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News Let’s take IWRM back to basics at Rio in 2012

The world has changed over the past decade, and the change finally appears to be reaching the water sector. At the start of the 21st century, we were told that history had ended, the USA was the dominant power in the world (in comfortable alliance with Europe) and that economic and social policy were dominated by market forces as described by the “Washington Consensus”.

In 2011, things are looking very different. The USA is deep in debt with Europe struggling to support its aging population, while China is emerging as the world’s second largest economy. Free market, deregulated economic policies have been discredited by the financial crash.

Globally, water policy is only just beginning to reflect those changes.  Countries such as China, Brazil and South Africa were able to ignore international policy prescriptions. But poorer countries, dependent on donors and their multilateral development bank partners, were told what to do – and many are still the poorer for it.

The foundation for global water policy, as promoted by the donor community (although not always respected domestically), was a free market approach that also prioritised the environmental protection demanded by their home constituencies. This was encapsulated in a version of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), the so-called “Dublin Principles”, which managed to prescribe a water management agenda for the world without mentioning the words “build”, “construct”, “infrastructure”, “store” or, the ultimate horror, “dam” – an ironic prescription from countries which enjoy extensive water infrastructure to manage relatively favourable hydrology.

It is conveniently forgotten that the Dublin Principles were rejected at the Rio Conference on Sustainable Development in 1992. It was a sign of the times that the donor community simply ignored the global consensus and promoted “Dublin” rather than Rio’s Agenda 21, starting with the establishment of umbrella institutions such as the World Water Council outside the UN system. (Another feature of the Washington Consensus was the rejection of the multilateral approach inherent in the UN system).

It is not surprising that the approach to water management that emerged in the mid-90s reflected the Washington Consensus in so many dimensions – the economic approach, the institutional approach, the rejection of multilateralism and the primacy given to environmental objectives rather than the carefully balanced “sustainable development” approach of Rio.

But that old enforced consensus is collapsing and, in Africa and elsewhere, the true priorities are emerging. Infrastructure development suppressed by funding agency strictures about dam building is still a priority – and an opportunity, now possible thanks to alternative sources of funding. China is supporting countries from Ethiopia to Zambia to build the storage and hydropower capacity that they need for their development but were denied. And Africa and Asia will be greener, environmentally and agriculturally, and more resilient to the challenges of their hydrology because of it.

I have written elsewhere [1] about the failure of the IWRM approach that was promoted by the “Dublin” family to achieve useful outcomes. Indeed, it is associated with some serious failures – typified by the delays in implementing Uganda’s energy programme that stifled economic growth and demonstrably exacerbated poverty.

Yet, when it was pointed out, for instance, that the water policies advocated by global environmental groups had probably resulted in 10 000 additional child deaths in Uganda alone, one US NGO representative complained that linking child deaths to environmental policy was “so 20th century”.

Well, let’s hope it is. Let’s hope that we do not, again, allow policy priorities for poor countries to be dominated by the whims and wishful thinking of the rich world. We should be seeking to ensure that water management supports national development priorities and strategies that it takes advantage of development opportunities so that hydropower development allows rivers to be managed to provide reliable irrigation opportunities for poor farmers.

We need to question why trans-boundary river basin organisations are being promoted without thought as to what functions are best undertaken by national administrations and what limited functions can best be done at river basin level. Otherwise we will have more Mekongs where, after 50 years of donor-led “basin cooperation”, countries still do not share information about their current development activities.

Issues such as these highlight the need for a return to the basics of integrated water resource management. As agreed many years ago (at Mar del Plata in 1977 and confirmed in Rio in 1992), good water management must integrate quality and quantity considerations, groundwater and surface water; it must integrate the efforts and impacts of different user sectors; it must also use the river basin as a unit of management so that upstream issues can be addressed with downstream stakeholders and do this within the framework of national development policy.

But IWRM cannot replace legitimate governments with substitute donor-controlled water Parliaments. It should not block legitimate development decisions by demanding a participative decision-making that’s found in no other sector.

The upcoming Rio + 20 meeting will review progress on Agenda 21 issues, such as water management. It offers an opportunity to strengthen the national water administrations that have to meet the challenges of a changing world. And it could allow the donor community to move beyond arrogance and rekindle the values of cooperation and mutual respect for others, as we all grapple with the challenges that the 21st century is bringing.

[1] Muller, M. (2010). Fit for purpose : taking integrated water resource management back to basics. Irrigation and drainage systems ; vol. 24, no. 3-4 ; p. 161-175. DOI: 10.1007/s10795-010-9105-7

Mike Muller, Visiting Adjunct Professor, School of Public and Development Management, University of Witwatersrand, National Planning Commission (NPC) Commissioner, and former Director General of South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) from 1998-2005.

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News type Inbrief
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Keyword(s) water supply management, water supply and demand, water scarcity, water resource, water economy, water distribution area, water demand management, renewable water resource, environmental policy, environmental protection, geopolitics, international organization, sustainable development, sustainable development strategy, water actor, water management
Geographical coverage United States,
News date 20/05/2011
Working language(s) ENGLISH