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Top Down Approach To Water Resource Managment

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 4188 words Published: 18th Apr 2017

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Ever since the period of Enlightenment, scientists and academics have adopted a top-down approach to managing the environment and its associated resources. The downfall of this persistent ideology is that it solely values or prioritizes professional ‘expert’ scientific knowledge as a basis for formulating environmental policies and guiding decisions concerning the environment (Smith et al, 2008).

The consequences of prioritizing ‘expert’ knowledge was that the local knowledge and experiences of the surroundings of people at the ‘grass roots’ level, were not taken into consideration during decision making and was normally regarded as irrelevant (Smith et al, 2008). In the context of water resource management, this approach meant that the policies, plans and programs formulated were technical and exclusively scientific in nature, lacking the dynamics of the social realm and use of social theory (Smith et al, 2008).

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The technical nature of policies formulated proved to be locally unsustainable and unacceptable because water resource management is an area that deals with a resource that integrates basic human rights and is central to all life (Smith et al, 2008).Some examples of the consequences of this non-participatory approach to water resource management is the construction of large dams for water supply and irrigation which results in the displacement of thousands of intended beneficiaries or how some government have even intentionally used the water policies formulated under this approach, to harm the disenfranchised (Jansky et al, 2005)

Along with being purely technical in nature and non-participatory, conventional water resource management approaches focused primarily on the supply of water resources particularly for development and other economically inclined purposes.

2.2 Supply-driven approach

It has been recognized that the evolution of water resource management is greatly interconnected with the growth of the world’s population (Al Radif, 1999). Until the end of the 19th century, water resource management was primarily focused on the supply of water to users for agricultural, domestic and industrial uses which proved to be successful throughout the 19th century due to the low population growth during this period. This approach to water resource management known as the supply-driven approach proved successful because the available water resources during this time period were adequate to meet the needs of the population (Al Radif, 1999).

As shown in the Figure 1 above, when the world’s population was approximately 2 billion in the 19th century the fresh water ecosystems basically functioned undisturbed as a user, provider of goods and services and a regulator of both water quality and quantity which assumed a sustainable approach was being implemented however, when the population grew to 3 billion over 60 years, the approach was quickly undermined (Al Radif, 1999). This was mainly due to the governments focus on the supply of water resources by diverting water resources from the original stores to new store pathways. The approach to water resource management resulted in the deterioration of water quality, stresses on water supplies and the degradation of water resources (Al Radif, 1999).


3.1 Definitions, principles and objectives

According to the Global Water Partnership (GWP) 2000, Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) is viewed simultaneously as a philosophy, process and approach which promotes the coordinated development and management of water and related natural resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems (GWP, 2000 as cited by Funke et al, 2007).

IWRM is also described as a guiding principle that necessitates the interdisciplinary, participative and strategic approach to managing water resources, stressing the co ordinate interaction between and within both human and natural systems with the aim of achieving sustainable development (Guipponi et al, 2000).

Since there is no unambiguous and universally accepted definition the examination of the Dublin principles which form the core of IWRM, allows a clearer understanding of the key issues that define IWRM (Funke et al, 2007).

The Dublin principles state that:

The world’s fresh water is finite and a vulnerable water resource vital for human survival, development and the correct functioning of the environment.

Water resource management should be a participative process involving all users planners and policy makers at all levels.

Women play a key role in the management of water resources and therefore should be involved in decision making.

Water should be recognized as an economic good.

IWRM emerged in response to the sector by sector technical conventional water resource management approaches and is more holistic in that it recognizes the various dimensions of water and accepts that water comprises an ecological system formed by a number of interdependent components, where each component influences the other (Matondo, 2002). This recognition results in management directed to joint consideration of aspects for example water supply, water treatment and disposal and water quality (Mitchell, 1944).

While water is a system it is also recognized as a component and therefore its interactions with other systems need to be taken into consideration as changes in one system may have consequences in the other, therefore IWRM is a much broader perspective or approach to managing water resources (Matondo, 2002).

IWRM does not only take into consideration the complex interconnections of the human and natural systems, it has even broader interpretations as it considers the interrelationships between water and socio-economic development where the main concern is the extent to which the available water supplies is both an opportunity for barrier against economic development and how to manage the resource to ensure sustainable development (Mitchell, 1944).

IWRM compared to conventional water management approaches, recognizes and accepts that water resource planning and management can have physical, social and economical impacts and is therefore multi and interdisciplinary involving a wide range of disciplines such as engineering, economics and social science (Matondo, 2002). The aim of formulating multidisciplinary teams in IWRM is communication to view the various perspectives on water resources to ensure the maintenance of ecological functioning and the conservation of water resources (Al Radif, 1999).

3.2 Bottom- up approach

By the end of the 1980’s the conventional supply-driven management approach proved problematic and incapable of delivering portable water and proper sanitation especially in developing countries. By the mid 1980’s early 1990’s, the realization and acceptance of the fact that actions at the ‘grass root’ level is what makes or breaks policies, resulted in the popularization of a more participatory approach to environmental management termed the bottom-up approach (Smith, 2008).

In context of water management, conferences held in New Delhi in 1990, Dublin in 1992 and Rio de Jeneiro in 1992 endorsed community participation which was officially adopted universally as a key guiding principle in sustainable water resource management (Smith, 2008).The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Jeneiro specifically proposed that local communities should be involved in all stages of decision making with regard to the management of water resources to ensure that decisions made are locally appropriate, accepted and sustainable (Smith, 2008).

The concept of involving communities in all stages of decision making such as policy and plan formulation and project and program implementation, were based on the fact that local people themselves are considered experts of their own local environment and therefore their knowledge should be highly appreciated (Smith, 2008). Unlike the conventional top-down approach, the bottom-up approach encourages local people to work together on environmental issues within their surrounding environment which consequently provides capacity building and empowerment opportunity to communities that are able to define their specific needs, wants and aims in relation to local water access and management (Smith, 2008).

IWRM encompasses all aspects of the environment namely economic, environmental and social aspects however, the approach pays little attention to the ecosystems role as a provider of goods and services which resulted in the suggestion of an ecosystem-based approach (Jewitt, 2002).

3.3 Ecosystem-based approach

Conventional water resource management approaches were typically a command control type of approach in the sense that it aimed to control the hydrological cycle through the construction of hydrological structures to harvest goods and services and produce predictable outcomes (Jewit, 2002). The reduction of ecosystem variation and functioning, decline in the goods and services provided by ecosystems and resilience of the systems were some of the consequences of adopting this approach (Jewit, 2002).

The key components of the ecosystem based approach as shown in figure 3 include capacity building, partnership, policy and planning and the assessment of water resources (Al Radif, 1999).The correct functioning of ecosystems such as headwaters, wetlands and floodplains is vital for human survival since society derives a wide variety of important life sustaining benefits and biodiversity from these systems (Al Radif, 1999). In the context of water resources ecosystems regulate water quality and quantity, habitat resources and provide vital information to society (Al Radif, 1999).Additionally, ecosystems are highly complex systems and the exclusion of vital aspects of the system regarding the environment such as ecological functioning during decision making due to the poor understanding of the systems dynamics results in undermined and unsustainable decisions (Jewit, 2002).This lack of understanding and lack of political willingness to accommodate non-quantitative aspects of ecosystem dynamics results in an incapable management system (Jewit, 2002).

An ecosystem-based approach to managing water resources is a realization that management systems need to be flexible anticipatory and adaptive to deal with the complexity of ecosystems. The approach is similar to IWRM however the approach prioritizes ecosystem functioning and its related goods and services (Jewitt, 2002).


Despite the universal acceptance of the Dublin principles which form the core of IWRM, The effective implementation of IWRM in each individual country is dependent on the nature and intensity of the water problems that reside in the country (Funke et al, 2007).

The argument put forward by the European Union regarding the five fundamental principles of good governance for the effective implementation of IWRM in each country, is not entirely relevant in developing countries as it is in developed countries (Funke et al, 2007). This is mainly because the situations that occur in developing countries differ on many levels compared to those that reside in developed countries (Funke et al, 2007). The openness, participation and transparency of governance in developing countries are hampered by more factors compared to developed countries such as illiteracy and widespread poverty and mistrust of government leaders (Funke et al, 2007).

Lack of budgets and human resource capacities in developing countries create a gap between water resource management and the application of new legislations, strategies and institutions in practice and it is therefore clear that with the uniquely characterized problems that reside in developing countries, the solutions to managing water resources in developed countries will prove inapplicable (Funke et al, 2007).

IWRM principles and practices therefore need to take into consideration the local conditions which reside in developing countries such as Africa, if the management approach is to prove sustainable in a long run (Funke et al, 2007).

4.1 IWRM in South Africa

South Africa is recognized universally as being at the forefront of adopting IWRM as a water resource management regime (Jonker, 2000). The need for IWRM in the countries stems from climatic, historical and political perspectives all of which differ from developed countries and make the successful and effective implementation of IWRM a challenge (Jonker, 2000).From climatic perspective large parts of the country is water limited due to the low average and highly variable rainfall received in the country. The inequitable patterns of both industrial and agricultural development from a historical perspective and the apartheid social engineering and planning legacy from a political perspective, resulted in the unequal access to and use of water resources and more concentrated water demands in particular areas of the country (Jonker, 2000).

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An additional challenge to IWRM in South Africa aroused when the citizens of the country took part in a national democratization process and now have the growing need to participate in decision making processes at all levels (Jonker, 2000). This has its benefits challenge although the problems come in when decision makers have to decide the extent to which citizens are able to have an influence on decisions made and the challenge of trade offs (Jonker, 2000). The management approach embraces a multitude of stakeholders in South Africa which include environmentalists, government at all levels, NGO’s and local organizations such as subsistence farmers, traditional leaders and women groups (Shculze et al, 2004).

The political transformation in South Africa the mid nineties was used as an opportunity by the water sector for formulating new water law policies and a new water act in 1998. IWRM formed the basis of this transformation and both the constitution and National Water Act (NWA) of 1998 make fundamental facilitations for the effective and successful implementation in South Africa (Jonker, 2000).

4.2 The Constitution and National Water Act of 1998

Despite the peaceful political transition to democracy in South Africa, in the context of water resource management, the allocation and management of water resources was still regulated by the 1956 Water Act which is primarily based on the riparian system water rights making no provision for the integration, equity or facilitation for transparent and open decision making, ecological sustainability or the reduction of poverty (Dollar et al, 2010).

The inclusion of the concept of sustainable development into the South African Constitution due to the initiation of a water reform process in 1995 resulted in a major shift towards IWRM because the Constitution forms the basis of all policies laws and practices for water management ( Dollar et al, 2010).

The values entrenched in the Constitution include equity, the right of access to sufficient water and a healthy environment and thus provides the enabling environment for the formulation and implementation of a new democratic water act ( Dollar et al, 2010). It took over three years for the NWA of 1998 to come into law in South Africa and the NWA recognizes that water is a powerful tool for restructuring society (Dollar et al, 2010). The act encompasses values such as human rights, social justice principles and provides policies and legal frameworks required to ensure the equal, efficient and sustainable supply of water resources (Asmal, 1998).

Despite the fact that the NWA does not contain the term IWRM, it encompasses the principles and objectives of the water management approach as set out on the White paper policy document of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (Jonker et al, 2000). The act also makes noteworthy provisions and fundamental provisions for the effective implementation of IWRM (Asmal, 1998).

Some of the provisions include the recognition by the act that water for basic human needs and proper ecological functioning must be taken as first priority before commercial and other water uses, the change from “water rights” to “water-use rights” and makes provision for levies to be charged for all major water users for their consumption (Asmal, 1998). This provision was made to ensure equity and efficiency but was met great resistance from the agricultural sector (Asmal, 1998) mainly because the agricultural sector is highly dependent on water resources for irrigation purposes (Schulze et al, 2004).

The NWA also facilitates public participation which is one of the core principles of IWRM and stresses that government should involve local communities and all affected and involved stakeholders during legislation and policy formulation, and take their comments seriously however, even though the their catchment is their responsibility government remains the overseer (Schulze et al,2004).Another important provision of the NWA is the focus on the arrangements and establishment of institutions which resulted in a significant shift to more integrated and co operative approaches to water governance and stakeholder participation to ensure IWRM (Asmal, 1998). The act acknowledges that political boundaries prove inappropriate for water management and watersheds are more relevant. Part of IWRM is to ensure that there is equitable use of shared rivers and development cannot occur in isolation, another highlight of the NWA (Asmal, 1998).

These provisions in the NWA of 1998 set the foundation for the implementation of IWRM in South Africa however; despite the top quality of the act implantation fatigue occurs due to capacity constraints and other challenges to the effective implementation of IWRM (Asmal, 1998).


5.1 Conceptual shortcomings

The views of authors regarding universally accepted definition of IWRM provided by the Global Water partnership 2000 as being a hamper to the effective implementation of IWRM (Sherwill et al,2007). One of the arguments put forward is that the definition is “narrow”, incomplete and unchallenging and that this conceptual shortcoming tempts the water resource manager continue implementing the conventional water management practices and labeling it as IWRM (funke et al, 2007).

Some authors argue that for effective implementation, the definition should include “allocation” to compensate for the inevitable political processes that reshape IWRM. While other authors argue that “poverty” should be included into the restricted definition the European Union suggests a complete name change of IWRM to ‘Constructively Engaged IWRM Allocation and management” which will emphasize the importance of practically implementing IWRM with prime focus on stakeholder involvement (funke et al, 2007).

In the context of South Africa, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) defines IWRM as a management strategy aimed to achieve the sustainable use of water resources by all affected stakeholders at catchment, regional, national and international levels while maintaining the integrity of water resources at catchment levels. (Schulze et al, 2004).

Universally, apart from the conceptual shortcomings of IWRM which hamper its effective implementation, IWRM is first and foremost an institutional challenge that demands institutional capacities for integration which is in short supply (Van de Zaag, 2005).

5.2 Institutional challenges

The management of resources and formulations of projects and plans have been fragmented, uncoordinated and implemented in a top-down approach however, according to the Global Water Partnership 2000 one of the most fundamental pillars of IWRM is integrated and coordinated institutional frameworks through which policies, strategies and legislations can be implemented (Funke, et al 2007).

The integrative capacity of many countries lie at district level were various government departments such as health, environmental and education participate in implementing multi sector rural development programs ( Van De Zaag, 2005).

South Africa on the other hand overrides existing management structures creating a structure alongside but separate from existing structures that are defined by hydrological boundaries and is regarded a waste of institutional resources (Van de Zaag, 2005).

The South African NWA of 1998 mandates the establishment of water management institutions resulting in the neglecting of focus on the practical implementation of IWRM (Van de Zaag, 2005). Institutional fragmentation still persists in South Africa because the countries environmental, water and land-use legislations and administrations are administered by separate lines of functions in government ministries (Van de Zaag, 2005).

5.3 Governance and politics

Effective implementation of IWRM is regarded as a product of good governance as it enables tradeoffs to be made between competing users for a resource with the aim of mitigating any conflict, enhancing equity, ensuring sustainability and holding officials liable for their actions (Funke et al, 2007).

Participative, open and transparent governance plays an important part in forming the framework required for the successful implementation of IWRM. The issue however is that inefficient capacity and inefficient government processes and structures reside in countries with relatively ground democracies such as South Africa (Funke et al, 2007).

Governance in developing countries lack the economic technical and human resources to implement IWRM and the challenge of politics and tradeoffs when making decisions regarding the allocation of water resources are unavoidable as they form part of the problem and solution (Funke et al, 2007). With reference to South Africa, after the modification of the countries water law to address post inequities, makes it more challenging for the successful implementation of IWRM in the country (Funke et al, 2007).

5.4 Public Participation

Although public participation has been highly valued and recognized as being a fundamental component for the effective implementation of IWRM, there are inevitable problems and complexities that are associated with the process that needs to be taken into consideration (Smith, 2008).

The four main problems associated with the process and highlighted by Smith 2008 is tokenism in terms of the degree to which local communities are involved in decision making, myths of regarding the community as a homogeneous coherent and cohesive body, local-level capacity constraints and critical lack of facilitator knowledge (Smith, 2008).

The problem of tokenism is that communities are only considered important for the provision of local knowledge regarding their environment and are not involved in important and effectual positions in the different levels of decision making processes (Smith, 2008). This may be due to the unwillingness of government to devolve their power to local level communities. This results in plans and legislations that are locally inappropriate (Smith, 2008).

With regard to the community myth, most communities are simplified as cohesive homogenous and harmonious entities with similar interests and goals instead of recognizing it as the complex heterogeneous organizations that they are (Smith, 2008). This fact must be included in management planning. This will then ensure locally appropriate outcomes.

Other most problematic elements are the financial capacity constraints mainly experienced by bottom-up projects. Even though the community may be committed towards initiating a project, the essential element is economic material which local communities often lack (Smith, 2008). Therefore where there is community engagement the economic and social capacities needs to be considered (Smith, 2008).

The final problematic element is the lack of knowledge regarding the process of public participation held by facilitators resulting in an influential process being facilitated by people without the necessary skills and capacities to initiate community participation initiatives (Smith, 2008).

Despite the problems associated with public participation it is essential that the process be appreciated as an empowering, enlightening and sustainable approach to water resource management (Smith, 2008).


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