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Integrated Watershed Management Principles, Institutions, and Practices

IWM is the process of coordinating the conservation, management, and development of water, land, and related natural resources across sectors (e.g., agriculture, hydropower, water supply, mining, tourism, as well as conservation of forests, soil, and biodiversity) within a given watershed in order to maximize the resultant economic and social benefits in an equitable manner while ensuring the sustainability of related ecosystems.[1] IWM is an “integrated” approach in that it recognizes the interaction between water and other components of watershed ecosystems, including soil, vegetation, biodiversity, and humans. It therefore requires a holistic approach that manages these resources in an integrated fashion. This marks one of the main differences with how watershed resources are traditionally managed in most countries.

Within this ecosystem approach, IWM frames water in terms of “ecosystem services,” or benefits that people receive from watershed ecosystems (Kareiva and Wiens 2005; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005a). Watershed ecosystem services include various natural processes that affect the quantity and quality of water, as well as recreational and cultural benefits.[2] In Ecuador, for example, forests and paramos (high Andean grasslands) serve as collectors and regulators of water flow and prevent soil erosion that damages water quality (Celleri 2009). These ecosystem services link the conservation and sustainable use of forests and paramos upstream with the quantity and quality of water available to communities downstream. Therefore, IWM often frames watershed management activities in terms of protecting and restoring these ecosystem services (Cordero 2008; Garzon 2009; Ravnborg et al. 2007).

The need for watershed stakeholders to coordinate management activities makes IWM not just a technical challenge but also a sociopolitical challenge. To equitably balance competing interests and facilitate collaboration, IWM calls for all stakeholders to be included in decision making through a participatory process (Gleick 1998; Jaspers 2003). Moreover, decision making should be decentralized to the “lowest appropriate level” (Turton et al. 2007b, xxii, 45) to allow meaningful participation by local stakeholders and a flexible approach tailored to the unique needs of each watershed ecosystem.

Implementing IWM locally involves creating new institutions, policies, and practices to achieve these goals. In this book I focus on the creation of two institutions. The first is a local, participatory, decision-making structure in which multiple stakeholders jointly identify needs, develop integrated watershed management plans, and oversee management activities. The second institution is a financing mechanism that raises local revenue to provide stable funding for watershed management activities. Due to concerns about the sustainability of IWM programs, advocates increasingly call for stable, local financing mechanisms that can sustain watershed management activities “beyond the exodus of [national] or foreign financing, technical assistance, and the repayment of loans” (Heathcote 2009, 389). The principle underlying these financing mechanisms is that those who benefit from ecosystem services pay to fund activities that ensure these services continue. It is worth stressing that this does not necessarily involve privatization. Nor does it mean that price is the only, or even best, way to value watershed services. IWM allows flexibility in how to design economic instruments, but argues that some instrument is needed to provide “incentives to change behavior [and raise] revenue to help finance necessary investments” (International Conference on Water and Environment 1992, xi).

Along with these institutions, new administrative systems must be created to support changes in watershed management. These include systems for gathering information, creating and implementing plans, monitoring the restoration of watershed resources, monitoring stakeholder compliance, and sanctioning and facilitating groundwater recharge. Water-related ecosystem services also include cultural services, such as recreational, aesthetic and spiritual benefits of forests and wetlands” (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe 2007, 2).

violators. These systems are typically supported by local government ordinances; voluntary, written community agreements; and/or legal contracts among stakeholders, all of which must be negotiated.

Arguably the biggest changes that come with IWM reform, however, are the changes to land-use practices and economic activities. Projects to conserve and restore water catchment areas often require smallholder farmers to remove crops and animals from significant portions of their land and switch to more ecologically friendly economic activities. In some cases, whole households and farms relocate to less fragile areas. Restrictions are placed on logging, the burning of vegetation, and various forms of pollution. Areas along the banks of rivers and streams are fenced off to prevent pollution from animals, households, and industry, as well as to allow vegetation to regenerate in order to reduce sediment runoff. Education campaigns are launched to encourage and teach people how to use water more efficiently and reduce pollution. Ideally, this is combined with projects to improve the efficiency of water delivery systems. All this costs money. Where local financing mechanisms are created, water users and other beneficiaries of watershed ecosystem services pay more to finance all these activities.

  • [1] This definition is adapted from definitions provided by Jones et al. (2003) and the TechnicalAdvisory Committee of the Global Water Partnership (Rahaman and Varis 2005).
  • [2] Examples of watershed-related ecosystem services include “flood prevention, control and mitigation; regulating runoff and water supply; improving the quality of surface waters and groundwaters; withholding sediments, reducing erosion, stabilizing river banks and shorelines and loweringthe potential of landslides; improving water infiltration and supporting water storage in the soil;
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