Celebrating World Water Day: Thinking Broadly, Acting Specifically

Roberto Lenton is Founding Executive Director of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute (DWFI). He is also former Chair of GWP’s Technical Committee, and he continues to support the work of GWP. For World Water Day 2014 he wrote a text in the Water for Food Blog about how to tackle nexuses.


At World Water Week in Stockholm last September, I participated in a session designed to foster a dialog between senior and young professionals. I was, needless to say, in the “senior” category. We’d been tasked with discussing the water/food/energy “Nexus Approach” and were given a set of questions in advance. The lively conversation raised many interesting points. It also exposed a fundamental difference in thinking that helps illuminate a debate I’ve seen intensifying in development circles.

As World Water Day and its water and energy theme are celebrated around the world tomorrow, it is timely to reflect on ways to approach nexuses in ways that are practical and expansive, rather than restrictive.

Some in that Stockholm session seemed to view the “Nexus Approach,” in capitals, as a defined way to organize and frame problems and reach solutions. The image that came to mind was a roadmap or path leading to a food, water and energy secure world.

In contrast, some of us didn’t accept the proposed framework. Our view was broader. Our experience working at the interface of multitudes of connections made us mindful of the different viewpoints, disciplines and scales that must meld to create the future we want. Instead of a rigid Nexus roadmap focused on water, food and energy, we envisioned a broader approach recognizing many interconnections, shifting and changing as conditions warrant and new insights emerge.

During the discussion, it became clear that this broader take had sparked an expansion of thinking. While we need to applaud the idea of celebrating nexuses and focusing attention on interconnections, we should also worry that focusing too much attention on a specific Nexus Approach in capitals gives it too much power. We must have practical, not prescribed, solutions.

Narrowly defining issues is not new. Government agencies, ministries, interest groups and the like have long operated within rigidly defined boundaries. But neither is the idea that things are interconnected. Most groundwater irrigation farmers are all too aware of the nexus between their water costs and their energy costs.

Opening yourself to the array of possibilities can be overwhelming. The innumerable interconnections among water, energy, food, health, policy, the environment, climate, culture, social welfare, history, economics and politics, to name a few, and all operating on scales ranging from the local to the global, is a daunting prospect.

The key – to borrow the environmental movement’s mantra – is to think broadly, act specifically.

Examples of specific acts abound. Just as important, though less tangible, is the need to think broadly and flexibly to inform the specific projects that change lives.

If creatively designed, institutions can provide important forums for the expansive thinking that create a shared vision and form interconnections among disparate groups. That work lays the foundation for acting specifically. Two examples of pioneering institutions that do just that come to mind.

More than 40 years ago, Nebraska created natural resources districts to conserve and protect the state’s natural resources. Arranged around watersheds and locally governed, NRDs have the flexibility to engage all stakeholders and to maneuver in ways that best serve the environment and communities. I have come to know these remarkable institutions first-hand since joining DWFI two years ago. The NRDs have successfully helped to conserve Nebraska’s portion of the nationally significant High Plains Aquifer. When extreme droughts hit, such as occurred in 2012, the water is there to save crops and livelihoods.

At a broader level, the Global Water Partnership, with which I was closely involved during its initial formative years, has grown into an extensive, worldwide network of governmental and non-governmental agencies, private sector groups, research institutes and others operating at different scales, from local to global. GWP brings together relevant stakeholders for the coordinated, strategic thinking and planning that lead to sustainable water management solutions and projects at all levels.

These examples highlight the vital role that flexible, creative institutions can play in expanding thinking and forming connections. Indeed, my most rewarding work has come from being involved in developing these types of institutions, from helping the International Water Management Institute get off the ground in the 1980s and 1990s to my current role as DWFI’s founding director. I’m motivated by the long-term impact achievable from working in that expansive space where so many different realms interconnect and where so many innovative solutions can be found.

On World Water Day, I celebrate the tremendous progress already achieved. Today, the challenges are growing even more complex. But I’m encouraged by my young colleagues in Stockholm and so many others who are embracing the larger possibilities we have yet to explore to achieve the future we want.

This text was originally published in DWFI’s Water for Food Blog.

Photo: GWP at World Water Week 2013

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Ensuring water flows through all effective development co-operation

Global Water Partnership contributed this blog to the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation (GPEDC) to mark World Water Day on Saturday, March 22, 2014.

Farmer  pump water to rice field

By Steven Downey, Global Water Partnership

Water is deeply connected to development. It intersects with virtually every sector in the fight against poverty, and it is clear that sustainable use of freshwater is essential for human development.

The world is consuming more freshwater than nature is able to replenish. And while we celebrate ever more people emerging from poverty, this also puts greater strain on the world’s water resources. Growing populations, and wealthier ones, require more food, energy and material goods. If we are going to have a healthy and prosperous future we have to solve the problems that we ourselves are creating. This raises important challenges for effective development co-operation to address. We need to understand the connections between water and development in order to find equitable ways of sharing limited water resources among many competing demands.

The challenge is simple to state if not to solve: how can we give everyone access to clean water and dignified sanitation while also meeting growing demand for water from other sectors such as agriculture, energy, and industry? Effective co-operation on water requires difficult conversations about how to allocate the resource and what trade-offs are involved. Government, industry, and civil society must work together to figure out how to sustainably manage a country’s water resources in ways that contribute to human health and development.

To celebrate World Water Day 2014’s focus on the connections between water and energy, Global Water Partnership has released a short video explaining the links between these two resources. Water is used to generate energy – and energy is used to provide water. Both are vital to human development and both require successful development co-operation outcomes. Co-operation and co-ordination across engineering, policy and management can maximise the supply of one resource while minimising overuse of the other.

Demand for energy and water also increases with income. In more developed countries, an average person uses nearly five times as much water as a person living in a developing country. Water usage is increasing along with the growing middle income class in the developing world. With the world’s population growing, living standards increasing and climate change putting pressure on water sources, the demand for water is becoming harder and harder to meet.

Because water is connected to virtually all areas of human activity, we need to take a holistic approach to how we manage the resource. Global Water Partnership  advocates for integrated water resources management, that is, the co-ordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources to maximise economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability the earth’s ecosystems.

Ultimately, we all want to achieve a water secure world. To do that, we need to understand water’s connection to climate change, trans-boundary co-operation, food, urbanisation, energy, and ecosystems—six areas highlighted by Global Water Partnership’s 2014-2019 strategy. Developed through a year-long process of regional dialogues and consultations with our growing network of over 2,900 partner organisations across 172 countries, the Towards 2020 strategy demonstrates how development co-operation is at the very core of what Global Water Partnership does. This strategy is about the stewardship of water resources for the benefit of societies and the environment. It calls for a public responsibility that requires co-operation across all sectors.

Global Water Partnership looks forward to the outcomes of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation’s First High-Level Meeting in Mexico next month as a way forward for stronger and better overall development co-operation. We are particularly eager for stronger global leadership because water intersects so many other sectors in what is ultimately a fight against poverty and for human development that also protects our environment.

This blog originally appeared on the GPEDC blog site.

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Passionately Committed to Water

In January 2014 Sara Ehrhardt left her home country Canada to join the GWP global secretariat as Senior Technical Officer in Stockholm, Sweden. Among her first assignments, she traveled to Korea as part of the preparatory work being undertaken for the 7th World Water Forum 2015. In this blog she reflects on her place in the wider “water world”.


Photo: Sara Ehrhardt in Korea.

Two months into my time at GWP, I have experienced what some might call a moment of insight.

There I was, sitting next to one of the World Water Council’s Governors as part of the World Water Forum’s 2nd Stakeholder Forum in Korea. I was at my first external meeting as part my new duties as GWP’s Senior Technical Officer.

My introduction to the water world was as a ’water warrior’ – the term used to describe activists challenging the commodification of water resources and advocating for the human right to water. I came into this work following the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and the 3rd World Water Forum in Tokyo.

This was before blogs existed –and the internet was only beginning to connect us in ways that allow a much broader group of actors to become aware of and participate in global sustainable development processes.

My early experiences connecting with water activists around the world led me to a career focused on building solutions across public, private, and not-for-profit sectors. I now bring a decade of experience in finance and environmental management to complement my water activist roots.

My views have not changed. I remain passionately committed to ensuring the voices of the most vulnerable have a place in water management discussions. And I continue to see the need for active and robust civil society and public sector engagement alongside private sector development efforts.

But my experiences both inside and outside of meetings like the Stakeholder Meeting in Korea have convinced me that the world needs us to move beyond ‘inside/outside’ discussions.

We have only one blue planet. We are all ‘inside’ when it comes to managing our limited water resources for sustainable human development. 

This is a critical moment, a time when world leaders are pondering where and how water fits within a post-2015 Development Agenda. Securing water for all is a clear development imperative but the complexities are enormous.

Moving forward, I am more convinced than ever that neutral platforms like the Global Water Partnership are essential for facilitating the difficult conversations needed to tackle integrated water management. It is for this reason that I am inspired to be joining GWP at this time. I look forward to collaborating across our diverse Network and to advancing our global water work.

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Groundwater: Often Invisible

Global Water Partnership regularly provides opportunities for students to do internships with the organization. Fanny Bontemps is studying a Masters in Sustainable Development at AgroParisTech in France. She assisted GWP with research on groundwater and drought topics. Here are her thoughts about her research.

This internship is part of a gap year I have chosen to do before my second year of a master’s degree at AgroparisTech, the French leading university in technologies for life, food and environment sciences. I have been working on African transboundary aquifers and how these non-renewable water resources could be used for a sustainable drought management approach in North Africa.

A lack of knowledge on groundwater has been noticed worldwide. Normally, groundwater is not visible; and until a problem arises, not much attention is being paid to this main fresh water resource. A lack of knowledge is accompanied by lack of information. Being the main fresh water resource in most arid regions of North Africa, groundwater deserves to be better known and sustainably managed.

Spring in desert

Photo: A well in the Sahara desert, Morocco.

To enhance knowledge on groundwater, I conducted research on four transboundary aquifers in North Africa to support the SITWA programme and future drought programmes in East and West Africa. The study of these four major aquifers in the Maghreb region, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, has highlighted common trends and challenges in groundwater extraction. Due to population growth and precipitation reduction, water demand is constantly increasing. These aquifers are partly or completely non-renewable, this first leads to groundwater drawdown or overexploitation, and then, to name but a few, to ecosystems disappearance and water quality decrease. These issues, currently being faced in groundwater management, seem to stem from a lack of knowledge. Both lead to an inadequate and non-sustainable groundwater management.

Having highlighted the challenges faced while managing non-renewable groundwater, I have started to think about recommendations for integrating groundwater in drought programmes. In order to figure out what had been done and what was currently carried out against drought in North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, I made an inventory of all drought programmes. Despite groundwater importance, this inventory has shown that no past or current programmes were focused on groundwater utilisation for drought management. Indeed, in such programmes it is crucial to find how to sustainably exploit a non-renewable resource.

Since current use patterns are not expected to reverse, the overall objective for reaching a sustainable groundwater management should be to abandon the current uncontrolled exploitation. In this new drought strategy, I have observed that three conditions should be fulfilled to reach sustainability: 1) establishing an effective groundwater utilisation, 2) improving population living conditions and the socio-economic development, and 3) making groundwater everybody´s responsibility.

I have learnt a lot doing this research, especially on challenges in African arid regions and on the way development programme are created, formulated and monitored. The hardest part for me was to find information on aquifers and drought programmes: groundwater is not well documented and there are plenty of different drought programmes, so finding precise information on programme dates or outcomes could turn out to be very difficult and time consuming. With more time at GWP I would have liked to follow West and East Africa drought programmes and work on other water-linked topics.

A Few Selected Links:

New Perspectives Paper on Urban Groundwater

A GWP Perspectives Paper: Groundwater Resources and Irrigated Agriculture

IWRM ToolBox: Groundwater Management Plans

New Handbook for Integrated Water Resources Management in the Basins of Transboundary Rivers, Lakes and Aquifers

GWP West Africa: Dialogue on Groundwater: Workshop to Finalize the Project Document

Posted in Drought, Partnership, Sustainable Development, Transboundary, Water resources management | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Water: A no-brainer for the post-2015 agenda

The following blog article was written by the Global Water Partnership for “Outreach“, a multi-stakeholder publication on climate change and sustainable development, produced by Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, in relation to GWP’s participation at COP19 in Warsaw, Poland.

Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines happened as if on cue – to put it crudely. As the world’s climate negotiators and policymakers were getting ready for another round of discussions in Poland, the shocking reality of Haiyan’s aftermath became a harsh reminder that extreme weather affects millions of people on earth. And while scientists say that a single storm cannot be blamed on climate change, nevertheless a catastrophe of this magnitude serves as a wake-up call for the international community. It comes only weeks after the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest findings, which reaffirmed that human-generated climate change is real.

Typhoon Kiko by Ernie Penaredondo

So on the first day of COP 19, the Philippines’ lead negotiator, Yeb Sano, made headlines with his tearful appeal to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiators: ‘We can stop this madness. Right here in Warsaw,’ Mr. Sano said, ‘we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action.’

Water is at the core of sustainable development. Climate change is the great spoiler because we know that the effects of climate change will be felt through the water cycle: more frequent and severe storms, more frequent and severe droughts and floods, sea level rise, glacier melt, etc.

At its seventeenth session, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC acknowledged that national adaptation planning can enable developing countries and Least Developed Countries (LDCs), to assess their vulnerabilities, mainstream climate change risks, and address adaptation. The COP established the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) process to facilitate adaptation planning.

So what do we need to do? Let us start by recognising that countries with robust water management systems, institutions, and water infrastructure are better able to cope with climate change impacts. And then, on a practical level, we can:

  • Develop the capacity of countries to build robust and flexible institutions that can respond to sudden changes and shocks. Capacity requirements include strengthening water resources monitoring and data collection, modelling, risk mapping and assessment, policy development, investment preparation, and performance measurement;
  • Support decisions on adaptation priorities with appropriate information, data, and knowledge;
  • Finance the implementation of NAPs – adapting to climate change will require the mobilisation of financial resources through the blending of funds from public, private, and multilateral sources; and
  • Prioritise no and low regret options – there is a high degree of uncertainty over climate change impacts, but managing natural resources in a sustainable way – avoiding over exploitation – will improve the resilience of natural systems under future climate scenarios.

Global Water Partnership supports countries in the NAP process through the Global Water, Climate and Development Programme (WACDEP), in particular countries who are trying to integrate water security and climate resilience in development planning and decision-making processes. WACDEP is running from 2011 to 2016 and targets 60 countries in Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Caucasus, Mediterranean and Latin America.

But there’s something more. 2015 is approaching fast and the world leaders are beginning to focus on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. If indeed water is at the core of sustainable development, and if climate change threatens that development, then what better way to address this ‘perfect storm’ than to have a dedicated Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on water, with associated targets on disaster risk reduction. Such a goal would contribute to the objectives of NAPs and promote coherence on water related adaptation. Furthermore, it would focus the attention of all governments on the task of improving the management of the world’s water resources: harnessing its productive power and minimising its destructive force. As Mr. Sano reminds us, ‘we cannot afford to procrastinate…’

More information



Photo: Typhoon Kiko by Ernie Penaredondo GWP/PWP

Posted in Climate change, COP19, Floods, IWRM, Partnership, Sustainable Development, UNFCCC | Leave a comment

Invest in the Future!

Helene Komlos Grill, Senior Communications Officer at the Global Water Partnership, attended the Budapest Water Summit 8-11 October 2013. These are her reflections about the Summit.

Budapest Water Summit plenary hall“Close your eyes and listen”, my colleague Dr Danka Thalmeinerova, GWP Senior Knowledge Management Officer, said to me at the recently finished Budapest Water Summit, organised by the Hungarian government 8-11 October 2013. “If you listen carefully to the young people talking at the Youth Forum, you will hear that there is no difference to what the High-Level Panel is saying”. I was told that this is because young people will not be listened to if they do not speak the language of the already established water community representatives.

The Budapest Water Summit was a big success for the water community and the hosting country Hungary. A call for a dedicated sustainable goal for water was clearly communicated at the highest level in the Budapest Water Statement, endorsed by the participants. “Water holds the key for sustainable development, and therefore it needs a dedicated sustainable development goal”, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in his inauguration speech.

A participatory approach with multi-stakeholder involvement, cooperation, improved governance structures, and capacity building of people and institutions was repeated as being the solution to moving to a more sustainable future where water is better managed and used.

However, many questions still remain. If the consensus is so big that an integrated approach to managing water resources is the best solution, how come that water is not valued higher? “Why is a country’s wealth expressed in gold, diamonds and oil and not by its water resources?” was a question asked at the event. The importance of water is not reflected in the investments made.

IWRM is about change. It is a process which aims at improving how we manage water, and in order to do so, we need to do things differently than we do today. IWRM provides the tools: it educates the people and institutions engaged, it invites stakeholders to discuss and have a say, it pushes us to talk and compromise, rather than to fight over the same resource. It provides a platform for cooperation.

If we say that we should do things differently, is it equal to inventing new terminology? Why not use what we already know and improve it? “The food-energy-water nexus and IWRM reinforce each other” said GWP Technical Committee Chair Dr Mohamed Ait-Kadi in a session at the Summit. If IWRM is the working model, new names for it only reinforce the fact that the cross-sectoral approach is what we need to use to make the necessary trade-offs to make change happen.

“The water crisis is mainly a governance crisis”, said GWP Chair Dr Ursula Schaefer-Preuss in a high-level panel. We therefore need to focus on educating the managers, the users, the decision and policy makers, to make sure they understand the true value of water, and how to manage it better.

And, we need to listen and be able to take on new ideas from the younger generation, even if they may not say what we have already heard before. The knowledge of what we know now has to be fed with new thinking so that the process of change does not stop. All the MDGs will not be achieved by 2015, and the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals therefore needs to take on from what has not been achieved, and make sure that the process of change continues.

“Do not only invest in hard infrastructure projects, but also in the soft management of water, such as capacity building and multi-stakeholder dialogues”, GWP Executive Secretary Dr Ania Grobicki said at the Civil Society Forum, focussing on the people using and managing water.

Allocation of finances is crucial. Without investments in people, education and knowledge, nothing will happen, and no new ideas will be taken on board. Talking is good, but acting now is essential. Money talks so I will finish by quoting a famous movie line, “Show me the money!” Invest in water now for a sustainable future.

Read more about GWP’s participation at the Summit.

See pictures of GWP’s participation.

Posted in Development, IWRM, Rio+20, Sustainable Development, United Nations, Water Cooperation, Water resources management, Water security | 1 Comment

A Salute to the ERRC

GWP Senior Knowledge Management Officer Dr. Danka Thalmeinerova attended the 5th European River Restoration Conference (ERRC) in Vienna on 11-13 September 2013.

Counting the number of conferences I have attended, this year has been special. All organizations and world leaders want to demonstrate how much everybody cares about water cooperation (2013 is the International Year of Water Cooperation). As the end of the year approaches, I am getting tired of conferences. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I attended the 5th ERRC in Vienna. Even with more than 300 participants from over 30 countries, the conference was well organised in content and format. Not once did I get bored with the same message or the same routine even though there were over 100 presentations!

Painting canvas of water resources management

One presentation consisted of a keynote speech followed by discussion, another one included video material, and in some sessions participants were spontaneously picked from the audience to speak at the podium. It was the excellent combination of content that made every presentation relevant and informative. And while all this was going on, there was a young man drawing a picture on the wall (a really big painting canvas) – and it took him three days to capture all the water links.

The conference organisers also arranged three field trips, each very different: a National Park, a river trip, and a visit to two hydropower plants.

Field trip to hydropower plant Boat trip on the Morava River

On top of a finely tuned programme, the participants also impressed me: a mix of politicians, policy makers, researchers, public servants, and local NGOs –representing every level of decision-making. I want to say ‘congratulations!’ to the organisers – and especially to its Chair, Bart Fokkens – for a great conference. There were many organising partners, but Bart represented the glue to this event.

The International River Foundation (IRF) awarded the first ever European River Prize at the conference. The winner was the Rhine River. The conference and the River Prize raised political attention because Mr. Janez Potocnik, the European Commissioner for the Environment, was present. He gave a clear signal (and I hope a commitment) that there is a shift toward environmental protection in all sectoral EU policies. He said there will no longer be a dilemma between environmental protection or economic development. These aspects are interlinked and we need to move from local pilot projects to a broader EU initiative.

A few presentations have stayed in my memory. The Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA), Hans Bruyninckx, talked about the challenges with river restoration. He gave a clear commitment regarding the future development and enhancement of EEA’s WISE-WFD database. The agency’s on-going work is transforming the database from an information source to a knowledge source – what used to be mere statistics are now in-depth analyses of data.

Gheorghe Constantin, Water Director of the Romanian Ministry of Environment, pointed out that river restoration is not only financially difficult but even more politically difficult. Policy makers have tough decisions ahead of them to ensure that river restorations don’t lose out to other projects.

Klement Tockner, Director of the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, asked: How wide are the rivers? Rivers form part of a multi-dimensional ecosystem, where vegetation, animals, people, and their interactions all influence each other. Isn’t this the raison d’etre for integrated water resources management?

See more pictures here.

Posted in IWRM, Rivers, Transboundary, Water resources management | 1 Comment

How to Ruin a Lake

IMG_0335GWP Senior Network Officer Gabriela Grau recently attended a Forum on Transboundary Basins Management in Guatemala. As part of the forum, participants visited Lake Amatitlan. Gabriela came away saddened by what she saw:

Thirty years ago this lake was a beautiful tourist site. What has unfolded over the decades is a tragedy for humans and nature!

One of the main reasons for the tragedy is the incomprehensible practice of making the lake a dumping ground for human waste. The sewage from Guatemala City and its vicinity (+/- 5 million people) is discharged into the Villalobos River, which flows straight into the lake. The result is extreme eutrophication (the process by which water becomes enriched in nutrients that stimulate the growth of aquatic plant life, usually resulting in the depletion of oxygen) which can kill aquatic fauna. People collect (and eat!) about 200,000 kg/year of fish, mainly tilapia, since two out of three native fish species are reported to have gone extinct. 

I feel sorry for the poor men (pictured) with legs submerged in that filthy soup. They take out 20,000 truckloads of garbage every year, which is another big problem since the lake authorities have to arrange its disposal somewhere else.

The lake is also undergoing an accelerated silting process. In the past 10 years, 5% of the lake’s volume has been displaced by sediment. Water availability is being dramatically reduced, and not many seem to notice that one of the most important underlying causes is that over the course of the twentieth century, the population of Guatemala grew by a factor of fourteen. Population growth is a neglected topic despite its crucial link to water management and ecosystems-biodiversity conservation.

All stakeholders – municipalities, the private sector, and civil society – should start talking to each other and urgently develop plans to manage these waters in an integrated manner, so that the lake and its resources can be reclaimed for acceptable human and environmental health, and sustainable economic development.

More photos from the visit to Lake Amatitlan.

Posted in Development, IWRM, Sustainable Development, Water Pollution, Water resources management | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Cease-Fire on IWRM

One of GWP’s strategic allies, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), posted a mildly critical blog of the integrated approach to water resources management (IWRM). To invite debate, GWP re-posted it to its own blog. Below is a response by Dr. Danka Thalmeinerova, GWP Senior Knowledge Management Officer, and Steven Downey, GWP Head of Communications. While this response was triggered by the IWMI blog, it is written with other critiques in mind too.

We agree with Dr. Mark Giordano’s key point when he says that IWRM has reasonable principles (e.g., ‘a coordinated, democratic approach to managing water’, ‘involving multiple interests’), but that those principles can cause problems when they become  formulaic doctrine or dogma. But isn’t that true of any concept?

We think the problem with most critiques of IWRM is muddled thinking. We always emphasise that IWRM is an iterative process. How can an iterative process become formulaic doctrine? A bona fide process is adaptive and dynamic (see diagram below). It is hard to believe that anybody working ‘on the ground’ to apply the integrated approach is holding people hostage to a dogma.

Take Sri Lanka. Was the failure cited really a failure of IWRM? It sounds like it was a failure of politics; or of some stakeholders hijacking the process. Just the opposite of IWRM, in our view. The examples require a deeper analysis than simply saying IWRM failed. What about poor governance, harmful subsidies, and lack of participation?

Taking shots at IWRM is like attacking democracy. There are many countries that have problems applying democratic principles (for many of the same reasons they have problems applying IWRM). But the conclusion isn’t that ‘democracy doesn’t work’. It is that certain conditions and processes have to be in place before democratic principles can succeed (though never perfectly).

IWRM is not only about water resources management. We know that sounds strange, but the whole point of the integrated approach, rather than just considering the hydro-centric interests of water managers, is to engage other sectors, deal with governance issues, build institutional capacity, etc. The integrated approach works only if it does not focus purely on water.

Does an integrated approach work? Of course it does. We have seen many examples from small community initiatives that consider the entire water cycle when delivering, using, and treating water for households and farmers, to the development of national economic plans. The integrated approach is about the improvement of meteorological and hydrological data analyses when forecasting development scenarios. It is about fixing water service prices to reduce excessive demand. And GWP’s experience in Central Asia is that IWRM is the only approach that keeps the Aral Sea countries talking to each other, sharing data, and conducting joint projects to minimize (if not eliminate) conflict.

It is time to move on. Let’s accept the fact that the integrated approach is firmly on the development agenda. Countries and the development community have signed up to IWRM – from Rio in 1992 to The Hague in 2000 to Johannesburg in 2002 to Rio+20 in 2012. The integrated approach is not a scientific discipline to be proved by scholars – it is a process to be applied by practitioners. We welcome debate about how to improve the application of IWRM but it is time for the water community to stop bickering about whether IWRM ‘works’ or we will argue ourselves into irrelevance. We need to spend our energy persuading other sectors – agriculture, energy, tourism, transport, industry – to follow the integrated approach.

For example, there is a close link between the integrated approach, good water governance, and financing but there is still low (political and economic) recognition about the importance of this relationship. This link needs more attention when formulating global and national agendas because the integrated approach shows that water financing will bring economic and social benefits for many areas of development. The integrated approach also protects a sector that does not have a political voice: the environment. Would a non-integrated approach consider this silent victim of economic growth?

The water community has a powerful weapon in its development arsenal. Let’s stop pointing it at each other and offer it instead, not as a panacea, but as a practical way forward so that the fight for social equity, economic efficiency, and environmental sustainability has a good chance of victory.

More info: http://www.gwp.org and http://www.gwptoolbox.org

IWRM Planning Cycle

Posted in GWP, IWRM, Sustainable Development, Water resources management | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

IWRM: Not Pragmatic Enough?

IWRM FrameworkGWP is a strong advocate for the integrated approach to water resources management (IWRM) and works to see it implemented around the globe. But IWRM, like any concept, has its critics. We welcome debate and so we publish below a guest blog from one of our key strategic allies, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Comments welcome!

IWRM promotes a coordinated, democratic approach to managing water, land and related resources, involving multiple interests in policy making. While the traditional approach was fragmented, IWRM is based on the premise that water is a shared resource, and should be managed  jointly and in an equitable manner for social and economic good, while also protecting eco-systems. Giordano, IWMI theme leader of water and society, leads off his talks by saying those are reasonable principles as guidelines, but they can cause problems when the ideas become a formulaic doctrine as is now often the case.

“The IWRM concept is very nice but it’s basically been turned into a dogma or a condition for international bank lending in developing countries,” Giordano said. “It’s forcing reasonable first ideas into law.”

Sri Lanka

He cited the example of what happened when the IWRM process was “inflicted” on Sri Lanka two decades ago. International donors funded water policy reform focused on IWRM ideals, including stakeholder participation, that formed diverse working groups and generated 115 meetings and discussions. The process culminated with a draft water policy and law that included most of the ideas associated with the IWRM ideal, including tradable water rights and the reorganization of water administration based on river basin organizations.

Then came the backlash – protests that the process really wasn’t open, that it was merely done to satisfy donor demands, that cultural norms about the value of water weren’t understood.

“The government withdrew the policies,” Giordano said, and 20 years later Sri Lanka still lacks a water policy and a coordinated strategy to deal with the recent droughts and floods. “Not only was (IWRM) not useful, the way implementation was done set back real reform.”

So what should be done instead? “You can do lots of things,” Giordano said.

In his presentation, Giordano gives examples.

Central Asia

In Central Asia, treaties based on IWRM ideals were signed to solve the Aral Sea problem after the break up of the Soviet Union, but they simply haven’t been followed in the two decades since. For example, tensions still exist between hydropower-centric upstream countries and downstream countries that aren’t getting enough water to irrigate their crops.

The recommendation: Scrap the basin-wide approach and look for smaller solutions to reduce trans-boundary conflicts and create space for broader negotiations. Downstream countries can use managed aquifer recharge to store water from winter releases, thereby reducing the need to change upstream practices. Individual rivers and canals that cross national boundaries can be jointly managed, without waiting for a functioning basin wide agreement. Initial indications are that this is working to solve real water problems.


In Gujarat State in western India, heavily-subsidized electricity to the agricultural sector led to aquifer over-pumping, a nearly bankrupt electrical industry and poor rural power supplies.

The suggested IWRM solution to the groundwater crisis was to price electricity and groundwater at its cost – a politically unimplementable move that sparks massive farmer unrest and can bring down governments, Giordano said.

IWMI instead pushed for a pragmatic alternative: keep intelligent subsidies but also separate power feeds for farm and non-farming uses, provide uninterrupted power for irrigation but only during specific periods. Other recommendations included supporting on-farm water storage and micro-irrigation. While pricing as a solution had been discussed for 20 years to no effect, these recommendations were actually implemented as part of a program called Jyotigram Yojna (Village of Light) and losses to state electricity boards and groundwater pumping are down. And the plan is being copied in other states.

Giordano said his presentation, while controversial to some in the water-management circles, has resonated with his audiences. He concludes that while IWRM provides good ideas, the almost universal focus on it by the water management community has caused us to lose sight of other promising options that can solve real-world problems.

“Keep the ideal in mind but don’t worry about being perfect,” he said. “Perfect isn’t going to happen, so let’s look at what makes things better.”

See Mark Giordano’s Powerpoint Presentation: Non-Integrated Water Resources Management

Written by Jeff Smith, a journalist and media development trainer for more than 25 years in Asia, Africa and the United States. Original post first published April 8, 2013.

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