors limiting future economic development, the expansion of food production and the provision of basic health and hygiene services to millions of disadvantaged people. Business as usual is neither environmentally sustainable, nor is it sustainable in financial and social terms. The traditional paradigm of publicly financed and managed, low cost or no cost recovery water services provision is beyond the financial capacity of most governments. Under investment and exacerbated conflicts over the allocation of water goods and services are inevitable with potentially disastrous economic and social consequences.

As a process of change, which seeks to shift water development and management systems from their currently unsustainable forms, IWRM has no fixed beginnings and will probably never end. The global economy and society are dynamic and the natural environment is also subject to change, IWRM systems will, therefore, need to be responsive to change and be capable of adapting to new economic, social and environmental conditions and to changing human values. IWRM is not an end in itself but a means of achieving three key strategic objectives:

  • Efficiency, since, given scarcity of resources (natural, financial and human), it is important to attempt to maximise the economic and social welfare derived not only from the water resources base but also from investments in water services provision.
  • Equity in the allocation of scarce water resources and services across different economic and social groups is vital to reduce conflict and promote socially sustainable development.
  • Environmental sustainability, as ultimately all attempts at water management reform will fail if the water resources base and associated ecosystems continue to be regarded as infinitely robust and we continue to put at risk ‘the water system that we depend on for our survival’ (World Water Commission 2000)

IWRM Principles – The Governance Challenge

IWRM draws its inspiration from the Dublin Principles. It necessitates a more holistic approach to management, with attempts being made not only to consider the interdependencies within natural systems, but also the way that economic and social systems affect the demands placed on the resource base. It also requires a more participatory approach, emphasising the need for more stakeholder involvement in water development and management, including recognition of the vital role played by women as decision makers and water users. Finally, it necessitates consideration of water as an economic good, which cannot continue to be freely available for all competing users and uses. Demands will inevitably outstrip the capacity of the resource base to deliver services unless mechanisms exist to make users aware of the provision costs (including the environmental costs) involved.

IWRM, therefore represents a major challenge for policy makers. It requires a break with tradition, from the sectoral to integrated management, from top-down to stakeholder and demand responsive approaches, from supply fix to demand management, from command and control to more co-operative or distributive forms of governance, from closed expert driven management organisations to more open, transparent and communicative bodies. IWRM is ultimately about changing the nature of water governance, which is defined as ‘the range of political, social, economic and administrative systems that are in place to develop and manage water resources, and the delivery of water services, at different levels of society (GWP, January 2002)

Start Somewhere: Do nothing is not an option

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 more difficult to tackle.

It is important to keep in mind that the IWRM is a process of change; a process which can start from small beginnings. There is no such thing as a perfect IWRM system and the search for perfection can lead to action atrophy. Policy makers should think in terms of gradual, incremental change; identify opportunities for reform as circumstances alter and use all windows of opportunity to nudge the reform process forward. A crisis may, for example, provide such a window of opportunity but it will be vital to ensure that the response to a crisis challenges rather than reinforces the status quo. For instance, after a major flood event it is easy to give in to demands for more investment in protection infrastructure, but a policy maker thinking in IWRM terms will want to ask whether there are alternatives such as improved land zoning. Clearly during the process of change sectoral developments will continue, but it is imperative to keep questioning whether such developments are compatible with IWRM and rigorously challenge those that are clearly incompatible.

Principles for Effective Water Governance

  • Open and Transparent: Institutions should work in an open and transparent manner
  • Inclusive and Communicative: Improved participation – depending on all levels of government - is likely to create more confidence in the end result and in the institutions that deliver policies.
  • Policies and action must be Coherent and Integrative:
  • Equitable and Ethical: All men and women should have opportunities to improve or maintain their well-being. Equity between and among the various interest groups, stakeholders, and consumer-voters needs to carefully monitored throughout the process of policy development and implementation.

In terms of Performance and Operation, good governance requires that processes and operations are:

  • Accountable: Roles in the legislative and executive processes need to be clear. Each institution must explain and take responsibility for what it does.
  • Efficient: providing economic efficiency, and also concepts of political, social, and environmental efficiency
  • Responsive and Sustainable: Policies must deliver what is needed on the basis of demand, clear objectives, an evaluation of future impact and, where available, of past experience

CAWater-Info / Knowledge Base /