Integrated Water Resources Management

Early approaches to improving access to clean, safe drinking water involved assessing the state of water resource management policies and practices around the world. The first major assessment came in 1977 at the UN Conference on Water, held in Mar del Plata, Argentina. The conference resulted in the Mar del Plata Action Plan, which assessed the worldwide state of water resources management and noted the lack of data available for the formulation of effective water resources planning. Muhammad Rahaman and Olli Varis write that the Action Plan was "the first internationally coordinated approach to [integrated water resources management (IWRM)]," and that the conference "considered water management on a holistic and comprehensive basis" [8]. The Plan outlined some of the water resource management issues that were identified as affecting both international and national policy. Perhaps the most important contribution of the conference was its discussion of issues at all levels, from local to international, and its inclusion of representatives from developing nations. Later conferences would build upon the advancements made at the Mar del Plata conference.

The 1992 International Conference on Water and Environment was held in Dublin and resulted in the establishment of the following four guiding principles for local, national, and international water resources management:

1. Fresh water is a finite, vulnerable, and essential resource that must be managed in an integrated manner.

2. Water development and management should be participatory, involving users, planners and policymakers at all levels.

3. Women are central to the provision, management, and safeguarding of water and should be included in decision making and implementation processes.

4. Water has an economic value and should be treated as an economic good in order to encourage conservation and protection of water; while considering the basic right of all people to have access to clean, safe water at an affordable price [9].

Both the Mar del Plata Action Plan and the Dublin Principles made a lasting impression on international water resources planning. Together, they brought forth the idea of IWRM and, though the Dublin conference did not include participation from the developing world [8], both conferences brought attention to the need for such participation in international conferences. We should note that the fourth Dublin Principle, that water should be treated as an economic good, is a hotly debated issue in international forums on water resources management. The idea has met with particularly stiff resistance from many proponents of explicit human rights to water, who have asserted that water must be treated as a common good rather than an economic good.

The Second World Water Forum was held in The Hague, The Netherlands in 2000. The major contribution of this conference was that it involved stakeholders from all levels, including those from developing nations. The recommendations of this conference included a continued focus on the development of IWRM, including cooperation amongst stakeholders in transboundary water resources management. Most notably, and most subject to debate, the conference recommendations included a push for full-cost water pricing and the use of fully privatized systems or public-private partnerships to achieve conference objectives. The UN General Assembly adopted the Millennium Declaration in the same year, declaring: "We halve, by the year 2015.the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford safe drinking water" [10]. It is notable that the Millennium Declaration did not outline any measures by which this goal is to be achieved. Even so, that statement has been quoted in the literature as the motivation for many different approaches to solving the problem of access to clean, safe drinking water.

The above approaches attempted to improve access through better management practices. Nevertheless, Rahaman and Varis have noted that there are still several problems with national, regional, and local implementation of IWRM practices [8]. Larry Swatuk and Dianne Rahm have demonstrated the challenges that Botswana faces in implementing IWRM policies amidst the country's push for economic development. Among the factors impeding implementation in Botswana are governance issues, public education issues, lack of water monitoring, use of supply-side water policy, and the existence of power relations that favor international actors over local actors. As the authors state: "[Money] has drawn all segments of society into unsustainable forms of water resource use, openly suggesting to them that technological solutions are never far away" [11]. These problems with internationally-derived management approaches may be the reason that some interested parties feel that explicit human rights to water must be proclaimed in order to place the focus of international concern on law and governance issues.

The paradoxical relationship between sustainable management and rapid economic development is one that all developing nations face, and this must be kept in mind when formulating any international guidelines or policy regarding water resources management. As one author points out, international agreements create political accountability, but they do not create legal accountability [12]. It has been argued that using human rights language to establish rights to water creates legal accountability [1,3,12,13], though this legal accountability can be seen as counterproductive. As Marcus Moench notes, a government that fails to provide for the minimum basic water needs of its citizens, for whatever reason, could potentially be held legally accountable for human rights violations [14]. Whether or not this is true may ultimately depend upon how a human right to water is defined.

Continue reading here: What is a Human Right to Water

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