From water resources to water uses

Development Policy06 Feb 2013Gerardo van Halsema

A reflection on today’s principles and practices within water resources management is necessary. 

Concerns about the state of our global water resources are on the rise and are evidently here to stay in our immediate future. Global climate change(with its increases in drought, floods and salinity intrusion), rising and changing demands for food (with a projected doubling of demand for agricultural water by 2050), and the progressive urbanization and industrialization of our economies (with an exponential rise in demand for hydro and bio-based energy) are some of the primary developments that affect our water resources, not only globally but also locally. Increasing demand and competition for scarce water resources are leading to protracted struggles for a decent livelihood, for example in the drought-prone areas of the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Andes, or the fresh-saline (agriculture-aquaculture) coastal areas of South East Asia. In addition, in urbanizing watersheds, competing urban-rural demands for land-use increase the risk of floods. Demands and pressures on our water resources thus seem bound to increase, and this within a context in which our natural and ecosystems are dwindling more than ever, and poverty and malnutrition are still widespread and endemic to our global economy.

Since the advent and broad uptake of the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) principles, water resources management has become everyone’s business. With increasing pressures on our water resources, and increasing stakes and claims from an ever more diverse range of stakeholders ((fish)farmers, pastoralists, food and brewery industries, urban populations, industries, nature conservationists, etc.) this is only set to increase. The allocation and management of water resources thus affect and encompass an increasing and intermingled set of individuals, enterprises, sectors and natural & physical systems. How we are to confront these challenges in the coming decades calls for reflection on some of today’s principles and practices.

From resource to use

With the onset of IWRM and River Basin Management, there has been an unfortunate focus on the supply management of available renewable water resources that tries to meet the multiple demands of sectors, users and water management functions through a congruent set of water allocation and conflict resolution mechanisms and institutions – often advocated at the scale of the river basin or watershed. This is unfortunate, as it tends to polemicize the allocation and distribution of water among single uses and sectors across a basin. Additionally, the issue of water rights and permits has frequently led to a false sense of ownership,1 in which permit-holders are facilitated, rightly or wrongly encouraged by the principles of regarding water as an economic good, to focus on securing their claims and optimizing their frequent single-purpose utilization (be that energy, water supply, agriculture or aquaculture). It has also heralded a competition for formal rights and permits in which the economically strong and opportune may easily outweigh and outplay poor, informal and traditional users, who are then not infrequently left at the dry or polluted end of the water allocation chain. These are undesirable effects that are easily and quickly renegaded to weak governance.

When we regard the water resources base in terms of its bio-physical properties, water is not an asset to be bestowed and exploited, but a natural resource that is shared and passed along a ‘water chain’ in which it is depleted, polluted, retained or diverted by various uses and users.2 This creates water interdependencies – in terms of quantity and quality (including salinity) – in which one use affects and interacts with others, negatively or positively. This should have particular bearing on our future water resources management.

First, we need to depart from the mono-culture/use-centric water-use systems in which we have invested in recent decades, which tend to feed monolithic water demands, claims and uses on the water resources base. To advance the sustainable use of water resources there is a need to focus and target explicitly on the multiple use and functionality of different sectors on water resources. This requires investments in and the development of water-use and production systems that are explicitly based on the multiple use/functions they may perform in the watershed and water chain – e.g. combining functions of production with water retention, purification, regulation, flood protection, etc.3 This opens up the way to focus on water interdependencies across sectors, uses and users, and foster a functional and strategic alignment of water use, retention, regulation and quality across a watershed/river basin.

Second, mutual interests and shared objectives are to be found in the water retention, regulation/diversion and quality services across sectors/systems, that enable the mutual use and co-management of water resources. These need to be more explicitly targeted and supported, with an explicit focus on the management of productive water use and associated multiple water services across sectors and water-use systems. This will provide more focus on establishing water-management institutions at the multiple water-use level, rather than primarily on the centralized authorities for resources regulation that are frequently marred by issues of enforcement. In other words, seek an integration and holistic approach on the user side, rather than at centralized water authority level – the former often results in concrete gains and mutual interests, whereas the latter can often lead to the articulation of claims and conflicts.

This is a tough call and there are a number of caveats. First, market forces are strong drivers of agricultural change, and thereby water demand and use patterns. Increasing consumer awareness and changing consumption patterns may seem to favour shifts to products and production systems that are better aligned to natural systems – especially when supported by emerging markets on certified products of food safety and sustainability standards. Whereas in principle this should align well with the approach advocated above, the poor and smallholders find themselves often excluded from such newly emerging economic opportunities, which tend to favour large, corporate and wholesale market chains. In land and/or water-scarce environments this can easily and quickly lead to further resources deprivation among the poor. More attention and efforts are needed to establish a fruitful intermediate interface for the provision of processing, certification and market services for smallholder producers that enables them to make use of emerging economic opportunities. Their water resources stakes are best secured by enabling them to bring forward economic claims, rather than be dependent on regulative authority to secure their underprivileged state.

Second, in water-scarce or ‘closing’ basins there is no such thing as ‘free’ water to be attained by advocating efficiency gains in (irrigated) agriculture. Increases in rainfed agriculture raise water consumption at the expense of the natural recharge of rivers and aquifers; efficiency gains in irrigation can be equated to reductions in recharge and water re-use affecting other uses and users downstream.4 Here too, we need to look further than the single purpose of water consumption and agriculture production, and follow the water chain to its multiple services, uses and users. Gains in production and sustainability will need to take account of the reconfiguration and realignment of multiple functions, uses and users this will inevitably entail across a basin.

The approach advocated above may resonate well with advocates of nature conservation and ecosystem services. But for this sector, too, advocacy to open up to its water interdependencies with other uses and users within a basin and focus on the multiple water-related functions and services it can provide (including provisioning) is still valid. This also entails enabling the interaction and co-management of resources with multiple uses and users, which are not always evident when conservation becomes a primary function and purpose.

From water abuse to recourses may be a witty play on words. But the need to focus on and incorporate the multiple functions and services within and across the diverse uses and users and incorporate retention, regulation and water quality functions within and across production and water-use systems, is a genuine call for bottom-up integration. Such integration and alignment of multiple functions will be more effective in stemming the excessive depletion and pollution associated with mono-cultures and mono-purpose water uses. And in a future of extremer climate events the need to provide more regulatory, retention and water quality services will certainly increase. Where better to start than with our water-use practices and systems, where there are still opportunities to be explored.


  1. Halsema, G.E. van & L. Vincent (2012) ‘Efficiency and productivity terms for water management: A matter of contextual relativism versus general absolutism’, in: Agricultural Water Management, vol. 108, pp. 9-15
  2. E.g. forest & wetland ecosystems, hydropower & industry, inland & coastal fisheries/aquaculture, rangeland, floodplains, (irrigated) agriculture, urban waste water, water supply, etc.
  3. E.g. combining and aligning rice, fish and flood protection; rice-aquaculture-coastal mangrove systems where water quality and nutrients are aligned; hydro-power and urban flood protection; watershed protection, agricultural production and water supply purification; water retention, flood protection and fish/agricultural production, etc.
  4. Halsema, G.E. van & L. Vincent (2012) ‘Efficiency and productivity terms for water management: A matter of contextual relativism versus general absolutism’, in: Agricultural Water Management, vol. 108, pp. 9-15