Why Integrated Water Resources Management might be causing more harm than good

Many parts of the world are failing to tackle water scarcity effectively because of the dominance of a set of water management principles that sometimes fail to take account of real-world problems, according to a new research paper.

The strongly-worded critique from Mark Giordano, Georgetown University, and Tushaar Shah, International Water Management Institute (IWMI), states that the widespread acceptance of the approach known as Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) without due consideration of the local context can cause more harm than good.

River in Tamil Nadu

“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with striving for the ideals embodied by IWRM,” says Shah. “But we need to accept that they don’t suit all situations and that on these occasions we need to step back from the ideal solution in order to achieve a solution at all.”

“We should revert to the use of IWRM as guidelines rather than the precise letter of the law.”

The paper, published in the International Journal of Water Resources Development, incorporates many of the arguments put forward by Giordano in last year’s debate on IWRM hosted on the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE). You can find a robust response in defense of IWRM from the Global Water Partnership – an important IWMI partner – here.

“Discourse Domination”

IWRM regards water as a shared resource that should be managed jointly and equitably to improve livelihoods and protect ecosystems. But rather than being a useful toolkit of interventions to help address water management challenges, Giordano and Shah argue that IWRM has become a “brand” pursued as “an end in itself” at the expense of more nuanced responses. They argue that focusing on IWRM “has, in some cases, actually taken us further away from the goals of better water management,” and call for more pragmatic use of IWRM principles of IWRM in tackling specific problems, instead of treating them as universal recommendations. For them, equally troubling is that “IWRM’s rise to discourse domination has shut out alternative thinking on water challenges.”

Giordano and Shah also highlight a number of successful interventions that have strayed from the core principles of IWRM. In the Indian state of Gujarat, for example, the idea of introducing water pricing to regulate demand – a central tenet of IWRM – was deeply unpopular with farmers, despite dwindling reserves of groundwater for irrigation. Instead, the solution was to ration the electricity used to pump the water. As a result, groundwater levels are recovering without affecting food production, electricity has been freed-up for homes, schools and hospitals, and village life has “radically improved.”

In China’s Hubei Province, they point to the “remarkable” success of a top-down approach to improving water management by rice farmers. Faced with the growing demand for water, caused by rapid urbanization, officials simply allocated more water to cities, forcing farmers to respond by building their own ponds to capture runoff and reducing the overall amount of water they used for irrigation. Rice productivity increased and water productivity “skyrocketed.” According to Giordano and Shah, this hierarchical approach is incompatible with the principle of inclusive decision-making at the heart of IWRM.

In the article, Giordano and Shah question other IWRM principles, such as the idea that river basins should be the fundamental units for developing policies on water use. They say solving practical problems, such as the process of creating agreements and establishing institutions for transboundary water management, are often more important than using the ‘correct’ hydrological scale.

For Giordano and Shah, these – and other examples in the paper – point to the practical limits of the IWRM brand. “We need to put the problems first and then work to find pragmatic solutions, whether they use IWRM principles or not,” they conclude.

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Read the article:

Giordano, M.; Shah, T. 2014. From IWRM back to integrated water resources management. International Journal of Water Resources Development. DOI: 10.1080/07900627.2013.851521

Mark Giordano is Associate Professor of Environment and Energy, School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, USA, and Tushaar Shah is Senior Fellow at the International Water Management Institute.

IWRM debate:

WLE Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog:

When solving water problems, pragmatic often trumps perfect

Cease-fire on IWRM