IWMI Makes Case for “Non-Integrated” Water Resources Management

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Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) has become a de facto solution for many water issues, but it sometimes results in negative outcomes and has shut out alternative thinking, International Water Management Institute (IWMI) theme leader Mark Giordano told participants at the Innovations in Water Policy Workshop in Singapore last week.

The workshop was hosted by Singapore’s Institute of Water Policy.

At the event, Giordano suggested that policymakers consider alternatives to IWRM that may be more implementable.

IWRM principles include integration across sectors, decentralization of and participation in decision-making, economic and financial sustainability, and using the basin as the unit for decision–making, he explained.

Implementation is not always as smooth as the theory, however, and Giordano cited examples when alternatives can create better solutions than IWRM.

In Sri Lanka, for example, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) advised the government more than two decades ago to improve water policy and funded a program using IWRM. The initial results were positive, with full adoption of water policy, tradable water rights and participation by river basin organizations. Soon, however, strong protests by various groups who said the process was not open and did take cultural norms into account led the government to shut it down.

The backlash was so strong that even 20 years later there is still no policy to deal with key issues like floods and droughts, and simply mentioning “water policy” can create difficulties.

As another example, Giordano cited Central Asia. During the Soviet period, the region saw competition for water between hydropower and irrigation. To resolve the competition, the Soviets built upstream dams for hydropower and told dam operators to release water in the summer for irrigation. When the Soviet Union collapsed, however, upstream states had no incentive to release water in the summer and only released water in the winter when farmers did not need it. The IWRM solution, he said, would be to build basin-scale cooperation. One alternative outside the IWRM framework that could solve the problem would be aquifer storage -- storing water in the winter and using it in the summer via pumping.

In Gujarat, India the government previously wanted to encourage groundwater use for development and provided free electricity for pumping water, Giordano said. Now, however, the groundwater table is down hundreds of meters because electricity is still free. The result in most states is a bankrupt electricity industry, bad rural power supply and a groundwater disaster, he said.

While the IWRM solution would be to price electricity and groundwater, that policy would result in protests by farmers. Instead, the government could look at alternatives for pricing. Giordano said that electricity in some states has been rewired so that there are separate domestic and rural supplies for farm and non-farm uses. Villages have a 24-hour metered supply, and are willing to pay for higher quality and reliable power. Farmers still receive subsidized power, but only for the 30-50 days of peak irrigation demand.

The result in Gujarat after the alternative policy was implemented is that subsidies to agriculture were cut in half, the state reduced overextraction of groundwater, non-farm enterprises are growing faster and negative impacts on marginal farmers have been reduced.

The idea is rolling out to other states.

Last, Giordano looked at China, where the basic problem is new water demands created by urbanization. While China is now mostly urban, there are also concerns about food scarcity. The IWRM solution would be to establish water rights and pricing. On the Yangtze River, however, the government decided instead to use a top-down approach to reallocate water and change farming practices. Farmers were induced to use small reservoirs to capture runoff and return flow. Researchers worked out alternatives to grow more rice, alternating wetting and drying.

The net result is that cities now take almost all the water, but agricultural output is relatively steady.   

Giordano concluded by noting that while IWRM can be fine in principle, and may have the highest cost-benefit ratio, IWRM principles do not have a monopoly on solutions, since they may not be implementable.

In addition to considering IWRM, evaluating alternatives and using other options when they are appropriate can lead to far better solutions, he said.

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