Lessons in future river basin management from the last three decades:

Practitioners from INBO and OIEAU reflect on progress

16 May 2024 by The Water Diplomat

In an article published in the journal Water International, practitioners from the International Network of Basin Organisations and the International Office for Water  have reviewed experiences with the concept of Integrated Water Resources Management  over the past 30 years, drawing some conclusions for the future of river basin management.

Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is an approach to water management that developed since the first United Nations conference on water issues at Mar del Plata in Argentina in 1977, but especially since the Dublin Conference on Water and the Environment in 1992. This key conference, which provided input on water to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, provided much of the basis for our current thinking on IWRM and provided us with four ‘Dublin Principles’ which still serve as a reference point for water management in national and international law.

The Dublin principles state, firstly, that water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment. Secondly, they state that water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policymakers, at all levels. Thirdly, they state that women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water, and fourthly, water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognised as an economic good.

In parallel, in 1992, a cornerstone was laid for international water law in the form of the adoption of the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Rivers and International Lakes, often referred to as the ‘Helsinki Convention’. This convention was a regional convention developed initially for the European region, but since 2013 it has been opened for accession by other countries and as the authors of the paper point out, it in has gradually established itself as the main international legal instrument for cooperation on transboundary watercourses. It has a secretariat provided by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), which actively works to implement it, contributing directly to the development of agreements in transboundary basins, the creation of transboundary basin organisations and the strengthening of cooperation in key areas.

However, despite a rapid endorsement of IWRM principles since 1992, there was criticism that the concept was vague and open to multiple interpretations. Despite high levels of ambition in integrating economic, social and environmental aspects of development within a single framework, there was little guidance in practice on practical issues such as the structures to be put in place, the measures to be implemented, or the tools and the methods to be used.

Work was needed to move from theory to practice, and a number of key institutions emerged to make IWRM operational. The International Network of Basin Organisations (INBO) to which most of the authors of the paper are affiliated was established in 1994 and together with the UNECE, the UNESCO International Hydrological Programme, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the Global Water Partnership (GWP), the effort to set in place building blocks for IWRM was set in motion.

The Global Water Partnership produced a commonly adopted definition of IWRM as a process that 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. INBO added to this a set of six actions on which its success depends.

The first of these actions is decision making around the conjunctive use of surface and groundwater within the framework of the river basin as a hydrological unit with a view to upstream-downstream solidarity. Secondly, the quantity and quality of available water resources should be diagnosed, monitored and documented in water information systems. Thirdly, strategic multiannual plans should be developed with long term objectives which take account of available water resources, the needs of the environment, demand and current and future pressures. Firth, these plans need to be translated into a series of activities with tangible benefits such as flood and drought protection infrastructure, the prevention of pollution, the protection of the environment and the provision of services such as hydropower, irrigation and domestic and industrial water supplies. Fifth, these plans and actions need to be backed up by financing mechanisms based on fees, taxes, tariffs and fees, and incentives for ‘virtuous’ water behaviour.  Lastly, the involvement of water users and other stakeholders is key to obtain agreement on the diagnosis of existing issues, buy-in for adherence to collectively agreed objectives, and to ensure accountability.   

All of these elements should be integrated into an iterative, cyclical process. They are drawn from the French water management model which has established river basin management agencies since 1964, and which has been shown to be applicable to a wide range of different settings. They can be linked to both procedural and substantive indicators which can be used to monitor progress.

More broadly, it is not just the French example but the whole European region which turns out to have adopted IWRM at basin level as well as significantly influenced IWRM globally. Landmarks in this process include the Dublin Principles from 1992, the Helsinki Water Convention of 1992, the creation of the INBO in 1994, and the establishment of the Global Water Partnership in 1996. The establishment of water agencies and basin committees in France, local water management offices in the Netherlands, or hydrographic confederations in Spain had already taken place before the European Commission developed the Water Framework Directive in 2000, a common policy framework for water management across the European region that broadly follows the principles outlined above, focused on the achievement of ‘good ecological status’ of Europe’s rivers. These experiences have provided the tools and methodologies which have later been adopted in other countries and regions.

At the transboundary level, the Helsinki Convention has played a major role in promoting the implementation of IWRM , firstly in the Pan European region and after 2013 when the convention was opened for accession by other countries, around the world. This reinforced the application of customary principles of international law specific to IWRM, i.e. the obligation to prevent, control and reduce transboundary impacts, the principle of equitable and reasonable use, and the principle that parties sharing the same transboundary waters should enter into specific agreements and establish joint bodies for cooperation.  Although it is not the first international water convention, the Helsinki Water Convention has gradually established itself as the main international legal instrument for cooperation on transboundary watercourses. The process has been further bolstered by financial and technical support from multitaleral banks such as the World Bank, the Interamerican Development Bank and the Global Environmental Facility, as well as from bilateral support from France, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and others.

In 2015, indicators monitoring progress on both national and transboundary IWRM were incorporated into Sustainable Development Goal 6. It is therefore now possible to monitor IWRM implementation at the global level. The underlying questions that guide responses to surveys on these indicators has been inspired by the operational integrated water resources management model developed by INBO and its partners. Specifically, for instance for indicator 6.5.1, they track the enabling legal and policy environment for IWRM, the supporting institutions and participation, the existence of management tools such as data sharing at basin level, and the financing of IWRM through both capital investments and operation and maintenance expenditures.

Currently it is evident from global data that the average percentage of IWRM implementation is 54% nationally and 58% for transboundary cooperation. It is clear that high income countries are achieving higher scores on these indicators, and therefore in the future efforts need to be focused on where the needs remain in middle- and lower-income countries.   In the context of increasing pressure on water resources, it is important, state the authors, to maintain and strengthen political and financial support for integrated water resources management at basin level, including through the mobilization of local resources.