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date: 27 March 2023

IWRM: Ideology or Methodology?free

IWRM: Ideology or Methodology?free

  • Larry SwatukLarry SwatukUniversity of Waterloo
  •  and Adnan Ibne Abdul QaderAdnan Ibne Abdul QaderUniversity of Waterloo


Integrated water resources management (IWRM) was introduced as a conceptual solution to solve complicated problems of water management; however, since its inception, practitioners remain divided on its utility. Critics argue that it lacks practicable and working examples and that ongoing support is tantamount to little more than an ideological position. Supporters counsel patience and point to a variety of positive—if partial—outcomes, while aiming to address some of the most meaningful criticisms involving the devolution of decision-making authority, stakeholder participation, and gender mainstreaming. While the notion of “integrated management” resonates positively across the water world, critics and supporters alike are quick to note that in application it will play out differently depending on physical, sociocultural, economic, and political factors. Put differently, while the idea has universal appeal, the means and methods of achieving IWRM will vary. Comparative analysis reveals some common characteristics of performance well known across the development industry. In particular, direct engagement of resource users from project and program conception through to implementation, monitoring, and evaluation increases the likelihood of long-term positive outcomes. In contrast, top-down, elite-driven actions are likely to be resisted. Far from a panacea, IWRM is most usefully regarded as a “sensibility,” offering practitioners a set of signposts to guide actions and loose parameters within which to set policy.


  • Policy, Governance, and Law


A sub-optimal solution, actually implemented, is better than an “ideal” that never delivers change on the ground.

Giordano and Shah (2014b, p. 37)

Since the 1970s, world leaders have been sounding the alarm about the “world water crisis” while simultaneously arguing that integrated water resources management (IWRM) is the key to its resolution. The United Nations, for example, has promoted “multi-purpose approaches . . . characterised as ‘integrated water resource development and management’” (Woodhouse & Muller, 2017, p. 230). In the World Water Assessment Program’s report, it is stated that

The answer to all of . . . [these challenges] . . . lies in an holistic, ecosystem based approach, known as integrated water resources management (IWRM) . . . . But there is no panacea for implementing IWRM; it must be tailored to prevailing conditions and flexible enough to permit this (World Water Assessment Program, 2006, p. 526).

At the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, states committed to incorporating IWRM into national plans no later than 2005. In 2015, this commitment was enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 (clean water and sanitation for all), target 6.5.1: “By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.”

The conceptual framework of and institutional architecture for IWRM emerged out of the 1992 conferences at Dublin (International Conference on Water and the Environment) and Rio de Janeiro (International Conference on Environment and Development), a hallmark of which was the establishment in 1996 of the Global Water Partnership (GWP) and the World Water Council (see Woodhouse & Muller, 2017 for details). By the late 1990s, IWRM was the main framework for addressing water problems, partly due to the simplicity of its message. At one level, IWRM seems to be little more than an improved approach to water management whose method—coordination among resource users—is indisputable and noncontroversial. Butterworth et al. (2010, p. 69) described it as a “welcome aim or vision.” IWRM’s rise partly results from the sustained efforts of “norm entrepreneurs” such as the GWP and the establishment of network nodal points such as the World Water Forum and annual “water weeks” held in places such as Amsterdam, Singapore, and Stockholm. By 2020, the GWP claimed 3,324 partners located in 183 countries stretching across civil society, the state, and the private sector.1 The GWP has spent a considerable amount of time and resources in knowledge generation and mobilization in support of IWRM, with its “IWRM toolbox” perhaps being its most well-known and widely disseminated product.2

However, according to the United Nation’s SDG6 data portal, the world’s states are only 54% of the way toward achieving target Looking beyond the average, it is clear that all regions are struggling with implementation, only France and Singapore have reached the target, and Canada—with 20% of the world’s total freshwater and 7% of its total renewable freshwater resources—did not even submit any data. What to make of this? Is IWRM the problem, the solution, a symptom of some wider malaise, or perhaps all three? This article critically reflects on IWRM’s persistence as the “sanctioned discourse” for water governance and management in the world (Allan, 2006) despite limited real-world uptake. It suggests that moving away from newly created and poorly embedded institutional structures such as river basin organizations toward adopting an IWRM “sensibility” within and across existing institutions is likely to be a more profitable way of proceeding, as it is less likely to destabilize deeply embedded social relations. In exposition of this argument, the article proceeds as follows: It first defines IWRM and then focuses on the “doing” (i.e., the prescribed ways and means of achieving a transition to IWRM). IWRM’s perceived weaknesses and strengths are then described, arguing that both critics and supporters make valid arguments. The final section brings the article to a close by arguing that while IWRM is partly theory, partly operational framework, and partly a practical approach toward sustainable water management, for it to achieve the lofty goals its purveyors set for it, it is best to treat it as an organizing framework for action. If viewed in this way, IWRM can be deployed flexibly when and where and at whatever scale is appropriate. Put differently, IWRM is not a twelve-step program anyone can follow in pursuit of similar goals; rather, it is more like a sensibility in practice, a set of signpostings en route toward sustainable, equitable, and affordable water access, use, and management. In this way, it shares certain traits with other integrative concepts such as the water–energy–food nexus (Muller, 2015), for rare is the 21st-century resource use decision maker who is not aware of the possible knock-on effects of every action taken. Interconnectivity and interdependence are ideas that are far from novel.

Defining IWRM

In 2000, the Global Water Partnership (GWP) Technical Advisory Committee defined IWRM as follows: “a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximize economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.” Here, it can be seen that “integration” is a process that promotes coordinated action based on collective decision making, improved through what might be termed a “systems approach” or “holistic perspectives.” In 2005, Merrey et al. (2005) provided a slightly different definition, emphasizing normative outcomes:

IWRM is the promotion of human welfare, especially the reduction of poverty and the encouragement of better livelihoods and balanced economic growth, through effective democratic development and management of water and other natural resources at community and national levels, in a framework that is equitable, sustainable, transparent, and as far as possible conserves vital ecosystems (p. 233).

In comparing these definitions, what exactly is to be integrated is not very clear. For Global Water Partnership (GWP, 2000), “coordinated development and management” implied joint action of some kind without specifying those to be involved. “Water, land, and related resources” suggested a holistic as opposed to sectoral approach, and “maximizing economic and social welfare in an equitable manner” suggested balancing the needs and wants of all those affected by resource use decision making. Lastly, “without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems” seemed to include humans within nature and nature perhaps as a stakeholder in its own right (see Biswas, 2004 for an elaborate critique).

While mirroring the central tenets of the GWP definition, Merrey et al. (2005) took a stronger normative position by emphasizing “reduction of poverty” through “democratic development.” They also specified community involvement in a transparent framework, suggesting that IWRM must not replicate historical tendencies of water management by economic, political, and technical elites behind mostly closed doors.

Lubell and Edelenbos (2013) usefully disaggregated “integration” into three related components: functional, societal, and institutional:

Functional integration refers to decisions that account for ecological interdependency and interconnectedness among watershed functions. . . . Societal integration refers to civic engagement through public participation, as well as collaboration among stakeholders with different preferences. Institutional integration refers to coordinated decision making among different geographical, hydrological, and jurisdictional scales (Lubell & Balazs, 2018, p. 572).

This type of characterization is useful for comparing performance and method between and among social groupings (communities, cities, states, river basins, regions) without specifying or advocating for a universal approach.

Doing IWRM

A near constant flow of workbooks, guides, training manuals, workshops, and conferences emerging from a wide variety of Global Water Partnership (GWP) member organizations proffer the ways and means of “doing” IWRM (see, e.g., Each begins from the premise that water is required in different amounts, of varying quality, at different times to satisfy widely divergent and competing demands. Despite these competing demands, water as a system compels users to recognize cross-sectoral interdependency: for energy, people, development, industry, food, and nature. The need to “do” IWRM, therefore, is reflected in an abiding belief that its opposite has led to the present global water crisis: (a) disintegrated approaches to access, use, and management of water and related resources, resulting from (b) partial interests and influences, and (c) fragmented, piecemeal, and ad hoc management approaches, embedded in (d) short-sighted legislation, and (e) biased governance arrangements. To overcome present challenges, IWRM requires policymakers to inculcate a multidimensional perspective within and across all decision structures. Specifically, this extends from built and natural infrastructure to the policy and institutional framework and management instruments across all water uses: water supply and sanitation, irrigation and drainage, energy, environmental services, and other uses including industry and navigation (GWP, 2000). It requires cross-sectoral integration through development of an enabling environment, including clearly defined and developed institutional roles and management instruments in the service of water for people, food, nature, energy, industry, and so on (GWP, 2000). The mantra of IWRM is action in service of economic efficiency, social equity, and environmental sustainability. Put differently, to know if one is doing IWRM correctly is to be able to answer these questions in the affirmative: Is water access, use, and management economically efficient? Is it socially equitable? Is it environmentally sustainable?

As intimated from this discussion, the means for achieving this ideal require a specific combination of institutional (re)organization and attention to social processes. In terms of the former, the river basin constitutes the ideal organizational unit upon which to scaffold appropriate water management infrastructure (i.e., basin-level laws, policies, procedures, and organizations). These basin-specific elements are to be informed by national and, in the context of transboundary watersheds, international and regional sociopolitical and socioeconomic goals and concerns. Ideally, a basin-specific sensibility will, in turn, inform national and international and regional policy and practice. In terms of the latter, processes that are inclusive of all stakeholders, that provide space for reflection and reorganization, and that give the means for collaborative action such as data gathering and knowledge dissemination are necessary to ensure social learning and collective benefit sharing. The choice of the river basin as management unit is intended to ensure integrated and holistic decision making across the entire watershed. As reflected in Sustainable Development Goal 6.5.1, basin-level structures are nonnegotiable; by 2030, they are to be a worldwide total social fact (Shah, 2016).

If at a relatively abstract or conceptual level IWRM appears as an incontestable ideological construct, at a more practical level it provides a relatively concrete set of actions to be taken—a methodology, if you will (Shah, 2016, pp. 24–25). More specifically, IWRM requires knowledge production (benchmarking, decision-support modeling), legislative alignment, and coordination (reflecting common social goals and nonnegotiable social and environmental needs), inclusive and operational organizational action points (river basin management committees, subcatchment entities such as water user associations, national water ombudspersons, dispute settlement mechanisms, and basin-wide forums), and resilient, future-oriented mechanisms for enforcing, revisiting, and revising laws, monitoring and evaluating performance, encouraging compromise, and building adaptive capacity. Whereas this may read like a laundry list of “what is to be done,” the advantage of such a list is that it, in theory, provides very clear entry points for resource management improvement that are interrelated but may be pursued according to capacity and in the context of the current arrangement of socioeconomic and sociopolitical power in any given society (Ait-Kadi, 2014).

Assessing IWRM

On the Negative Side

Critiques of IWRM tend to fall under at least six dominant headings: (a) vagueness, (b) Western bias, (c) institutional bias, (d) top-down orientation, (e) cannot succeed in conditions of poor governance, and (f) cannot accommodate complexity. Each of these are discussed here briefly. Perhaps the most consistent critic of IWRM is the scholar A. K. Biswas. For Biswas (2004, p. 251), IWRM is “a vague, indefinable and un-implementable concept” (also, Watson et al., 2007). More than a decade later, Tortajada and Biswas (2017) claimed the following:

The emphasis continues to be on short-term fashionable solutions like Integrated Water Resources Management and Integrated River Basin Management, neither of which has been able to provide sustainable and implementable policies or solutions for macro- and meso-scale projects and programmes over at least two generations. These non-performing concepts will become even more irrelevant in a future world which will be more complex, uncertain and unpredictable. Future water problems cannot be solved by using past paradigms and experiences that have not proven to be effective (p. 849).

Biswas has consistently attacked IWRM as an unhelpful approach to ensuring sustainable and equitable water for all (Biswas, 2004, 2008; Tortajada & Biswas, 2017).

Nevertheless, as with other ideals—sustainability, democracy, the family, community—belief in the value of IWRM is almost as important as evidence of its success in fact. Like “sustainable development,” IWRM’s central weakness, its vagueness and generality, is also possibly its greatest strength (Martinez-Santos & Aldaya, 2014; Mitchell, 2005). The lack of specific means of monitoring and measuring its progress combined with the broad generality of its principles (coordination, participation, inclusion) allows almost any water-related success to be deemed a result of IWRM, and any new or continuing failure a result of its absence (Molle, 2008).

A more damning critique emanates from scholars and practitioners across large swaths of the Global South, that of Western bias. Warner et al. (2009) argued that Kazakh IWRM was formulated in terms of European standards through consultancy, without taking into account ground level or local problems, and was thus largely ignored. For Van Koppen et al. (2007), the regulatory measures introduced through IWRM not only paid scant attention to long-standing community-based institutional arrangements in the Global South, but too often undermined them. Shah and Van Koppen (2006) stated that whereas the typical ingredients of IWRM may work in the Global North, they were inappropriate and often harmful in the “informal water economies of the developing world.” Giordano and Shah (2014b, p. 37) supported this critique by stating that in developing countries,

IWRM tends to be driven not by indigenous need but rather by foreign intervention where it arises and is enforced “through international organizations, loan conditionality, expert consultations, and economic as well as political pressure,” often at the expense of alternative solutions and paths (also quoting Laube, 2007).

The same authors, in a different publication (Giordano & Shah, 2014a, p. 366), stated: “[t]his transformation of an idea into a ‘sanctioned discourse,’ of a means into an end (backed by loan conditionality), can divert attention from actual water problems and national priorities.” Reflecting on IWRM in Nigeria, Ngene et al. (2021) noted that IWRM must have support to be successful, and many institutions in Nigeria do not support it as they regard it as an expression of neocolonialism.

Alongside Western bias is Lenton and Muller’s (2009) critique that IWRM reform tended to focus on the high levels of scale, on policy and legislation reforms at the national level and the establishment of river basin organizations (RBOs), what Shah (2016) labeled “the IWRM package.” Muller (2019), Wester and Warner (2002), and Blomquist and Schlager (2005), among others, also questioned IWRM’s focus on large catchment or river basins as the only or best management scale and framework. Van der Zaag (2005), hinting at the importance of water to wealth creation and political power, warned: “IWRM should explicitly deal with the fact that water tends to build asymmetrical relationships between people, communities and nations.” External actors pressing for the devolution of decision-making power from one settled organizational form—be it highly centralized in ministries of state or highly localized in irrigation cooperatives—to another, in this case, the river basin level, have been resisted most effectively almost everywhere.

Given that most water-related challenges concern the urban and rural poor, Merrey et al. (2005) criticized IWRM’s “lack of concern for people, poor and marginalized.” Similarly, Cullet (2018) stated:

IWRM is a limited framework that makes specific assumptions about the water sector, including seeing water mostly as an economic good and focusing on private property rights. This leads it to privilege efficiency over equity, appropriation over sharing, giving in effect more importance to economic regulation of water than to human rights (p. 333).

To be sure, a significant amount of the discourse around not only IWRM but the “global water crisis” takes place at the highest levels of social organization. Water has long featured as a key input in national development plans, so its capture by elites for economic and political purposes is nothing new. In transboundary settings, “benefit sharing” has overwhelmingly focused on aggregate benefits as defined by dominant actors (e.g., multipurpose dams for big agriculture and electricity). The “trickle down” of benefits to average people is generally implied but often highly exaggerated. At the same time, international development has pressed for a bottom-up, participatory, stakeholder-based approach for several decades. Given water’s place in social organization, it is understandable that influential concepts such as IWRM would come in for serious scrutiny. Numerous scholars have criticized IWRM for its top-down approach (Bruns, 2003; Butterworth et al., 2010; Cleaver, 1999; Currie-Alder, 2007; Gyawali et al., 2006; Mollinga, 2006). For Lankford and Hepworth (2010, p. 83), IWRM is often “excessively comprehensive and too formal to be effectively implemented and for certain African basins may not be sufficiently tailored to circumstances, especially the unpredictable dynamism in water supply and demand found there.” IWRM is a “cathedral” model where management is based on regulatory legal authority when what is often needed is a “bazaar” model of flexible, informal, polycentric water resources management. Granted, the capacities of local-level stakeholders may be limited, be they technical, financial, or human-resource based (Ben-Daoud et al., 2021; Godinez-Madrigal et al., 2019; Whiten, 2019). This is no excuse for ignoring the voices of those most negatively impacted by the shortage or surfeit of water resources (Wester et al., 2003).

A further critique of IWRM centers on its inability to succeed in conditions of poor governance. On one hand, there are those who believe that the functional aspects of IWRM can improve governance piece by piece (Butterworth et al., 2010). On the other hand, Bezerra et al. (2021) showed that IWRM was implemented in different basins across Latin America but was ineffective because of poor communication among stakeholders and poor water governance. Additional programs, in their view, would be needed to help with implementation and ensure success. This is an interesting conclusion as it points to the circularity of IWRM planning and practice: It cannot succeed where there is weak governance; further training will improve IWRM (Rogers & Hall, 2003).

A slightly different take on the question of governance and IWRM involves path dependence. As Suhardiman et al. (2015, p. 296) illustrated in the case of Nepal, “[o]f particular importance is to consider the existing power relations among public agencies in the water sector, where the most powerful actors have more reasons to resist than to support IWRM implementation.” Jonker et al. (2010) presented similar results in the context of South Africa’s attempted shift to catchment management agencies. In the Southern African transboundary context, there is even stronger resistance to the new institutional architecture. Fatch and Swatuk (2018) showed how RBOs contribute functionally to management of the region’s shared rivers. This is through, for example, joint fact-finding missions. Political power, however, remains with the central authorities, who jealously guard their sovereignty.

An interesting critique of IWRM is the observation that it cannot accommodate complexity (Yahn Filho, 2020). For a concept founded on integration and systems thinking, one would think that this would be the basis of its attractiveness. In rural China, Mao et al. (2020) observed, IWRM implementation had some successes when it solved preexisting water issues but also created new problems. For Lankford and Hepworth (2010), in contrast to the overly mechanistic and institutionalized “cathedral” approach, the “bazaar” approach emphasized a management style that was grassroots focused, organic, flexible, and driven by real-world issues in real time. Is it not better to build upon actually existing practices rather than impose a “cookie cutter” model developed by predominantly Western “experts”? Supporters of IWRM would argue that this critique is unfair, that the principles informing the practice counsel localization, promote inclusion, and encourage approaches that accommodate cross-cutting issues such as gender. Moreover, IWRM acknowledges complexity and aims to build models and other decision-support tools that are conscious of their limitations in relation to “known unknowns,” such as climate change (Muller, 2021).

These six categories of critique are not meant to be definitive, but rather are indicative of dominant trends. Critique aside, a less well-researched and less openly acknowledged challenge for IWRM concerns the way in which its dominant country purveyors themselves have resisted implementing its central tenets, in particular, institution building at the watershed level (Muller, 2015; Suhardiman et al., 2015). Yahn Filho (2020), for example, observed that in a transboundary basin like the Columbia River Basin, there are too many stakeholders and no independent governing body to oversee the basin. In the Southern African region, while states have assiduously worked toward establishing RBOs within and between countries, decision-making power rests firmly in the hands of central authorities (Fatch & Swatuk, 2018). Given the considerable worldwide resistance to the devolution of decision-making power from central authorities to RBOs, scholars and practitioners have continued to develop new concepts and frameworks, and revisit and repackage old ones as well, in the hope of achieving more or less the same goal as that set by IWRM’s supporters. Water security, for example, is one such idea (Grey & Sadoff, 2007; Grey et al., 2013; GWP, 2019; Muller, 2021; Zeitoun et al., 2016). The water–energy–food nexus is another (Allan et al., 2015; Muller, 2015; Swatuk & Cash, 2018). Muller described the nexus as a “practical framework.” Its practical nature derives in part by shifting the focus from watersheds to what J. A. Allan (2006) labeled “problemsheds”—that is, the socio-politico-economic tensions-interests-networks created by sometimes far-flung demands on water (for energy, food, people, and ecosystems).

On the Positive Side

Those who perceive an IWRM approach to be beneficial tend to emphasize three elements: (a) the human dimension, (b) its practical aspects, and (c) its emphasis on inclusive processes. For Hileman et al. (2016),

A general strength of IWRM is that it emphasizes the importance of the human dimension—water users, stakeholder groups, and institutions—of water development. IWRM is a participatory, inclusive and multi-stakeholder process, and addresses conflicts as they arise between parties with diverging goals for water resources management (p. 6).

Muller (2006) also emphasized the value of IWRM in terms of reconciling competing demands:

IWRM provides a framework within which to consider tradeoffs between different development objectives and, where possible, to identify win-win water investments. By aligning and integrating interests and activities that are traditionally seen as unrelated or that, despite obvious interrelationships, are simply not coordinated, IWRM can foster more efficient and sustainable use of water resources (p. 1).

Granted, within 10 years, Muller, among many other scholars and practitioners, had largely fallen off the IWRM bandwagon. Labeling it “Dublin IWRM,” perhaps to distinguish it from other integrated approaches to water management, he argued:

In the water sector, Dublin IWRM was imposed through Washington Consensus institutions, encouraged by rich world governments; environmental activists gained from new forms of deliberative democracy and environmental governance; the private sector was (initially) happy to see new opportunities created and governments’ role curbed. In practice, the new approach failed to meet the needs of many key actors (Muller, 2015, p. 689; also, Muller, 2010).

Yet, for others, it was the practical elements within IWRM that were appealing. Smith and Cartin (2011), for example, observed that in relation to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s water and nature initiative, which aimed to mainstream an ecosystem approach into catchment planning and management, IWRM processes such as stakeholder engagement and joint planning facilitated positive outcomes at different scales across Global South pilot projects. Shammout and Shatanawi (2021) showed that IWRM processes were used to solve the Zarqa River Basin’s main concern of poor water management. Similar examples may be drawn from a diverse array of case studies in Iran (Goharian & Azizipour, 2020; Hernandez, 2012; Vieira et al., 2020), the Caribbean more generally (Cashman, 2012), the Yakima River Basin in Washington State (Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, 2019), and the Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh, India (Goyal et al., 2020). Each of these suggests that processes that were both participatory and inclusive, and where groups were involved from the start, had more likelihood of success than processes that were largely delivered to people by external actors (Suhardiman et al., 2015). Moreover, the IWRM success stories also indicate that collective and collaborative decision making is an iterative process, not a one-off result determined by grand design (Watson et al., 2019).

On Balance

The year 2022 marks 30 years since the Dublin and Rio conferences. Over the decades, there have been concerted attempts to address these shortcomings through theory and practice. For example, Lenton and Muller (2009) argued against the basin-only focus, suggesting that integrated development and management could take place at a variety of scales. Moriarty et al. (2004) argued that an “IWRM-light” approach focusing on actionable interventions—“low-hanging fruit”—undertaken with a “full-IWRM” sensibility, was a reasonable way forward. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) relocated its water division within its Directorate of Infrastructure and Services Directorate, arguing that IWRM could not only be about demand management in the Global South. The Global Water Partnership has produced a variety of “workbooks” to guide application.

Shah and Van Koppen (2006) itemized the “normal IWRM package,” decrying its utility in the Global South: creation of water rights through permits, water pricing and user-pay fees, and basin-scale management agencies; a national water policy; revised water laws and regulatory frameworks; and stakeholder participation through water user associations, river basin forums, and the like. While the framework appears logical to many and is embedded in institutional arrangements such as the European Union’s Water Framework Directive, scholars of the Global South continue to question its relevance.

There have also been consistent attempts to mainstream gender into IWRM planning and practice. Integration of gendered approaches promised accountability of the most marginalized and the vulnerable. However, such changes were not reflected in the governance systems around the world. Although the Dublin principles of IWRM are to some extent well-established, the third principle on gender is commonly missing in practice (Packett et al., 2020). Women’s underrepresentation in IWRM has far-reaching consequences. As Fauconnier et al. (2018, p. 20) noted, ‘There is a circular and self-reinforcing relationship between the constrained roles of women in governance and the under-valuation of their roles in production and resource use.’ To date, most countries have struggled to implement gender-inclusive IWRM at scale. Only 16% of national water plans mention women as key stakeholders or primary participants in climate adaptation. In a 2013 survey of 65 countries, only 15% of countries had a gender policy in their water ministry, and only 35% of countries included gender considerations in their water policies and programmes. Furthermore, only 22% of surveyed water ministries had gender focal points (Fauconnier et al. (2018: 10).


As this article has stated, IWRM is partly theory, partly operational framework, and partly a practical approach to managing water and related resources. Evidence suggests that IWRM works best as an organizing framework for action, to be deployed creatively and flexibly given local sociopolitical, sociocultural, and socioeconomic contexts. Far from an ideology, IWRM should be treated more like a sensibility in practice (Jonker, 2007). For Butterworth et al. (2010):

[D]iscarding IWRM for its flaws in implementation carries a risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There is a need to go back to the outcomes that IWRM originally aimed to achieve. Working towards these will require a better mix of complementary light and full approaches at different levels of scale that build upon local and sectoral realities. It is the specific outcomes desired in a given location that should determine the actual mix of light and full approaches to be applied (p. 78).

Significant theoretical and practical strides have been made in the 5 decades since the original “Earth Summit” at Stockholm. In that time, scholars, policymakers, and practitioners should have learned two important lessons: Panaceas are few and far between (Meinzen-Dick, 2007) and water is political (Allan, 2006; Jonker, 2007; Van der Zaag, 2005). To quote Mollinga (2006) at some length:

That the transformation or water governance, management and use is an inherently political process bears repeating. The operationalization of “integration” will be played out in an arena structured by the normative concerns of efficiency and growth, equity and welfare, and sustainability and democracy. These define the interest perceptions of the different actors in the fray. How the IWRM discourse will travel in that process remains to be seen, or rather, to be done (p. 35).

More than 2 decades ago, Broch-Due (2000, p. 47) usefully pointed out that a development project “starts out as a plan but turns into a context in which people are brought together to interact around some activity, bringing with them diverse forms of knowledge and practice.” One would do well to think of IWRM in the same way. IWRM can serve as a directional beacon but there is no substitute for sustained social engagement: build alliances, construct coalitions, refine and clarify positions, and press for change.

Further Reading

  • Allan, J. A. (2006). IWRM: The new sanctioned discourse? In P. Mollinga, A. Dixit, & K. Athukorala (Eds.), Integrated water resources management: Global theory, emerging practice and local needs (pp. 38–63). SAGE.
  • Butterworth, J., Warner, J. F., Moriarty, P., Smits, S., & Batchelor, C. (2010). Finding practical approaches to integrated water resources management. Water Alternatives, 3(1), 68–81.
  • Giordano, M., & Shah, T. (2014a). From IWRM back to integrated water resources management. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 30(3), 364–376.
  • Lenton, R., & Muller, M. (2009). Integrated water resources management in practice: Better water management for development. Earthscan.
  • Merrey, D. J., Drechsel, P., Penning de Vries, P., & Sally, H. (2005). Integrating “livelihoods” into integrated water resources management: Taking the integration paradigm to its logical next step for developing countries. Regional and Environmental Change, 5(4), 197–204.


  • Ait Kadi, M. (2014). Integrated water resources management (IWRM): The international experience. In P. Martinez-Santos & M. M. Aldaya (Eds.), Integrated water resources management in the 21st century: Revisiting the paradigm (pp. 3–16). CRC Press.
  • Allan, J. A. (2006). IWRM: The new sanctioned discourse? In P. Mollinga, A. Dixit, & K. Athukorala (Eds.), Integrated water resources management: Global theory, emerging practice and local needs (pp. 38–63). SAGE.
  • Allan, J. A., Keulertz, M., & Woertz, E. (2015). The water-food-energy nexus: An introduction to nexus concepts and some conceptual and operational problems. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 31(3), 301–311.
  • Ben-Daoud, M., Moumen, A., Sayad, A., Elbouhadioui, M., Essahlaoui, A., & Eljaafari, S. (2021). Indicators of integrated water resources management at the local level: Meknes as a case (Morocco). E3S Web of Conferences, 234, 68.
  • Bezerra, M. O., Vollmer, D., Acero, N., Marques, M. C., Restrepo, D., Mendoza, E., Coutinho, B., Encomenderos, I., Zuluaga, L., Rodríguez, O., Shaad, K., Hauck, S., González, R., Hernandéz, F., Montelongo, R., Torres, E., & Serrano, L. (2021). Operationalizing integrated water resource management in Latin America: Insights from application of the freshwater health index. Environmental Management, 69, 815–834.
  • Biswas, A. K. (2004). Integrated water resources management: A reassessment. Water International, 29(2), 248–256.
  • Biswas, A. K. (2008). Integrated water resources management: Is it working? International Journal of Water Resources Development, 24(1), 5–28.
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