Integrated Water Resources Management: Basic Concepts


Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) has been defined by the Technical Committee of the Global Water Partnership (GWP) as "a process which 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."

IWRM is based on the three principles: social equity, economic efficiency and environmental sustainability. Considering these principles means answering the following questions:
- How will my decision/ action affect access for other users to water or the benefits from its use?
- Will my decision/ action result in the ‘most efficient use of the available financial & water resources?
- How will my decision/ action affect the functioning of natural systems?

Social equity means ensuring equal access for all users (particularly marginalised and poorer user groups) to an adequate quantity and quality of water necessary to sustain human well being. The right of all users to the benefits gained from the use of water also needs to be considered when making water allocations. Benefits may include enjoyment of resources through recreational use or the financial benefits generated from the use of water for economic purposes.

Economic Efficiency means bringing the greatest benefit to the greatest number of users possible with the available financial and water resources. This requires that the most economically efficient option is selected. The economic value is not only about price – it should consider current and future social and environmental costs and benefits.

Ecological Sustainability requires that aquatic ecosystems are acknowledged as users and that adequate allocation is made to sustain their natural functioning. Achieving this criterion also requires that land uses and developments that negatively impact these systems are avoided or limited.

Operationally, IWRM approaches involve applying knowledge from various disciplines as well as the insights from diverse stakeholders to devise and implement efficient, equitable and sustainable solutions to water and development problems. As such, IWRM is a comprehensive, participatory planning and implementation tool for managing and developing water resources in a way that balances social and economic needs, and that ensures the protection of ecosystems for future generations. Water’s many different uses—for agriculture, for healthy ecosystems, for people and livelihoods—demands coordinated action. An IWRM approach is an open, flexible process, bringing together decision-makers across the various sectors that impact water resources, and bringing all stakeholders to the table to set policy and make sound, balanced decisions in response to specific water challenges faced.

It has been agreed to consider water as an 'finite and economic commodity taking into account of affordability and equity criteria', in order to emphasize on its scarcity in the Dublin Statement:

  • Fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment.
  • Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policy makers at all levels.
  • Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water.
  • Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good, taking into account of affordability and equity criteria.



IWRM aims to create sustainable water security within the present constraints and to improve the conditions in the catchment basin. Some important conditions for implementing IWRM are presented below (Source: UN World Water Development Report 3)

Political will and commitment: Political will at all levels can help unite all stakeholders and move the process forward. It is especially needed if the resulting plan or arrangement would create or require changes in legal and institutional structures, or if controversies and conflicts among stakeholders exist. Access to actors outside the water box is essential to move political will, gain sectoral support and ease public pressure for IWRM implementation.

Basin management plan and clear vision: Water resources development coordinated among various sectors and users is facilitated by the preparation of a master plan that reflects the individual sector plans and offers the most effective and efficient utilization of the resource.

Participation and coordination mechanisms, fostering information-sharing and exchange: The identification of key stakeholders can be facilitated through interviews and meetings. Stakeholder involvement can be defined appropriately for local conditions and improved gradually. Initial sharing of general basin-wide data and information, and further sharing of more specific information, will assist the self-sustaining system.

Capacity development: Capacity development and training priorities should be expressed at all levels, including that of decentralized local government. Participants who may be adversely impacted and/or socially marginalized may be stimulated to participate within a consensus-building strategy.

Well-defined flexible and enforceable legal frameworks and regulation: It is necessary to assemble and review the full range of existing laws and regulations that
apply to water-related activities and determine how existing legislation adapts or can be better adapted to accommodate sustainability and integration with regard towater resources management.

Water allocation plans: As water is a shared resource, water rights should be flexible in terms of allocation in order to accommodate changes. Preparing a master plan that reflects individual sector plans facilitates the coordination among various sectors and advocates the most appropriate utilization of a basin’s resource.

Adequate investment, financial stability and sustainable cost recovery: Coordination for IWRM implementation needs financial sustainability – such as the promotion of cost recovery – and must consider long-term management. Various combinations and roles of international financing and donors such as government grants, public resources, user charges and taxes, donor funds, basin environmental trust funds can be considered as funding options.

Good knowledge of the natural resources present in the basin: Adequate knowledge and information on the water resources inventory and human resources of the basin is desirable. Including scientists as water resource managers can help maintain and accrue sound knowledge of the natural resources.

Comprehensive monitoring and evaluation: Monitoring and evaluation are essential for ensuring that the current management of water resources is properly implemented, and to identify the needs for adjusting management strategies. Upgrading new technologies is vital for effective performance both of local and central water management.


River Basin Organisations

River Basin Organisations (RBOs) are designed to help bring about IWRM and improve water governance in transboundary water basins. These organiations are becoming increasingly significant in all regions of the world. Historically, shared rivers were governed through treaties at the international level, or interagency compacts at local or state levels. Today river basin organizations constitute a fast-growing alternative. The International Network of Basin Organizations (INBO) currently has 133 member organizations in 50 countries, and this does not include all RBOs at the local and state levels. These forums enable governments that share rivers to come together to coordinate activities, share information, and develop integrated management approaches. RBOs are the most common expressions of transboundary environmental/water governance. 

An International River Basin Organizations database is available here.


Relevant Issues

One of the major fields of focus has been to increase women's involvement in drinking water and sanitation projects, especially in the developing countries. International Water Management Institute (IWMI), UNESCO and International Water and Sanitation Centre are some of the institutes that have undertaken research in this area.



Rahaman, M.M. & Varis, O. 2005. Integrated water resources management: evolution, prospects and future challenges. Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy1(1):15-21. Published online April 12, 2005.

Biswas,A.K.,Varis,O. & Tortajada, C. (Eds.) 2005. Integrated Water Resources Management in South and Southeast Asia. New Delhi : Oxford University Press.

ICLEI (2008): Reaping the Benefits - How Local Governments Gain from IWRM

Rahaman, M.M., Varis, O. & Kajander, T. 2004. EU Water Framework Directive Vs. Integrated Water Resources Management: The Seven Mismatches. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 20(4): 565-575.

GWP/INBO (2009), Handbook for IWRM in Basins [1]

GWP (2009), Triggering change in water policies [2]

GWP (2004): Catalyzing Change: Handbook for developing IWRM and water efficiency strategies, [3]

GWP (2004): IWRM and Water Efficiency Plans by 2005: Why, What and How?, [4]

External links

IWRM Guidelines at River Basin Level (UNESCO, 2008)


The main source of this article is Wikipedia

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