Journal of Water Resource and Protection, 2013, 5, 11-20 Published Online April 2013 (
Can Integrated Water Resources Management Increase
Adaptive Capacity to Climate Change Adaptation? A
Critical Review
Animesh K. Gain1, Josselin J. Rouillard2, David Benson3
1Department of Economics, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Venice, Italy
2School of Environmental and Social Sciences, University of Dundee, Dundee, UK
3The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
Received February 2, 2013; revised March 5, 2013; accepted March 19, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Animesh K. Gain et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License,
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is now a global paradigm. While conceptions of IWRM principles
vary between contexts, it primarily aims to ensure more coordinated management between different aspects of water
issues such as water quality, land management and habitat protection. However, one increasingly significant cross-cut-
ting management issue is climate change adaptation which presents multiple problems for IWRM approaches. This pa-
per therefore seeks to gauge the extent to which IWRM principles can, and indeed are, enhancing the adaptive capacity
of water management through reducing vulnerability and increasing the resilience of social-ecological systems. A re-
view of research into vulnerability and resilience to date suggests that IWRM has significant potential for supporting
some of the key determinants of adaptive capacity. However, despite IWRM being promoted as an attractive approach,
our assessment argues that IWRM, as currently practiced, cannot readily enhance flexibility and adaptability, which is
required for climate change adaptation. Normative recommendations for future policy are then provided.
Keywords: IWRM; Adaptive Capacity; Resilience; Vulnerability; Climate Change Adaptation
1. Introduction
Water resources systems (WRS) are in complex interac-
tion with both social and ecological sub-systems, which
make decision making difficult. Therefore, the tradi-
tional fragmented approach of water management has to
be replaced by more holistic system view approaches.
Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is the
dominating policy paradigm in water resources manage-
ment, and is currently being widely applied internation-
ally [1]. IWRM is an umbrella concept encompassing
multiple principles which, overall, aim to result in more
holistic and coordinated management between the dif-
ferent aspects of WRS. Several reasons may explain why
IWRM is seen by many scholars and practitioners as the
most appropriate overall strategy for managing water
resources [2]: 1) it is comprehensive and holistic ap-
proach that takes into account all types resources and
sectors; 2) IWRM makes the links between the liveli-
hood of the catchment and resource perspective; 3) it
incorporates the elements of good governance [3].
Along with other development activities (e.g., popula-
tion pressure, land use change, economic development),
anthropogenic climate change is increasing pressure on
WRS [1]. Given these multiple impacts on WRS, adapta-
tion to climate change has become a source of great at-
tention and IWRM has been advocated as a means of
climate change adaptation [4].
This paper aims to contribute to this growing body of
work by examining how IWRM, as the current paradigm
in water resources management, contributes to increasing
the “adaptive capacity” of WRS to climate change. Pre-
vious attempts at doing so have usually focused on how
adaptive management can inform IWRM [5], and the
tensions with implementing Integrated and Adaptive
Water Resource Management (IAWRM) e.g., Engle et al.
[6]. Another line of work has evaluated the broader in-
stitutional prescriptions of Adaptive Water Management
[7]. These studies have nevertheless often been carried
out with little conceptual understanding of “adaptive ca-
pacity”. Recent developments in research on the concept
of “adaptive capacity” [8,9] now better define the term
opyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
and its complex, multiple dimensions. The objective of
this study is to use these new insights to examine how,
and to what extent, IWRM principles and guidelines fa-
cilitate adaptive capacity to climate change impacts.
The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. In
Section 2, we discuss the conceptual interpretations of
IWRM. Indeed, the single greatest barrier to effective
comparative analysis of social processes is conceptual
imprecision. For Sartori [10] concepts sit on a “ladder of
abstraction”, whereby tightly defined concepts allow ef-
fective comparative analysis when moving between con-
texts worldwide. As we move up the analytical “ladder”
by expanding the conceptual range in order to encompass
more and more in explanatory terms, “concept stretch-
ing” can occur meaning “gains in extensional coverage
tend to be matched by losses in connotative precision”
(ibid.: 1035). It remains critical, therefore, when dis-
cussing the influence of widely applied (and seemingly
familiar) concepts such as IWRM to define their main
features as precisely as possible. This situation presents
something of a problem as the current literature tends to
—rather uncritically—define IWRM using multiple in-
terpretations, i.e. “stretching” is evident [11]. Our analy-
sis therefore initially examines the origins of IWRM and
its diffusion worldwide as an environmental management
technique looking at its different geo-political variants.
We then review key arguments on the nature of IWRM
in order to provide a more coherent definition to guide
our analysis. In Section 3, the key dimensions of adaptive
capacity are outlined. Similar issues of “conceptual im-
precision” have hindered studies of adaptive capacity.
We therefore briefly discuss the origin and development
of the concept, highlighting the two main traditions, i.e.
vulnerability and resilience, underpinning past research.
We present a list of key determinants of the adaptive
capacity of social-ecological systems which we will use
to evaluate IWRM. Theoretical linkages, and empirical
relationships as identified in the existing literature, be-
tween IWRM principles and determinants of adaptive
capacity are then discussed in Section 4. The paper con-
cludes with lessons learned for policymakers and practi-
2. IWRM—Origins, Interpretations and
Conceptual Reframing
2.1. Looking Back: IWRM in Historical
IWRM has its roots in attempts to integrate different as-
pects of water management at river basin scales in
Europe, North America, Australia and other countries. In
many of these contexts, recognizable forms of integrated
water management based on river basins have been evi-
dent throughout the 20th Century [12]. For example,
Gerlak [13] and Sabatier et al. [14] show how US water-
shed management developed in several phases in the
period after the 1920s. One significant early example of
an integrated approach is the Tennessee Valley Author-
ity 1933 (TVA); essentially a technocratic, agency-led
approach to planning at a regional river basin scale [15].
Meanwhile, in Britain drainage districts became based on
individual catchments as early as 1930 and, under the
1945 Water Act, the river basin was then established as
the fundamental unit for managing fishing and pollution
nationally [16]. France also was an early exponent of river
basin management with the creation of the Compagnie
Nationale du Rhône in 1921, although its principal func-
tion was generating hydroelectric power [12]. In parallel,
managing water resources at the local catchment scale in
Australia dates back to the late 1900s, while regional
natural resource planning was evident in several Austra-
lian states in the 1930s and 1940s [17]. The success of
the TVA also led to the export of this model to develop-
ing countries as large-scale water engineering projects
became a means to drive national development strategies.
As Molle [12] describes, “TVA-like river-basin devel-
opment plans mushroomed all over the world”, with
schemes in Asia, Africa and South America. For several
decades, Integrated River Basin Development, where
water resources were exclusively developed for human
benefit, became the global norm (ibid.).
By the 1970s, however, Molle [12] notes that in many
countries there was “a certain demise and loss of appeal
of the river-basin concept, especially as a unit for devel-
opment”. As he suggests, the need to remediate chronic
water pollution problems led to a concentration on regu-
lating point source emissions via “state-centred, expert-/
agency driven and managerial” responses (ibid.): a factor
evident in the US Clean Water Act amendments (1972)
[14] and early EU water directives [18]. Some attempts
were made in the UK to rationalise water management
functions in regional water authorities, although the out-
comes in this case were less than “integrated” [16]. But
worldwide during the 1970s water management was
typically characterised by an engineering paradigm based
on project-led, sub-sectoral solutions and a “predict and
provide” approach to water services [19].
By the end of the 1980s, it was apparent that these
measures were not addressing diffuse pollution and com-
plex management problems, and the rationale re-emerged
for more integrated approaches at the river basin scale.
For example, Sabatier et al. [14] note that more locally
collaborative watershed management in the US emerged
in this period from a combination of dissatisfaction with
federal-state legislation, amendments to the Clean Water
Act and as a reaction to the litigious nature of water
management. On a global scale, Biswas [20] describes
how water professionals “began to appreciate that the
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
A. K. GAIN ET AL. 13
water problems had become multi-dimensional, multi-
sectoral and multi-regional” necessitating a “new para-
digm”. The response in the early 1990s was river basin
planning and management in the form of a new concept—
IWRM, although as Biswas [20] reflects, it was effec-
tively “rediscovered” by water practitioners. The critical
difference with earlier approaches, however, was the
emphasis on environmental protection, stakeholder par-
ticipation, equity and efficiency, each reflecting the dis-
course of sustainable development that was prevalent in
the period after the publication of the Brundtland Report
[21]. Integrated water resources management then be-
came codified in 1992 via international norms such as the
Dublin Principles of the International Conference on
Water and the Environment and Rio UNCED Agenda 21.
These norms then underpinned the global expansion of
IWRM as a management concept in the late 1990s
through their promotion by multi-lateral organisations
such as the World Bank, the World Water Partnership
(WWP) and the UN’s Global Water Partnership (GWP)
(see [12,20]). The latter two organizations have been
particularly instrumental, with the WWP focusing more
on policy transfer and the GWP on implementation of
operational principles [19].
Since 2000, there has been a further expansion in
IWRM type approaches worldwide. At the World Water
Forum in The Hague (2000), 113 had countries adopted
IWRM principles [19]. Further international endorsement
came in 2000 when the UN adopted IWRM as part of its
Millenium Development Goals [22]. In Europe, manag-
ing water resources at the river basin scale was then com-
pelled by the EU Water Framework Directive 2000 [23].
The Directive introduces river basin management plan-
ning (RBMP) within designated river basin districts
(RBDs), along with specific institutions to implement
plan processes, although some have noted differences
between the Directive and IWRM principles [24]. Other
recognisable variants include watershed management in
the USA (for example, Sabatier et al. [14]), integrated
catchment management/natural resource management in
Australia [17] and river basin planning and management
in Canada [25]. However, it is in non-Western countries
that the expansion of IWRM type approaches has been
most marked, with forms evident in inter alia South Af-
rica [26], Mongolia [27], Israel [28], Malawi [29], Tan-
zania [30] and Central Asia and the Caucasus [31].
2.2. Conceptual Dis(order): Interpreting IWRM
This global diffusion of practice has resulted in not only
multiple interpretations of IWRM but also conceptual
confusion. Although the GWP definition has attained
some acceptance worldwide amongst scholars and practi-
tioners (see for example, [22]), there is variance in con-
ceptualisation of IWRM (for example, [32]). Biswas [20]
sums up this conundrum by arguing that an assessment of
different publications on IWRM “indicates that not only
no one has a clear idea as to what exactly this concept
means in operational terms, but also… views of it in
terms of what it actually means and involves, vary very
widely”. To prove this point, he lists no less than 41 dif-
ferent objectives that proponents have ascribed to IWRM.
Biswas [20] suggests that this conceptual malleability has
contributed to the global success of IWRM since it le-
gitimises a range of divergent but similar practices under
this umbrella term. But as Fritsch and Benson [11] argue,
this “all things to everyone” opaqueness also makes co-
herent analysis of IWRM problematic.
A brief overview of the IWRM literature would tend to
confirm this observation. The GWP defines IWRM as:
A process which promotes the coordinated develop-
ment and management of water, land and related re-
sources in order to maximise economic and social wel-
fare in an equitable manner without compromising the
sustainability of vital ecosystems and the environment
Here, IWRM is a process involving managing multiple
resources in an equitable and environmentally sustain-
able way. But others adopt slightly differing definitions,
with Ballweber [34], for example, suggesting “IWRM is
blending or integrating actions and objectives favored by
different players to achieve the best total result within a
river basin or watershed”. Therefore, this definition em-
phasises a participatory aspect in the attainment of eco-
logical and societal goals. Some scholars, however, have
identified IWRM more with specific scales [25], institu-
tions such as river boards [30], poverty reduction [29],
social learning [35] or even adaptive management [6,36].
Meanwhile, Savenije and Van der Zaag [19] in their
conceptual review of IWRM define it in terms of four
dimensions: water resources; water users; spatial scales;
and temporal scales. The overall impression given is that
there is an evident lack of an agreed definition of IWRM.
2.3. Conceptual Reframing: Defining IWRM
As Sartori [10] would no doubt note, significant concep-
tual stretching is therefore evident in the literature, mak-
ing effective analysis of IWRM problematic. While
Biswas [20] criticises the IWRM concept for its vague-
ness and expansive nature, he does not offer a coherent
alternative to conceptualisation. A need therefore exists
to reorder IWRM into a more consistent analytical
framework in order to guide investigations. While we do
not expect all scholars to accept our definition, nonethe-
less by drawing out the key features of IWRM, we can
therefore stimulate a debate over areas of (dis)agreement.
So what are the essential features of IWRM? Firstly,
and most obviously, it should involve an integrated ap-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
proach to water management, although “integration” war-
rants some pinning down. Principle 1 of the Dublin
agreement on IWRM originally identified that:
“[W]ater is needed for different purposes, functions
and services, therefore, water management should be
integrated and take account of both demand for and
threat to this resource [37].
In response, the Global Water Partnership argues that
IWRM should integrate “land and water, upstream and
downstream, groundwater, surface water, and coastal
resources” [33]. Consequently, the vast majority of IWRM
type approaches implemented globally do prioritise mul-
tiple uses and different resources. For example, while the
EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) focuses primar-
ily on one specific aspect of water management, in this
case the “good ecological status” of surface water re-
sources, it also integrates groundwater protection and,
from 2015 onwards, climate adaptation [11]. Australian
approaches meanwhile tend to be more holistic in the
way that water protection is integrated with measures to
prevent inter alia soil degradation, salinisation and bio-
diversity loss (for example, [17]).
Secondly, IWRM is generally predicated on a specific
scale, i.e. the river basin or catchment. The original Dub-
lin Principles for IWRM [37] state that “[e]ffective man-
agement links land and water uses across the whole of a
catchment area or groundwater aquifer”. This central
principle now underpins the discourse of IWRM world-
wide. The Global Water Partnership thus refers to “man-
aging water at the basin or watershed” as one of its key
IWRM components [33]. Consequently, water manage-
ment in the EU under the WFD occurs within a network
of 110 river basin districts (RBDs), some such as the
Danube spanning multiple Member States and even
non-EU countries [23]. Mitchell [25] also describes how
Canadian IWRM approaches involved four interlocking
scales: watershed, sub-watershed, tributary, and site.
However, we should be conscious of precisely defining
the scale of management since this can, and does, vary
according to context meaning cross-national comparison
of IWRM should be approached with caution.
Thirdly, IWRM inevitably involves questions of gov-
ernance. Although a “notoriously slippery” concept [38],
governance typically equates to “the patterns that emerge
from the governing activities of diverse actors [primarily
governments] that can be observed in what is deemed
acceptable norms of behaviour, and divergent institu-
tional forms” [39]. One important metric is policy in-
struments, including regulations, market based instru-
ments (MBIs) and also institutional forms [40]. With
regards IWRM, the establishment of policy by govern-
ments is manifestly critical to governing water resources
in an integrated manner, with examples including “the
polluter-pays principle, water quality norms and stan-
dards, and market-based regulatory mechanisms” [33].
That said, the global geography of IWRM governance is
somewhat uneven, with inter alia: a regulatory model
(the WFD) in the EU [18]; state level policy/regulation
and federal funding in Australia (The Natural Heritage
Trust/Caring for Our Country [41]), and a mixture of
top-down regulatory and funding mechanisms and bot-
tom-up watershed collaboratives in the USA [23].
Fourthly, another feature related to governance in
IWRM is the participation of multiple stakeholders, in-
cluding women and other water users, in managing water
resources. The Dublin Principles were framed during the
era of the UNCED Rio conference where the concept of
sustainable development had specifically identified the
role of public participation in environmental decision-
making [23]. Consequently, Dublin Principles 2 and 3
specify that water management should involve “users,
planners and policy-makers at all levels” and women, all
play “a central part in the provision, management and
safeguarding of water” [37]. Thus intersectoral, multi-
stakeholder or participatory approaches are a significant
part of conceptions of IWRM, for example, Mostert et al.
[35] examine social learning amongst stakeholders be-
tween 10 different river basin organizations. The WFD
also mandates public participation in river basin man-
agement planning through legal requirements embedded
in Article 14.
Finally, this focus on multiple stakeholders in turn
raises questions of equitable access and efficiency through
demand management. The Dublin Principles originally
stated that IWRM “is based on the equitable and efficient
management and sustainable use of water” [37]. Thus,
this principle has become incorporated into IWRM
worldwide, with the GWP, for example, promoting “eq-
uitable access” via measures such as “support for effec-
tive water users” associations, involvement of mar-
ginalized groups, and consideration of gender issues [33].
The GWP also refers to the need to manage demand effi-
ciently through specific interventions and optimize sup-
ply through proper assessment of resources, analysis of
water balances, introducing wastewater recycling and
evaluating environmental effects of water production
In terms of a definition, we might therefore argue that
IWRM—in its contemporary form—is an integrated
form of sustainably managing water and associated re-
sources at the river basin scale involving specific gov-
ernance forms that guarantee multi-stakeholder partici-
pation, equitable access and efficient use of water re-
sources. The critical question, in terms of this paper, is
therefore how well these dimensions of IWRM help en-
sure adaptive capacity to climate change: a feature dis-
cussed in the following sections.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
A. K. GAIN ET AL. 15
3. Adaptive Capacity at the Crossroads of
Vulnerability and Resilience Research
3.1. Defining Adaptive Capacity
As for IWRM, defining adaptive capacity is a challenge
because the concept is used in different research tradi-
tions. One such tradition is embedded in hazard-risk re-
search and climate change adaptation, and was adopted
by the IPCC in its 3rd Assessment Report [42]. There,
adaptive capacity is defined as the ability of a natural and
social system to respond successfully to climate vari-
ability and change, and its measurement is mainly part of
evaluations of the vulnerability of specific populations to
the impacts of climate change. Vulnerability assessment
typically involves the following: characterisation of the
stress itself (e.g. rainfall for flooding), the biophysical
factors (e.g. run-off, river geomorphology, soil condi-
tions), exposure of the population (e.g. urban land use)
and its susceptibility to be injured (e.g. level of education,
income, health, gender, age) [8]. Adaptive capacity is
measured via a set of observed properties of a system, in
particular the availability of resources, technologies,
knowledge/skills and infrastructures, as well as the char-
acteristics of existing institutions (e.g. political system,
entitlement rules) [42-44].
Here, two types of assessments can be distinguished
[8,45]. One group may build an aggregate value of vul-
nerability so as to direct adaptation efforts to those areas
with the highest vulnerability and lowest adaptive capac-
ity. Adaptive capacity increases with the fair distribution
of assets (e.g. economic and natural resources, technolo-
gies, skills, infrastructure) and equitable institutions (e.g.
access to health care, education). These assessments tend
to be based on static characteristics of the natural and
social systems studied, and little attention is given to the
conditions that can alter adaptive capacity in decision-
making processes. Less common, the second group of
assessments aims to evaluate the practical barriers and
opportunities for implementing adaptation. Potential ad-
aptation measures are identified, and compared for ex-
ample via typical decision-making tools (e.g. cost-benefit
analysis, cost-effectiveness). The processes and drivers
underpinning the exposure and sensitivity of a population,
and the adoption of adaptation measures are empirically
assessed. Overall, this line of work better assesses eco-
nomic, political and institutional factors modulating
adaptive capacity.
3.2. Vulnerability and Resilience
Adaptive capacity is not only embedded in vulnerability
studies, but is also examined in work based on resilience
theory [8,9]. There, adaptive capacity is the ability of
social actors to maintain or “steer” social-ecological sys-
tems into “desirable” stable states [46,47]. Desirability is
socially constructed and negotiated, and may represent in
some cases status-quo or, when untenable, a new state
[8,48,49]. Assessments of adaptive capacity typically
focus on the complex interactions, thresholds and feed-
backs between natural and social systems following a
shock or a crisis [8,9,49]. Determinants of adaptive ca-
pacity are empirically derived from observations of local
natural resource management, and then used deductively
to inform the analysis of other local case-studies. Here,
we highlight three main dimensions.
First, attention is usually given to features that enable
to learn from crisis and live with uncertainty and change
[50]. Adaptive management cycles and the use of ex-
perimentation for example typically introduce an element
of regular review and testing in decision-making proc-
esses and reinforce a culture of learning and change [7].
The second dimension is the existence of quasi-auto-
nomous decision-making units operating at multiple spa-
tial scales [7,46,51]. Thereby, social actors may have
more flexibility to respond individually to specific issues.
Higher, more centralised governance remains important
because it helps coordinate action across social bounda-
ries (e.g. catchments). A balance must be sought so as to
support self-organising capacities, while ensuring syner-
gistic interventions and avoiding conflicting ones be-
tween scales. The third dimension is the existence of
participative processes [47,48,52]. They should enable
exchange between social actors in order to create new
relationships, beliefs, values and norms. Stronger forms
of participative processes are thought more successful, in
particular those that encourage the sharing of resources
and power over decision-making. Weaker forms still help
create new forms of collaboration which are better able
than centralised bureaucracies to respond to new forms
of social-ecological change and crisis.
We observe that the vulnerability and resilience ap-
proaches provide complementary information on the de-
terminants of adaptive capacity, although little cross-fer-
tilisation and combined assessments are yet available.
Based on insights from the above discussion, we identify
the five following determinants:
A manageable natural and social system with few
foreseeable thresholds and surprises;
Adequate supply of resources, technologies, infra-
structure, knowledge and skills that enables social
actors to respond to evolving circumstances;
An effective innovation and capacity-building system
based on adaptive cycles and experimentation of local
and scientific knowledge;
A flexible decision-making system that enables local
self-determination, while ensuring synergistic inter-
ventions and avoiding conflicting ones between
Accessible participatory mechanisms that support fair
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
exchange between social actors and encourage the
sharing of resources and power.
4. Mapping IWRM against Determinants of
Adaptive Capacity
This section assesses how IWRM principles theoretically
map against determinants of adaptive capacity (Table 1 ),
as well as the extent to which this has been examined
empirically in past studies. Only four principles of adap-
tive capacity are considered. The first principle on “a
manageable natural and social system” is more depend-
ent on the characteristics of the social-ecological system
being studied than on the principles of good management
and governance that IWRM aims to implement. The sec-
tion is structured around the five principles of IWRM
identified in Section 2.
4.1. Integrated Management
IWRM underpins an interdisciplinary approach to water
resources management, linking social and economic de-
velopment with protection of natural ecosystems. This
holistic management recognises that water is required for
many different purposes, functions and services and
therefore, it aims to ensure optimum management. Inte-
grated management commonly use the “policy cycle”,
which is based on regular reviews of strategies in order
to learn from past implementation and adjust policy goals
and instruments accordingly. This dimension of IWRM
has strong parallels with the adaptive cycles in adaptive
management [5]. Practicing integrated management
therefore can help better account for the multiple dimen-
sions of WRS, and consider possible interacting dynam-
ics, thresholds and surprises. IWRM has nevertheless
also leads to path dependency [53], often because of con-
flicting interests, views and understandings. IWRM re-
quires coordination between stakeholders and govern-
ment agencies, ideally supported by partnerships and
participatory mechanisms that support fair exchange be-
tween social actors [54].
The objective of reaching optimum management in
IWRM (e.g. optimum supply of water across sectors) is
not necessarily the best objective to increase adaptive
capacity. This is because diversity is an important com-
ponent of resilient social-ecological systems [46].
4.2. Practicing River Basin or Watershed Scale
River basins appear to be well-bounded “natural” boun-
daries, delineation by hydrological borders [55]. IWRM
promotes river basins as logical planning units [56], for
the purpose of water resource management, flood
management, and water quality management. The main
purported benefit of river basin management is that sup-
ply of resources can be made more efficiently and effec-
tively [57,58]. Because river basins are hydrologically
coherent physical boundaries, they are well fitted to
support climate change adaptation. However, river basins
commonly cross political, administrative and social bor-
ders. The mismatch between hydrological and socio-
political borders and scales has proved to create impor-
tant barriers to IWRM implementation [59,60]. The strict
focus on river basins in IWRM is not coherent with the
idea that decision-making should focus on local self-
determination to enable adaptive capacity. IWRM also
does not inform on how to ensure synergies between
scales, a key requirement for adaptive capacity.
4.3. Establishing Water Governance or Policy
The most important features of good governance are of-
ten said to be accountability, transparency, participatory
processes and decentralized decision-making [61].
Within IWRM, there has been a global paradigm shift
away from traditional command and control to more de-
centralized and democratic water governance, which de-
cision makers have perceived as a more appropriate
model for adequate supply of resources through sustain-
able water management [6]. The proliferation of IWRM
experiments around the world has led to a wide variety of
institutional arrangements in water resource management
[62]. For example, water governance in Singapore has
Table 1. Linkages between IWRM and adaptive capacity.
Determinants of adaptive capacitya
Dimensions of IWRM Supply of resources Adaptive cycle Flexible decision making Accessible participatory
Integrated management ++ 0 +/ ++
River basin as spatial scale ++ 0 −− +
Water governance/policy ++ +/ +/ ++
Multi-stakeholder approach ++ ++ +/ ++
Equity in resource access ++ 0 0 ++
Demand management ++ 0 0 ++
a ++ positive effect; −− negative effect; 0 no effect; +/ positive or negative effect (case dependent).
A. K. GAIN ET AL. 17
implemented a decentralized system with public and pri-
vate partnerships, while, water governance in Bangladesh
is found to be rather poor as the country has centralized
system with lower public participation [3]. More com-
plex and diverse governance regimes, in particular poly-
centric approach where power is distributed, can promote
flexible decision making and adaptive management [63].
Engle et al. [6] demonstrate the Paraíba do Sul River
basin of Brazil as an example, in which layered and
polycentric institutional interactions fuelled by substan-
tial social learning promote flexibility and adaptability in
the decision making procedure.
4.4. Developing “Intersectoral” or
Multistakeholder Approaches
IWRM recognises that stakeholders should be part of
decision making process and water development and
management should be based on a participatory approach,
involving users, planners and policy-makers at all levels.
In IWRM, multi-stakeholder approach is the best means
for achieving long-lasting consensus and common agree-
ment. Adequate water allocation can be agreed by stake-
holders, using community based methods of water allo-
cation for different sectors. Therefore, participatory mecha-
nisms can improve the efficiency of water use and allow
adequate supply of other resources in sustainable manner.
Through community engagement, participatory approach
makes flexible decisions at lowest appropriate level
which provides an opportunity of social learning based
on adaptive cycle [63]. However, participation does not
always achieve consensus and it has to be recognised that
simply creating participatory opportunities will do noth-
ing for currently disadvantaged groups unless their ca-
pacity to participate is enhanced. Therefore, the benefits
of participatory approaches vary among developed and
developing nations.
4.5. Ensuring Equity in Resource Access
Water has a value as an economic good as well as a so-
cial good. Considering water as a social good, equity
within IWRM ensures access to water and related re-
sources among poor people. Consequently, IWRM ex-
tracts maximum benefits from available water through
proper allocation of resources. Equity also ensures par-
ticipation of marginal groups. Nevertheless, promoting
equity in resource access helps ensure that stakeholders
gain access to decision-making and to resources, thereby
helping adaptive capacity. However, it does not promote
flexible decision making and adaptive management.
4.6. Demand Management
Within IWRM, demand management achieves more de-
sirable allocations and sustainable use of water through
targeting the water user rather than the supply of water.
Demand management strategies aims to influence users’
demand in order to achieve efficiency and to promote
equity and environmental integrity [64]. It has many in-
struments among which: quota, licence to use, tradable
water right, user charges, subsidies, and penalties are
important. Besides these implementation incentives, an
important component of demand management is public
participation through awareness raising, education, and
training. However, demand management does not ensure
adaptive cycle and flexible decision making.
5. Conclusions
The Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM)
approach is proposed for economically, socially and en-
vironmentally sustainable use of water and related re-
sources that increases adaptive capacity of the water re-
sources system (WRS). In this study, we examine the
features of IWRM regarding their contribution towards
increasing the adaptive capacity to climate change impact.
The results demonstrate that all the key dimensions of
IWRM promote adequate supply of resources and facili-
tate participatory mechanisms, which can enhance adap-
tive capacity. Despite IWRM being promoted as an at-
tractive approach for increasing adaptive capacity, our
assessment depicts that IWRM can not enhance flexibil-
ity and adaptability. Adaptability increases the capability
of a system to adjust, via changes in its characteristics or
behavior; so as to cope better with existing and future
stresses [65]. Due to climate change impact, these
stresses are expected to further increase on water re-
sources system (WRS). Therefore, the consequences of
climate change i.e., uncertainty and extreme events, on
WRS underline the importance of flexibility and adapta-
Similar to Pahl-Wostl [65], this study suggests that
there is a need for a change in current water management
practices towards more adaptive and flexible approaches.
Greater integration of such adaptive and flexible ap-
proaches into IWRM approaches worldwide are urgently
needed to tackle the complexities and uncertainties re-
lated to a changing climate and enable the sustainable use
and management of water resources.
6. Acknowledgements
The authors are grateful to European Science Foundation
for facilitating this interdisciplinary research work.
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