Integrated water resources management is a long-standing paradigm that needs to be reaffirmed and strengthened in light of current environmental changes and new development priorities at the international level. A review of progress toward internationally agreed goals related to water provides information on four areas of action that require increased attention. Further, the analysis of pathways taken so far helps to understand why some goals have not been achieved and what role the different levels of governance play in the transition to sustainable development.

INTRODUCTION

Integrated water resources management (IWRM), as a way to promote coordinated action on water and natural resources, was first introduced through the Dublin Principles in 1992. Over 20 years later, the world has changed significantly. While in 1992 we were just glimpsing some of the global environmental challenges emerging from climate change and desertification, today many of those concerns are becoming a reality. Under this new scenario, is IWRM still relevant?

Important benchmarks on water resources governance have been set since the Earth Summit on Sustainable Development (ESSD) in 1992, including the Dublin Principles, Agenda 21, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation and the Rio + 20 outcome document ‘The Future We Want’. As a result, internationally agreed goals have been established with the aim of speeding up change toward a more inclusive society, human well-being, and environmental sustainability. Many times, the establishment of these goals was driven by ‘crises’ (Brown & Clarke 2007) such as extreme weather events related to climate change or drought periods that severely affected the well-being of poor communities.

The international agreements, declarations, and statements of the past 20 years had deep impacts on the approaches to water resources management and prove to be of the highest relevance in the long-term (Bassi et al. 2014), although under a new perspective. Table 1 presents a comparison of international priorities and goals related to water that were considered in 1992 (year of the first ESSD) and after 2012 (year of the second ESSD).

Table 1

Evolution of IWRM in the international agenda

1992–2000Indicator/example2012/2014Indicator/example
Water supply Millennium Development Goal 7 (MDG 7) target 7c: ‘Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation’ Water as a human right UN Resolution 64/292 (July 28th, 2010): ‘Recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights’ 
Sanitation Resilient infrastructure Proposed Sustainable Development Goal 6.2 ‘By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations’ 
Ecological balance Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Article 6: ‘National strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and integration of such into relevant plans, programs and policies’ Ecosystem services Aichi Biodiversity Target A4 CBD: ‘By 2020, at the latest, governments, business and stakeholders at all levels have taken steps to achieve or have implemented plans for sustainable consumption and production and have kept the impacts of use of natural resources well within safe ecological limits’ 
Governance Agenda 21, Chapter 18: ‘the application of integrated approaches to the development, management and use of water resources’ Efficiency, sustainability 10-year Framework Programme on Sustainable Consumption and Production (10YFP): ‘Promotes life cycle approaches, including resource efficiency and sustainable use of resources, as well as science-based and traditional knowledge-based approaches, cradle to cradle and the 3R concept (reduce, reuse and recycle) and other related methodologies, as appropriate’ 
Participatory decision making and gender balance Dublin principle 2: ‘Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policy-makers at all levels’ Knowledge transfer and skills development Proposed Sustainable Development Goal 6.b ‘Support and strengthen the participation of local communities for improving water and sanitation management’ 
1992–2000Indicator/example2012/2014Indicator/example
Water supply Millennium Development Goal 7 (MDG 7) target 7c: ‘Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation’ Water as a human right UN Resolution 64/292 (July 28th, 2010): ‘Recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights’ 
Sanitation Resilient infrastructure Proposed Sustainable Development Goal 6.2 ‘By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations’ 
Ecological balance Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Article 6: ‘National strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and integration of such into relevant plans, programs and policies’ Ecosystem services Aichi Biodiversity Target A4 CBD: ‘By 2020, at the latest, governments, business and stakeholders at all levels have taken steps to achieve or have implemented plans for sustainable consumption and production and have kept the impacts of use of natural resources well within safe ecological limits’ 
Governance Agenda 21, Chapter 18: ‘the application of integrated approaches to the development, management and use of water resources’ Efficiency, sustainability 10-year Framework Programme on Sustainable Consumption and Production (10YFP): ‘Promotes life cycle approaches, including resource efficiency and sustainable use of resources, as well as science-based and traditional knowledge-based approaches, cradle to cradle and the 3R concept (reduce, reuse and recycle) and other related methodologies, as appropriate’ 
Participatory decision making and gender balance Dublin principle 2: ‘Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policy-makers at all levels’ Knowledge transfer and skills development Proposed Sustainable Development Goal 6.b ‘Support and strengthen the participation of local communities for improving water and sanitation management’ 

In this context, it is pertinent to review the available evidence (United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) 2012a; Jabbour et al. 2012; United Nations 2013) on progress toward internationally agreed goals and examine options for future action. Beyond multilateral agreements, how can IWRM approaches contribute to global progress toward sustainable water resources management?

This paper is based on the fifth edition of the Global Environment Outlook (GEO 5), the main United Nations report on the state and trends of the environment. The report is the product of a world-wide consultative process involving government and non-government experts (a complete list of authors, including authors from industry and local governments, is included in UNEP (2012a). It reviews the world's progress toward the achievement of 18 internationally agreed goals on water, analyzing six focus areas: (i) ecosystems; (ii) human well-being; (iii) water use efficiency; (iv) water quality; (v) institutional and legal issues; and (vi) water resources management. At the regional level, GEO 5 presents a set of policy options that can help speed up progress toward goals such as the Millennium Development Goal 7 (MDG 7) and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation Paragraph 26c (World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) 2002).

Other publications (UN Water 2012; World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) 2012; United Nations 2013) have also assessed progress and drawn important conclusions to address internationally recognized water priorities. Documentation on IWRM is abundant, especially at basin level (Castro n.d.; UN Water 2012; United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2013; Cap-Net 2010). These reports acknowledge that the efforts to improve governance, apply best practices and technologies, and increase financing, among others, have created capacities and taken millions of persons out of poverty. However, as this paper shows, IWRM approaches need to be evaluated and reconsidered in light of important changes in the state of the environment. This paper aims to be an updated contribution to this evaluation.

METHODS

Progress since 1992

‘IWRM is a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems’ (Global Water Partnership (GWP) 2000). Usually, IWRM is evaluated in terms of laws (e.g. decentralization), policies (e.g. plans, regulations, and concessions), management instruments (financial, monitoring, and research), and capacity building. UN Water (2012) assessed IWRM implementation also in terms of enabling environment, infrastructure, financing, and development impacts. Ultimately, these elements are driven by demographics, consumption and production patterns, and economic development. Taking this into account UNEP (2012a) assessed how the world is responding to current water-related issues (Table 2).

Table 2

Progress toward internationally agreed goals on freshwater

ProgressKey issues and goals
Significant progress Ensure equitable access to improved drinking water supply 
Some progress Reduce water-related human health hazards 
Develop programs for mitigating the effects of extreme water-related events 
Mitigate and adapt to adverse effects of climate change on the water environment 
Improve the efficient use of water resources 
Improve sanitation coverage, including sewage collection, treatment, and disposal 
Develop and enforce legal frameworks and regulations 
Strengthen institutional coordination mechanisms 
Develop and implement integrated management strategies and plans 
Very little or no progress Develop adequate monitoring systems (national, regional, and global) 
Improve groundwater management 
Deteriorating Conserve and improve management of wetlands 
Ensure environmental water needs 
Secure adequate and sustainable freshwater supply 
Insufficient data Protect and restore freshwater ecosystems and their services 
Reduce and control freshwater pollution 
Recognize the economic value of water 
Improve stakeholder participation and mainstream gender in water management 
ProgressKey issues and goals
Significant progress Ensure equitable access to improved drinking water supply 
Some progress Reduce water-related human health hazards 
Develop programs for mitigating the effects of extreme water-related events 
Mitigate and adapt to adverse effects of climate change on the water environment 
Improve the efficient use of water resources 
Improve sanitation coverage, including sewage collection, treatment, and disposal 
Develop and enforce legal frameworks and regulations 
Strengthen institutional coordination mechanisms 
Develop and implement integrated management strategies and plans 
Very little or no progress Develop adequate monitoring systems (national, regional, and global) 
Improve groundwater management 
Deteriorating Conserve and improve management of wetlands 
Ensure environmental water needs 
Secure adequate and sustainable freshwater supply 
Insufficient data Protect and restore freshwater ecosystems and their services 
Reduce and control freshwater pollution 
Recognize the economic value of water 
Improve stakeholder participation and mainstream gender in water management 

Source: Modified from UNEP (2012a). ‘GEO-5 assessed progress towards 90 goals and objectives specifically geared to respond to some of the world's environment and development challenges. It also identified important gaps, using key indicators and time-series datasets, where available, to measure progress. In many cases, however, specific, measurable targets and/or sufficient data were lacking. In these cases, GEO-5 authors – both independent and government-nominated – made an assessment of progress based on the best available data and findings in the scientific literature, which was peer-reviewed and reflected in the final GEO-5 report’ (UNEP 2012b).

The world has progressed in achieving goals such as the Millennium Development Goal on access to water supply. Nevertheless, securing adequate and sustainable freshwater supply remains a challenge. Water-related diseases and water supply in rural areas of developing countries require increased attention (UNEP 2012a). For instance, ‘1.8 million people die every year from diarrhoeal diseases (including cholera); 90% are children under 5 years of age, mostly in developing countries’ (World Health Organization 2014). International financing mechanisms support the implementation of national infrastructure development programs as one of the main responses to water availability.

The development of national legal and institutional frameworks has advanced to different degrees in all countries assessed by UN Water (2012). This includes the creation of institutions and the establishment of norms on industrial and municipal wastewater discharge. Nevertheless, enforcement remains an issue in many regions (UNEP 2012a), disabling efforts to have real impact on the ground. Regulations on non-point-source pollution also lag behind.

The implementation of one of the principles of IWRM, recognizing the economic value of water, is still difficult to assess given the lack of data in appropriate format, time series, and coverage (UNEP 2012a). This leads to poor knowledge of water abstractions, for example, making monitoring of different water users difficult and conflict-solving even more complex. The System of Economic and Environmental Accounts (United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) 2012), including water accounts, has been proposed as a framework to compile and analyze water data based on agreed concepts, definitions, and classifications, but its implementation is still under development in most countries of the world.

The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation called for the ‘development of IWRM and water efficiency strategies’ (UN Water 2012). But progress has been limited. Many developing countries needed to increase drinking water supply and coverage of sanitation services in the first place. Also, legal and institutional frameworks are necessary previous steps to the development of water use efficiency standards, norms, and plans for different productive sectors. High levels of non-revenue water are a clear result of the lack of comprehensive efficiency approaches. Responses to this situation include a series of technological and procedural (Stedman 2012) options for different sectors, which prove to save important quantities of water but are not enough to achieve global goals on water efficiency.

The poor protection of freshwater ecosystems is worrying. More emphasis on the protection and restoration of critical areas (such as wetlands) in IWRM plans could have probably contributed to more progress toward MDG 7, which aimed to protect 17% of all terrestrial and inland water areas by 2015. Today, nearly 13% of the land surface is under protection (UNEP 2012b), with uneven coverage of different biomes. Eutrophication and saline intrusion into freshwater bodies are examples of the impacts of water management approaches that do not recognize the environmental services and benefits that ecosystems provide. Also, the upstream areas of many basins are still vulnerable to anthropogenic pressures that can alter water supply downstream. In the context of adaptation to climate change, this means that keeping the hydrological cycle and environmental flows is as important to an IWRM plan as infrastructure development. For this reason, global strategies and guidelines that can be adapted to different local conditions and environments are useful to guide the introduction of an ecosystem approach into water resources management.

Identifying shortcomings

What can explain these findings? Does IWRM need a shift? The transitions theory (Brown & Clarke 2007; De Haan & Rotmans 2011) is used to explain what are the factors influencing change in four central issues to IWRM: (i) implementation of IWRM plans; (ii) development of monitoring systems; (iii) groundwater management; and (iv) stakeholder participation.

Transitions refer to processes of change that develop in different phases through the interaction of ‘macro, meso, and micro’ levels of social structure, which correspond in this case to international, national, and urban governance levels. Milestones in this transition include: (i) the establishment of an enabling context together with leaders that promote change; (ii) the ‘diffusion’ of new technologies, approaches, and ideas; and (iii) the creation of a ‘niche’ that can nurture this process.

The achievement of internationally agreed goals on water is directly related to the development and implementation of IWRM approaches at different levels. This entails a transition toward sustainable resource management, poverty eradication, and ecological balance. A traditional transition pathway is the national and local implementation of measures after the international goals have been established. Nevertheless, bottom-up approaches are increasingly recognized as relevant for this transition as well (UNEP & ICLEI 2013).

RESULTS

IWRM plans

Table 3 presents the results of the UN survey to assess the development of IWRM approaches at the national level. Targets and data in most of the mentioned issues are not available to accurately determine the degree of progress, although it is possible to conclude where the world stands. Findings are in line with Brown & Clarke (2007) who identified a phased development of IWRM strategies where the creation of an enabling context is a first key component of the transition. Legal, institutional, and finance frameworks have advanced the most in all countries.

Table 3

Progress in the development and implementation of national integrated management strategies and plans

ProgressMajor IWRM activities
Significant progress IWRM adoption 
Institutional issues 
Infrastructure for domestic supply and hydroelectricity 
Some progress Financing 
Very little or no progress/deteriorating Stakeholder participation 
Payment for ecosystem services 
Capacity building 
Infrastructure for irrigation, rainwater harvesting and ecosystems 
Polluter pays principle 
Ecosystems, food, energy 
Water efficiency 
Insufficient data Risks, competition 
ProgressMajor IWRM activities
Significant progress IWRM adoption 
Institutional issues 
Infrastructure for domestic supply and hydroelectricity 
Some progress Financing 
Very little or no progress/deteriorating Stakeholder participation 
Payment for ecosystem services 
Capacity building 
Infrastructure for irrigation, rainwater harvesting and ecosystems 
Polluter pays principle 
Ecosystems, food, energy 
Water efficiency 
Insufficient data Risks, competition 

Source: Adapted from UN Water (2012). The report is based on a survey of 133 countries, categorized according to their Human Development Index. Results show the percentage of countries in each category that responded to multiple choice questions. The conclusions were backed by personal interviews with government officials in 30 countries.

More complex issues such as water efficiency and the ecosystems-food-energy nexus, which rely on trusted science and capacity building, among others, are well addressed only in countries with a high Human Development Index (UN Water 2012).

Although basic variables (such as pH, biological oxygen demand, flow rates, and hydro-meteorological variables) are regularly monitored in the main river and lake basins of the world, data collection efforts focus on water quality and consumption in major sectors (households, industries, and agriculture). Decision makers have managed to use this data through a ‘hard’ path (Brandes & Kriwoken 2006) characterized by the increase of water supply capacity through infrastructure. Nevertheless, a transition toward IWRM through a ‘soft’ path requires information that supports demand, not supply, management. A common situation is the lack of accurate data on non-revenue water, which leads to uncertainty about the efficiency of distribution systems.

Also, pressures of water use on ecosystems are difficult to describe through aggregation of existing sparse data. For instance, ‘a sound regional aggregation of the point groundwater measurements is usually more than a numerical interpolation and averaging procedure. It needs to be carried out by regional experts, making use of their knowledge of hydrogeological conditions, measurement practice, historical records, socioeconomic setup, and other factors relevant for derivation of reliable figures’ (Atlas of Transboundary Aquifers 2009). Thus, capacities to use the data are the next step in the development of monitoring systems.

Table 4 is a non-comprehensive list of publicly available data in international sources. It is empirically known that a significant amount of data is not publicly available or does not get reported for several reasons, from communications failure to conflicting interests.

Table 4

Development of monitoring systems. Type of information available through international reporting networks

IndicatorsReporting instancesTime series
Global Environmental Alert Service (GEMS) Water Regions and number of reporting stations Date range per region 
Physical–chemical characteristics Africa, 368 1977–2010 
Organic matter Asia & Pacific, 636 1977–2013 
Organic contaminants Europe, 358 1974–2011 
Nutrients Latin America and the Caribbean, 1454 1979–2013 
Major ions North America, 1124 1965–2010 
Microbiology West Asia, 115 1969–2007 
Metals Total 4055 1965–2013 
Global Groundwater Monitoring Network Number of reporting countries Date range 
Base map 18 countries made their data publically available, with none in LAC and West Asia (in GGMN, a country can choose whether to make its data publically available or not) Since 2007 
Physiography 
Demography 
Agriculture and economics 
Aquifer characteristics 
Groundwater quantity 
Groundwater quality 
Groundwater development 
Groundwater problems 
UNSD–UNEP Environment Statistics Survey Number of reporting countries Date range 
Renewable freshwater resources About 170 (All countries except those that are covered by the Joint OECD/Eurostat Questionnaire) Since 2004 (biannual survey) 
Freshwater abstraction 
Freshwater available for use 
Total water use 
Water supply industry 
Wastewater treatment facilities 
Population connected to wastewater treatment 
Joint OECD/Eurostat Questionnaire Reporting countriesa Date range 
Freshwater resources EU + CC + EFTA EU ‘Neighbors’ Non-European OECD Since 1980 Yearly data 
Freshwater abstractions and other sources of water 
Water use 
Wastewater treatment 
Water quality of rivers and lakes 
International Benchmarking Network for Water and Sanitation Utilities (IB-NET) Reporting countries and utilities Date range 
Affordability 2600 water utilities from around the world Since 1995 
Billings and collections   
Meters   
Non-revenue water   
Quality of service   
Water consumption and production   
Assets   
Financial performance   
Network performance   
Operating costs and staff   
Service coverage   
IndicatorsReporting instancesTime series
Global Environmental Alert Service (GEMS) Water Regions and number of reporting stations Date range per region 
Physical–chemical characteristics Africa, 368 1977–2010 
Organic matter Asia & Pacific, 636 1977–2013 
Organic contaminants Europe, 358 1974–2011 
Nutrients Latin America and the Caribbean, 1454 1979–2013 
Major ions North America, 1124 1965–2010 
Microbiology West Asia, 115 1969–2007 
Metals Total 4055 1965–2013 
Global Groundwater Monitoring Network Number of reporting countries Date range 
Base map 18 countries made their data publically available, with none in LAC and West Asia (in GGMN, a country can choose whether to make its data publically available or not) Since 2007 
Physiography 
Demography 
Agriculture and economics 
Aquifer characteristics 
Groundwater quantity 
Groundwater quality 
Groundwater development 
Groundwater problems 
UNSD–UNEP Environment Statistics Survey Number of reporting countries Date range 
Renewable freshwater resources About 170 (All countries except those that are covered by the Joint OECD/Eurostat Questionnaire) Since 2004 (biannual survey) 
Freshwater abstraction 
Freshwater available for use 
Total water use 
Water supply industry 
Wastewater treatment facilities 
Population connected to wastewater treatment 
Joint OECD/Eurostat Questionnaire Reporting countriesa Date range 
Freshwater resources EU + CC + EFTA EU ‘Neighbors’ Non-European OECD Since 1980 Yearly data 
Freshwater abstractions and other sources of water 
Water use 
Wastewater treatment 
Water quality of rivers and lakes 
International Benchmarking Network for Water and Sanitation Utilities (IB-NET) Reporting countries and utilities Date range 
Affordability 2600 water utilities from around the world Since 1995 
Billings and collections   
Meters   
Non-revenue water   
Quality of service   
Water consumption and production   
Assets   
Financial performance   
Network performance   
Operating costs and staff   
Service coverage   

aEU = European Union. 28 countries. CC = Candidate countries (in the process of integrating EU legislation into national law). 5 countries. EFTA = European Free Trade Association. 4 countries. EU ‘Neighbors’ = Countries that agree with the EU an European Neighborhood Policy. 16 countries. Sources:European Union (2014); European Free Trade Association (2014); European Union External Action (2014).

Groundwater management

International goals on freshwater (international goals on freshwater include MDG 7, the Millennium Declaration (resolution 55/2 of 18 September 2000, para. 23), the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, para. 25(d), 26(c) and 134, and Agenda 21 Chapter 17) tend to have a comprehensive scope for surface water and groundwater. At the national level, legislation concerning aquifer management is frequently embedded in other water resource or environmental management regulations. Nevertheless, the management approaches for surface and groundwater are quite different. River and hydrogeological basins do not have the same boundaries, although many rivers depend on groundwater to maintain dry season flow. With surface water attracting more attention generally, groundwater management can be considered to be well behind river basin management. Table 5 lists major groundwater issues and the relative progress in their implementation at the global level. Specific targets and indicators on groundwater management have not been established internationally, so progress has been evaluated based on the findings of the Atlas of Transboundary Aquifers (2009) and UNEP (2012a).

Table 5

Global progress on groundwater management

ProgressMain groundwater issues
Some progress Transboundary agreements 
Some progress Identification/mapping 
Very little progress Water quantity assessment 
Very little progress Water quality assessment 
Insufficient data Socioeconomic impacts 
Insufficient data Exploitation rates 
ProgressMain groundwater issues
Some progress Transboundary agreements 
Some progress Identification/mapping 
Very little progress Water quantity assessment 
Very little progress Water quality assessment 
Insufficient data Socioeconomic impacts 
Insufficient data Exploitation rates 

Important advances have been made to support transboundary aquifer management through international governance schemes (notably the United Nations Resolution A/RES/63/124 on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers, but also the agreement on the Guarani aquifer in South America and the Africa Groundwater Commission, for example), but these schemes are seldom replicated at the local level in other smaller aquifers (e.g. in aquifers shared by two or more administrative units in a country). Global depletion of aquifers will continue, although possibly at a slower rate (Konikow & Kendy 2005) given the management actions that are starting to build awareness, to create markets, and to improve technology. Will this be enough to trigger a transition toward integrated groundwater management? If serious approaches to institutional change are not taken at the appropriate levels it is unlikely that international goals and targets specific to groundwater will be established and uncertainty of the state of groundwater resources will remain.

Stakeholder participation

The path to achieve international goals on water ‘is highly dependent on successfully establishing new cultures across multiple organizations, professions, and tiers of government’ (Brown & Clarke 2007). This is commonly referred to as ‘stakeholder participation’.

Unfortunately, no quantitative global data are available to assess stakeholder participation in water management and no clear international goals, targets or indicators have been established. Nevertheless, the Millennium Development Goal on promotion of gender equality and female empowerment (MDG 3) has certainly been a driver of successful actions toward stakeholder involvement in IWRM. The United Nations (2013) identifies ‘steady progress’ toward achievement of MDG 3 ‘but more targeted action is needed in many regions’. Also, mechanisms to involve the poor, the youth, and indigenous people in IWRM in areas where they are not a majority need to be further promoted (GWP 2012).

Monitoring stakeholder participation is a complex issue. The degree and means of participation can vary significantly in different locations in response to demographic, social, and cultural patterns. In contrast to infrastructure development, funding is not determining to involvement of different groups in participatory IWRM processes. The UNDP (2006) analyzes different factors: skills for building participatory processes; time for these processes to mature; flexibility and adaptability to deal with emerging issues and conflicts; and support and follow-up by authorities, project managers, cooperation agencies, and leaders. The fact that any of the stakeholders can champion new approaches and ideas of change in their constituency is highlighted by Brown & Clarke (2007) as another key element in the transition toward IWRM.

Table 6 identifies areas in which the international community has been especially active in the last 20 years. This table has been compiled based on the existence of several initiatives, programs, networks (such as the Association of Women in Water, Energy and Environment, Women for Water, the International Network of Basin Organizations, World Water Monitoring Challenge, and the Young Water Professionals group of the International Water Association), and its priorities; it does not rank their impact on the ground.

Table 6

Improve stakeholder participation and mainstream gender in water management

Estimated progressImprove stakeholder participation and mainstream gender in water management
Significant progress Literature: manuals, guidelines, policy documents 
Some progress Creation of basin organizations/committees 
Capacity building 
Gender mainstreaming 
Creation of specialized groups 
Very little progress Dialogue fora 
Estimated progressImprove stakeholder participation and mainstream gender in water management
Significant progress Literature: manuals, guidelines, policy documents 
Some progress Creation of basin organizations/committees 
Capacity building 
Gender mainstreaming 
Creation of specialized groups 
Very little progress Dialogue fora 

DISCUSSION

The transitions theory is useful to describe and interpret the findings of GEO 5 and the role of cities in IWRM processes. First, the interactions between different governance levels (international/macro level, national/meso level, and urban/micro level) are weakened by a series of factors, including the lack of measurable and relevant targets and indicators to evaluate progress toward common goals.

A ‘niche’ that nurtures the transition to IWRM has been created through the establishment of common international goals and targets in some areas. The ‘niche’ is not stabilized yet because legal and institutional frameworks are not in place in many countries and capacities to support decision making through participatory processes and using sound science are not adequate in many regions. On the other hand, bottom-up approaches, where the ‘niche’ is located at city level and innovative options scale-up to inform international policies, are also relevant (UNEP & ICLEI 2013).

Also, it seems that ‘champions’, i.e. stakeholders that promote change, help in the diffusion of good practices and technology and advocate in the name of a wide group of interested parties, do not always emerge from participatory processes. ‘Champions’ are not only engines of public participation but also promote environmental values and a shared vision of IWRM at local level (Brandes & Kirwoken 2006; Brandes & Clarke 2007). For some, participatory water management means management by the water users themselves, in which case capacity building is key for these champions to support informed decisions on relevant economic, technical, and ecological aspects.

Further, diffusion of innovative approaches (notably with regard to water efficiency) is not yet finished. This could be due to the cultural, geographical, and political differences that exist between regions and that set up different contexts and needs.

CONCLUSIONS

Assessing the relevance of the IWRM approach 20 years after its international adoption provides an opportunity to revise intervention strategies in the future. Further progress in planning, management, monitoring, and participatory processes is needed to enable a transition to IWRM and to sustainable development, as was called for in international fora. This is not the time to stop and change paradigms. IWRM is as relevant now as it was in 1992. Transitions of this magnitude need to pass through different phases once the enabling environment has been set; they are estimated to take around 100 years to complete (Brown & Clarke 2007), but faster progress is possible.

In synthesis, the agreement on international goals kicked off the transition, legal, and institutional frameworks that will enable the diffusion of IWRM approaches until they become common practice by all stakeholders.

Cities have a very important role to play in IWRM design and implementation. From engaging other stakeholders to investing in monitoring schemes, they can champion the design of IWRM plans. Nevertheless, these actions will have impact globally only if all levels of government are involved and if the local actions are linked to broader international sustainable development goals.

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