Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM)
Published on SSWM (


Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM)

Compiled by:
Katharina Conradin (seecon international gmbh)

Integrated water resources management (IWRM) is a systematic process for the sustainable development, allocation and monitoring of water resource use in the context of social, economic and environmental objectives. IWRM is based on the understanding that all the different uses of finite water resources are interdependent. IWRM is hence a “process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximise the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner, without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.”

Water is a critical, but often overlooked element in sustainable development. If effective, long lasting solutions to water problems are to be found, a new water governance and management paradigm is required. Such a new paradigm is encapsulated in the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) concept, which has been defined by GWP as “a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximise the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.”

IWRM explicitly challenges conventional, fractional water development and management systems and places emphasis on integrated approaches with more coordinated decision making across sectors and scales. It recognises that exclusively top-down, supply led, technically based and sectoral approaches to water management are imposing unsustainable high economic, social and ecological costs on human societies and on the natural environment. Business as usual is neither environmentally sustainable, nor is it sustainable in financial and social terms. As a process of change which seeks to shift water development and management systems from their currently unsustainable forms, IWRM has no fixed beginnings and will probably never end. As the global economy and society are dynamic and the natural environment is also subject to change, IWRM systems will, therefore, need to be responsive to change and be capable of adapting to new economic, social and environmental conditions and to changing human values.

IWRM is not an end in itself but a means of achieving three key strategic objectives.

It would be easy for a policy maker faced with the prospect of wholesale governance change to conclude that it is all too complex with too many difficult tradeoffs and choices to make. It may seem much easier and certainly politically safer to maintain current policies and practice and avoid confronting the vested interests who gain from the status quo. However, doing nothing is not an option; problems will simply get worse and more difficult to tackle.

IWRM should be viewed as a process rather a one-shot approach - one that is long-term and forward - moving but iterative rather than linear in nature. There is no such thing as a perfect IWRM system and the search for perfection can lead to action atrophy.


IWRM is an on-going process to respond to changing situations and needs. Source: GWP (2004)

IWRM is Based on Four Principles - the Dublin Principles

(adapted from GWP 2008 & Cap-Net 2010)

Principle 1: Fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment

Water sustains life in all its forms and is required for many different purposes, functions and services; holistic management, therefore, has to involve consideration of the demands placed on the resources and the threats to it. Holistic management not only involves the management of natural systems; it also necessitates coordination between the range of human activities which create the demands for water, determine land uses and generate water borne waste products. Creating a water sensitive political economy requires coordinated policy making at all levels (from national ministries to local government or community – based institutions). There is also a need for mechanisms which ensure that economic sector decision makers take water costs and sustainability into account when making production and consumption choices. The development of such an institutional framework capable of integrating human systems – economic, social and political – represents a considerable challenge.


Principle 2: Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policy-makers at all levels

Fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment. Source: KROPAC 2009

Fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment. Source: KROPAC (2009)

Water is a subject in which everyone is a stakeholder. Real participation only takes place when stakeholders are part of the decision making process. This can occur directly when local communities come together to make water supply, management and use choices. Participation also occurs if democratically elected or otherwise accountable agencies or spokespersons can represent stakeholder groups. The type of participation will depend upon the spatial scale relevant to particular water management and investment decisions and upon the nature of the political economy in which such decisions take place.


Principle 3: Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water

It is widely acknowledged that women play a key role in the collection and safeguarding of water for domestic and - in many cases - agricultural use, but they have a much less influential role than men in management, problem analysis and in the decision making process related to water resources.

Addressing gender as a cross-cutting goal requires that women's views, interests and needs shape the development agenda as much as men's, and that the development agenda support progress toward more equal relations between women and men. Gender needs should be part of the overall policy framework which can ensure that policies, program and projects address the differences in experiences and situations between and among women and men. Equal participation in social and political issues involves women's equal right to articulate their needs and interests, as well as their vision of society, and to shape the decisions that affect their lives. Their ability to do this can be strengthened through community organisations and institutions, and building participatory capacity.


Principle 4: Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognised as an economic good

Within this principle, it is vital to recognise first the basic right of all human beings to have access to clean water and sanitation at an affordable price. Past failure to recognise the economic value of water has led to wasteful and environmentally damaging uses of the resource.

Managing water as an economic good is an important way of achieving efficient and equitable use, and of encouraging conservation and protection of water resources. Value and charges are two different things. The value of water in alternative uses is important for the rational allocation of water as a scarce resource, whether by regulatory or economic means. Charging (or not charging) for water is applying an economic instrument to support disadvantaged groups, affect behaviour towards conservation and efficient water usage, provide incentives for demand management, ensure cost recovery and signal consumers willingness to pay for additional investments in water services.

Integrating three E’s

Integrated water resources management is based on the perception of water as an integral part of the ecosystem, a natural resource and a social and economic good, whose quantity and quality determine the nature of its utilisation.

The IWRM framework, as developed by the GWP, consists of three E's - economic efficiency, social equity and ecosystem sustainability.

For further information on IWRM, see also or


CAP-NET (Editor) (2010): IWRM Tutorial. URL [Accessed: 16.05.2010].

GWP (Editor) (2004): Catalyzing Change: A handbook for developing IWRM and water efficiency strategies. Stockholm: Global Water Partnership (GWP). URL [Accessed: 16.05.2010].

GWP (Editor) (2008): GWP Toolbox. Integrated Water Resources Management. URL [Accessed: 16.05.2010].

For further readings, case studies, awareness raising material, training material, important weblinks or the related powerpoint presentation, see