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.