Integrated water management for all

Claudia Sadoff (© IWA / Nuno Augusto)
Claudia Sadoff (© IWA / Nuno Augusto)

How to cope with multiple and competing uses of water is a defining issue of our time. The concept of integrated water resources management is not new, but it offers a way to balance these interests. Keith Hayward spoke with Claudia Sadoff, director general of the International Water Management Institute, about the role of IWRM in the challenge of meeting globally agreed water goals.


Taking a look across all the needs and uses of water, especially at a river basin level, and bringing them together – integrating them – sounds like common sense. It is certainly the most rational option if the alternative is conflict. So ‘integrated water resources management’, or IWRM, has indeed featured in the international water agenda for many years.

“IWRM, when it was first introduced, and really championed by the Global Water Partnership, was defined as a process for managing water, mindful of all its different uses, and all of the trade-offs, and all of the synergies and externalities that water management decisions [involve],” says Dr Claudia Sadoff, director general of the International Water Management Institute in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

A moment’s reflection on what ‘integrated water resources management’ might entail in practice highlights why implementation has remained elusive for much of the world and why IWRM is flagged as a priority within the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

“It has often created confusion, because it sounds as if it is very prescriptive, and in fact it isn’t,” says Sadoff. “It’s more of a framework and a process for acknowledging and incorporating trade-offs, because water is used in so many different places.” The various definitions of IWRM, including those quoted in the latest assessment of progress with SDG 6, make clear this process dimension.

IWRM then and now

Water and water resources have been on the international environment and development agendas for decades and framed as key concerns. But Sadoff sees a difference between IWRM as it was and as it is today.

“IWRM, when we first began using it, was considered sort of aspirational: ideally, of course, you would ensure that all of the trade-offs and alternative uses for water were considered,” says Sadoff. “But 30 years ago, when we began using this, there was actually relatively plentiful water available for all uses. So the real binding constraints on water managers had a lot more to do with the capital that you had, and with the infrastructure for delivery that you had, for the water, not the water resource itself.”

The pressures on water resources today have changed the context for IWRM.

“Now that the water resource has become a constraint, because the total volume of water that we have relative to our rapidly growing demands is creating resource constraints, IWRM becomes that much more important,” says Sadoff. “While it was arguably best practice and aspirational previously, shortages now are causing a sharpening of those trade-offs, and require a much more integrated approach in order not to do harm to the multiple users, particularly when it has to do with basic services [and] basic ecosystem sustainability.”

These pressures are such that the outcome in mind for the IWRM process has also altered.

“I think one of the ways that the application of IWRM has changed over time is there’s greater usage of the term [where] the goal is water security,” Sadoff says. “IWRM is one of the processes that can help you achieve water security,” she adds, noting that her institute uses IWRM in just such a fashion.

We are all integrated water resource managers now

The change in the degree of pressure on water resources does not just alter how IWRM is framed – it makes IWRM relevant to a much wider constituency.

“I think this is very important. When I began working in water, there was a very sharp divide between people who worked on water service delivery – water supply and sanitation, and irrigation water services – and those who did water resources management,” she says. “Now, because of the resource constraints, you really can’t make that separation any more.”

There are numerous links – such as the impact of agriculture on the water quality reaching cities, and vice versa, or the opportunities for recycling urban used water to agriculture or to rural or peri-urban areas.

“In an age of scarcity and uncertainty, you need to widen the scope of those who think in terms of water resources management to those whose job previously has just focused on the service delivery side,” she adds.

Prospects for progress

So there is a need for a broader take-up of IWRM, alongside which there are now specific targets in SDG 6 for IWRM to be applied globally. But progress on the water SDG shows there is a long way to go.

“Within the SDG [for water] there are now eight different targets. Some of them are going in the right direction for most countries, but not quickly enough,” says Sadoff. “The first two sub-targets of water supply and sanitation are heading in the right direction. For a handful of countries – 10 in terms of water supply, 20 in terms of sanitation – they are heading in the wrong direction, but by and large heading in the right direction, just not quickly enough.”

“For the other sub-targets, they are all heading in the wrong direction: worsening water quality; inefficient availability – so we need greater efficiency; [and] we need greater protection of our ecosystems, on average globally,” says Sadoff.

So does Sadoff share the view of the late Hans Rosling, set out in his book Factfulness, that there is a great deal of evidence to show that the world is getting better? She describes it as “an outstanding book” and agrees with his outlook.

“You see there are places in which things are moving in a positive direction – we have the processes, we have the technology, we have the ideas. The question is then how to set as a goal reversing negative trends everywhere else,” she says.

“The idea that we can recycle wastewater, take the hazards out of it, and return safe resources for productive use, that’s fabulous progress. The fact that we can desalinate water at a tenth of the cost of 25 years ago, that’s phenomenal progress. We just have to be applying these opportunities much more enthusiastically,” she says.

Digital developments

This can be taken to apply to the progress seen with digital technologies, opening up opportunities for water resources managers that were almost undreamed of decades ago.

“We find ourselves in a moment now where we realise that we need to be much more aware of the availability of water, where it’s being used, what it’s quality is, how efficiently it is being used, because of these constraints of scarcity and really very dangerous pollutants, but now we have the tools to mind that,” says Sadoff. She cites examples such as the use of Earth Observation data and algorithms for forecasting weather and rainfall, and the development of tools for water accounting, allocation and protection. “These tools enable us to really manage our water [in a way] that we never have been able to and never have had to previously.”

This applies, in particular, to the area of monitoring – where there have been longstanding pleas to invest, recognising the water realities of the management maxim: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

Sadoff points to the growing need to think in terms of closed basins, where any change in water use will affect someone.

“In a world of closed basins, we have to monitor in a way that we haven’t had to before,” says Sadoff. And it is this level of pressure on water resources that lies behind the political and business attention seen, for example, in the World Economic Forum risk assessments and the work of the UN High Level Panel on Water, she adds.

“For both those ends of the spectrum, from efficiency and productivity on the business side, to equity and transparency on the political side, we need transparent monitoring tools,” says Sadoff. “The power that we have now to use Earth Observation, to use mechanised, automated, third party verified monitoring tools, will allow us to do that in a way that we now really need to, and we are being called to do that from the private sector, from the politicians, and from those who frankly don’t have the voice – those users whose water may be taken away, and can now be protected with these other, more transparent, tools.”

The transboundary target

These opportunities extend also to transboundary basins, which are targeted specifically as part of the SDGs.

“I am optimistic that these new technologies will help on transboundary basins also,” says Sadoff. “There is no question that, again, with growing scarcity and growing uncertainty, the development and management of transboundary basins becomes both much more essential – because, arguably, you need to store and deliver more water more mindfully on these transboundary basins, but it also becomes more sensitive – because all countries are feeling those constraints. While the ultimate decision on transboundary water management will be purely political, at least the discussion can be bounded by fact if we have verifiable information about where the water is, how much water is predicted to come, where it’s used and where it is moving.”

This clearly presents an opportunity for Sadoff’s organisation, IWMI, to make a contribution on IWRM.

“I think IWMI has a very important role to play,” she says. “[There is a need for] really understanding the global constraints around water, the trade-offs of water at the basin scales, the city scales, rural-urban tensions, even within villages, [and] really understanding the constraints and opportunities and the new technologies.”

“I feel that IWMI can help provide the information, some solutions and inspiration, into that space, to keep the discussions constructive,” she continues. “I think there is a lot of understandable concern over water crisis. I think we hear a lot less about these amazing tools and processes and solutions that we have, and that is where I hope IWMI can contribute.”