The rise and fall of Integrated Water Resources Management

Published on 1 November 2016

Image of Lyla Mehta
Lyla Mehta

Professorial Fellow

Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is one of the most influential policy models currently being implemented in river basins globally, including in Africa. This influence and spread is the focus of a Water Alternatives Special Issue published in October on ‘Flows and practices: The politics of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in southern Africa’.

The current form of IWRM gained momentum at the International Conference on Water and the Environment (ICWE) in Dublin in January 1992, even though it has been around for some time. Since then, it has also been promoted by multilateral and regional development banks (e.g. the World Bank and African Development Bank) as well as bilateral donor agencies as one of the panaceas to address the water management crisis in the global south.

The vagueness of IWRM

This special issue pulls together evidence from the project funded by The Research Council of Norway on the politics of IWRM practices in Africa. The project explored how ideas of IWRM, as constructed at the global and European level, have been and are being translated and adapted into narratives and practices in the countries of Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

15 original articles examine, at different scales, the on-the-ground complexities of IWRM implementation, interpretations and adaptations. They demonstrate the importance of politics, political economy, history and culture in shaping water management practices and reform. The Special Issue authors argue that IWRM has become so popular and resilient because it has ‘something for everyone’.

As IWRM is so vague; it allows ample space for interpretation within the water sector and beyond. In reality, it has been very difficult to implement on the ground.

Widespread appeal

It became popular when dams were very controversial on the international scene and the focus turned to ‘soft’ management issues instead of infrastructure development, which is still badly needed in southern Africa. In the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the idea was picked up due to the prevalence of transboundary rivers. In turn, water could be galvanised as an arena of cooperation, instead of one of conflict.

Moreover, the region had strong existing institutions and donor networks that had been mobilised for the anti-apartheid struggle, on which water-related programmes and activities could be built by various donors.

Africa: the laboratory for IWRM?

IWRM has led to many important improvements, in particular for those countries that were focused on in the project and in the SADC.

These include:

  • The need to move away from silos in the water sector
  • Taking participation in water governance and management seriously
  • Integrating environmental, management and supply issues.

While it has also created a huge buzz in SADC, it has been a challenge to achieve integration. Africa has essentially been a laboratory for IWRM in the post-cold-war world where neoliberal discourses began to reign supreme in the water sector. The influence by the likes of the World Bank and IMF, sought to privatise water services and introduce cost recovery mechanisms.

While these efforts largely took place in the domestic water supply sector, this special issue shows how the introduction of pricing systems and permits allowed wealthy and powerful water users to take advantage of users (who are the vast majority) without permits. Due to the light formal institutional frameworks in place (unlike in Europe), it was easier to create new institutions reinforcing the ‘soft’ management aspects of IWRM, as opposed to extending water infrastructure and access.

The costs for southern Africa?

But these reform processes have at some costs. In many parts of southern Africa, IWRM has stifled the water development agenda by shifting focus to the allocation of what was supposed to be a finite scarce resource when in countries such as Uganda and Tanzania this was far from the case. The focus on management tended to lose sight of the need to enlarge access to water for poor people for a range of productive purposes.

Instead, much attention was directed to creating new complex institutional arrangements that largely lacked accountability and legitimacy, were prone to elite capture and tended to centralise the power and control of the state and powerful users (and the IWRM industry) over water resources. In fact, smallholders have been made out to be ‘wasteful’ and ‘uneconomic water users’, resulting in widening inequalities and unequal power and social relations.

Neoliberal trends such as water pricing and the associated introduction of permit systems have led to a bias in favour of large-scale users who require relatively large amounts of water and have the ability and the networks to apply and pay for the appropriate permits. Such acquisition of large quantities of water raises the issue of whether or not such actions (real or potential) align with the broader social and anti-poverty goals that are prioritised in southern Africa.

Across the region, women’s rights, that were at least partially enshrined in customary and informal arrangements, have tended to be compromised. IWRM implementation and roll-out such as permits, user pays principle, commodification of water and decentralisation do not address the structural and economic vulnerabilities of women and small-scale farmers more generally.

Beyond IWRM?’

Currently there are signs of IWRM fatigue in Europe where dominant discourses largely focus on water and climate change, water security and the nexus between water, food and energy. Yet, paradoxically IWRM is alive and kicking in southern Africa.

It is unclear whether these emerging buzzwords will usher in whole new sets of approaches and paradigms that will eventually replace the current hegemony of IWRM as an idea in southern Africa. What are the implications for deeper issues of development and democracy? Or will the focus turn more towards developmental water management that puts emphasis on the role of the ‘developmental state’ and highlights the need to move away from management to focusing on meeting people’s livelihood needs?

Even if there is a shift away from IWRM this Special Issue highlights the need for a wider and fairer distribution of water resources for diverse livelihoods rather than a concentration in the hands of large-scale users. We hope that this collection can aid further investigation and study of how concepts evolve and mutate and are absorbed as well as their impacts on more deep-seated concerns of development and justice in resource distribution.

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