Flows and Practices: The Politics of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in Africa

Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) has emerged as a key approach in the water sector in the past decade. However, IWRM has not produced the anticipated socio-economic, political and ecological outcomes due to the uncertainty and complexity of river basins and the plural, overlapping and competing formal and informal legal and customary systems in the African context.

This research seeks to link ideas of IWRM as constructed at the global and European level to their translation into narratives and practices in eastern and southern Africa (Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe). It will critically examine the interpretations and challenges of IWRM, hopefully contributing to improving water policies and practices and making them locally appropriate.

From an African perspective, the research is of fundamental importance as there is a huge potential to considerably improve the availability of water for poverty reduction and inclusive growth. IWRM will introduce new normative orders which opens up spaces for reform but also closes down a number of alternative framings and opportunities for various actors. This makes it important to ask who is gaining or losing from these processes.

The project will study various levels of interaction: key policy events and forums at the international and regional level, in-depth comparative case study of national water reform processes and detailed fieldwork in major river basins in all four countries focusing on hotspots. A variety of research methods will be employed: desk study, semi-structured interviews and focussed group discussions with stakeholders and observations of changing water management practices and social/gender relations

The project will contribute to ongoing debates in:

  1. The boundary politics between expert knowledge and epistemic communities
  2. Policy processes
  3. Sociology and anthropology of water and development
  4. Political ecology of water reform and IWRM

Project Manager: Lyla Mehta


Recent work


World Water Day: we need to talk about inequality as well as waste

On World Water Day, there is an urgent call for the global community to stop water waste and focus efforts on improving water quality. While much of the debate on water quality has been very technical, IDS and the ESRC STEPS Centre have tried to inject social science perspectives and call for...

22 March 2017


The rise and fall of Integrated Water Resources Management

The influence and spread of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) 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’

1 November 2016


Achieving a More Egalitarian Water Allocation System in Zimbabwe

IDS Policy Briefing;80

A number of major changes have affected water use in Zimbabwe. These include an increased urban population putting heavy pressure on the inadequate and poorly maintained water infrastructure resulting in serious environmental concerns.

14 October 2014

Journal Article

The Politics of IWRM in Southern Africa


This article offers an approach to the study of the evolution, spread and uptake of integrated water resources management (IWRM). Specifically, it looks at the flow of IWRM as an idea in international and national fora, its translation and adoption into national contexts, and the on-the-ground...

4 June 2014