Integrated water resources management

Thinking differently about water resources management is a requirement if society is to improve the management of natural resources and achieve the goal of food and energy security. To support a change in thinking, investments are required to build knowledge and lead to institutional reform. Collaboration among policy makers, managers and extension services is needed, where water management investments at the local and national level are understood and supported. Changes in governance, a redefinition of decision-making power and a change in public perception of what constitutes sustainable water use are also needed.

In regions that experience physical scarcity of water, that is, a shortage of supply rather than a shortage in the means to access supply, it is common to implement physical infrastructure, such as damming. However water-supply options have expanded to include the capture and storage of storm water and desalination, or bulk transport such as Medusa bags (giant poly-fiber bags which hold up to 1.5 billion liters of potable water that are towed by ships to new locations). Other areas, such as Singapore, are investing in sewage recycling.

Water reuse, which includes sewage recycling, describes the process whereby wastewater treated to an appropriate standard and reused for a variety of beneficial purposes. The treated water is often referred to as recycled or reclaimed water. There are two main types of water reuse projects:

NON-POTABLE REUSE: this involves projects that treat wastewater for specific purposes other than drinking, such as industrial use, agriculture or landscape irrigation. It may also include the use of reclaimed water to create recreational lakes or to build or replenish wetlands that support wildlife. Non-potable reuse systems tend to have lower quality objectives than potable systems and the level of treatment varies depending on the end-use.

POTABLE REUSE: this involves projects that use highly treated reclaimed wastewater to supplement a water supply that is used for drinking among other purposes. The systems use advanced treatment processes to remove contaminants from wastewater so that it meets drinking water standards and other appropriate water quality objectives. Typically, the reclaimed water is released into a surface water body or aquifer before being withdrawn, further treated and blended with conventional water supply sources and then piped to homes and buildings.

Creating conducive conditions for stakeholders to manage water responsibly or to become ‘water stewards’ requires the following mechanisms:

  • Introduction of demand-side policy (UK and California)
  • Public-private partnerships to facilitate education and introduce new technologies (Brazil and Egypt)

The high population growth and increased standard of living have increased the global domestic water demand from 200 million m3 /year in 1970 to about 2063 million m3 /year in 2010.

Policy interventions, sometimes referred to as ‘soft’ approaches in comparison to ‘hard’ infrastructure development, have the potential to speed the transition to increase the return on investment and reduce the amount of money that needs to be invested in the water sector. This is because they seek to influence behavior at individual and business level. Investment in water policy reform and governance enables greater engagement and use of local knowledge and for investments to be made at a multitude of scales.

One of the greatest challenges to investment in water infrastructure and management arrangements has been the difficulty in establishing high-level governance and political support for arrangements that support effective governance – but improvements in arrangements for the administration of water resources through policy offers one of the least-cost opportunities to resolve water-management problems.

In January 1992, more than five hundred water resources experts and officials attended the International Conference on Water and the Environment (ICWE) in Dublin, Ireland. The conference adapted four principles that governed water resources management for the last two decades in most countries. The Fourth Principle stated: “Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good”. Application of economic principles for water allocation is acceptable and provides tools for efficient development of water services even though water is not supposed to be considered as a commodity for basic domestic need.

Water tariff is also an efficient water demand management tool. A well designed water tariff system will increase domestic water using efficiency. Water tariff system should be developed to be an economic instrument to set awards for water conservations. Increasing water using efficiency is critical to areas with limited water resources.