How to define the term
Sustainable Water Management?
What is Sustainable Water Management? The term uses two important
concepts with respect to water: sustainability and management. In order to
understand Sustainable Water Management, it is important to define these
The Bruntland Report popularized the term sustainability for
human and environmental development when it was published in 1987. In the
report, sustainable activities were defined as ones where the needs
of the present generation are met without compromising the needs of future
What the Bruntland definition implies is an equitable distribution of
the resource not only spatially between users in a given location, but
temporally between users over time. The idea is to allocate the resource
in such a way as for all, including the environment, to have an adequate
share without making any one group worse off, both now and in the future.
All this is wonderful, but is it a realistic goal to achieve? Well, yes
and no. There are inherent problems with introducing high-concept ideas
into mainstream society. However, it is not impossible without some
changes in the way we all think about the resources we use.
To achieve sustainability, there must be a rethinking of what we
consider a basic need. It is common in our society to say that we need
a given resource, but how much of it do we really need to use?
Also, how do we decide what the basic needs of our ecosystem and the
organism living within it are? Defining what constitutes a basic need is
perhaps the greatest challenge to adopting sustainable practices in our
daily lives, as interpretations of need vary widely from region to
region, village to village and even from person to person.
There has been a shift in recent years from the traditional ‘top-down’
approach to a more open management system where all levels have a say in
the allocation and use of the resource. If properly done, this system
ensures that the needs and concerns of those most affected by the use of
the resource are addressed, without loosing sight of the wider issues
touching the society as a whole.
But how does one manage a resource?
Information. Understanding the needs of the stakeholders, as well as
the possibilities and limitations of the resource, is needed to manage it
effectively. This requires sharing both indigenous and modern scientific
knowledge, as well as establishing a dialogue between individuals and
large institutions. With the right information, appropriate strategies can
be formulated to deal with the realities of resource management, such as
distribution, access, rights, etc.
Needless to say, effective communication is the key to managing a
resource shared between various users and managed by different levels.
Only once the needs of each user are understood can the resource be
allocated and managed in a sustainable manner.
Sustainable Water Management: A definition
Now that we have defined sustainability and management,
it is easy to understand the purpose of Sustainable Water Management (SWM),
which is simply to manage our water resources while taking into account
the needs of present and future users.
However, SWM is involves much more than its name implies. It involves a
whole new way of looking at how we use our precious water resources. The
International Hydrological Programme, a UNESCO initiative, noted:
"It is recognised that water problems cannot be solved by
quick technical solutions, solutions to water problems require the
consideration of cultural, educational, communication and scientific
aspects. Given the increasing political recognition of the importance
of water, it is in the area of sustainable freshwater management that
a major contribution to avoid/solve water-related problems, including
future conflicts, can be found."
Therefore, SWM attempts to deal with water in a holistic fashion,
taking into account the various sectors affecting water use, including
political, economic, social, technological and environmental
Since the Mar del Plata Water Conference hosted by the UN in 1977, SWM
has been high on the international agenda. Later conferences and workshops
have addressed the issue and have attempted to refine the concept as more
and more research has been done in the area. The current understanding of
SWM is based primarily upon the principles devised in Dublin during the
International Conference on Water and the Environment (ICWE) in 1992,
- Freshwater is a finite and valuable resource that is essential to
sustain life, the environment and development.
- The development and management of our water resources should be
based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and
policy makers at all levels.
- Women play a central role in the provision, management and
safeguarding of water resources.
- Water has an economic value and should therefore be seen as an
These principles reflect the importance of water in our daily lives and
the need for proper communication, gender equity, and economic and policy
incentives to manage the resource properly.