An integrated vision of water resources management

by Fernando Bretas, Water and Sanitation Lead Specialist, Water and Sanitation Division (WSA), Inter-American Development Bank

Opinion 21 November 2014


For any civilization, adequate water resources are essential to survival. The great civilizations of Mesoamerica and South America developed on the basis of agricultural surpluses produced by complex irrigation systems, which required efficient handling of water resources. Today, the growing demands for food by populations that are increasingly energy-intensive jeopardize the availability of reliable water resources and the sustainability of ecosystems. This prognosis becomes even more complicated in a context of global warming, rapid urban growth and globalization.

Formulated in 1992, the Dublin principles, established what is considered a holistic approach to integrated water resources management (IWRM) in response to public sector policies which, at the time, were not well coordinated. After 1992, several countries and institutions, when dealing with water management issues adopted the IWRM philosophy. For instance, in 2012, in preparation for the Rio+20 conference, the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development carried out a worldwide survey to assess progress in the implementation of IWRM, and the OECD did a study of the status of governance of water resources in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The results of both studies highlighted governance as one of the key limitations to implement the IWRM concepts and guidelines, such as problematic coordination among institutions, weak institutional capability and insufficient funding.

In 1998, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) adopted an IWRM strategy with orientations and mandates for the implementation of institutional arrangements for IWRM, development of the necessary instruments and mechanisms and the operation and maintenance of water resources infrastructure. One of IDB’s most important experiences with IWRM is being conducted in Peru, a country with abundant but poorly distributed water resources and where the impact of climate change is significant, mainly in glaciers, which feed major rivers and streams in the driest parts of the country. The situation is aggravated in selected watersheds due to the competing uses of water, triggering conflicts among the various users, including agriculture, mining and domestic supply.

Since 2001 the IDB has supported Peru in the implementation and consolidation of an IWRM approach that culminated with the approval of the Water Resources Law in March 2009. That same year, IDB financed Water Resources Modernization Program provided institutional support to the newly created National Water Authority and the watershed management instruments (information system, governance structure, user’s fees, etc.) were strengthened.

Water is essential to life on this planet and requires a thorough understanding of how it is valued throughout the life cycle that it sustains.

The establishment of councils in three pilot basins (Chira-Piura, Tumbes and Tacna) became a critical path for the implementation of the reforms that were planned. To create these councils, a working routine was followed with all the actors involved (government, civil society, NGOs, private sector, academia) which included awareness-raising and training. The preparation of the watershed management plans followed the methodology known as shared vision, which in each step of the process requires consultation with and approval from all stakeholders. In particular, the implementation of these watershed management instruments relied on effective communications strategies to facilitate internalization and coordination of the processes.

The analysis of the experience with the implementation of the IWRM approach in Peru shows that the process of institutional strengthening and modernization should adopt an integral approach so as to incorporate the different cultural perspectives that are present in a specific region or country. Once these perspectives are identified, it is necessary to evaluate the existing institutions to understand what they represent in the context of the watershed and what mechanisms can facilitate the necessary changes to promote stakeholders empowerment.

To be successful, any approach adoptedneeds to be adequately communicated to all levels of government to create transparency and identify strengths and weaknesses in the process. An easy-to-access information system is fundamental to strengthen the trust among the various actors, to facilitate coordination efforts among institutions and users, and to establishing clear rules of behavior in order to implement the necessary changes while respecting the existing capability for assimilation and execution.

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