Since the early 1990s, Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) has evolved as a major concept in the international discourse on sustainable water management. It now represents the ideal type of sound water management.

In 1992, the Agenda 21 of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro stated that «the widespread scarcity, gradual destruction and aggravated pollution of freshwater resources in many world regions, along with the progressive encroachment of incompatible activities, demand integrated water resources planning and management. Such integration must cover all types of interrelated freshwater bodies, including both surface water and groundwater, and duly consider water quantity and quality aspects. The multisectoral nature of water resources development in the context of socioeconomic development must be recognized, as well as the multi-interest utilization of water resources for water supply and sanitation, agriculture, industry, urban development, hydropower generation, inland fisheries, transportation, recreation, low and flat lands management and other activities. (...)» (chapter 18.3 of the Agenda 21).

Along these lines, the core assumption of IWRM is that different uses of water (in agriculture, industry, for drinking water, ecological services, etc.) are interdependent and therefore should be managed holistically. This requires participatory processes in decision-making, in planning and in implementation that involve all relevant stakeholders in order to take their interests into account. The Global Water Partnership defined IWRM as a process that aims «to ensure the coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources by maximizing economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability of vital environmental systems.» However, there is no universal definition of IWRM.
The core components of IWRM are the following:

  • Hydrographic management of water resources at the basin or watershed level and not according to administrative boundaries;
  • Integrated management covering all sources of water (groundwater, surface water, precipitation, coastal resources, etc.) and quantity as well as quality aspects;
  • Cross-sectoral management involving different economic sectors as well as upstream and downstream users;
  • Demand-oriented management, including cost recovery mechanisms and water-efficient technologies;
  • Participative management ensuring that the interests of all stakeholder are taken into account to ensure equitable water access;
  • Decentralized management at lowest appropriate level.

IWRM is a set of principles, but it is important to note that these are not intended as strict rules that should be applied uniformly around the world. Rather, the principles should provide the basis on which rules adapted to the conditions and needs of the respective country are formulated.

At the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the plan of implementation included a call to all countries to «develop Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) and water efficiency plans by 2005». Implementation of IWRM was also initiated in Central Asia. As in all the other countries around the world that embarked on this process, it proved to be a challenging process which requires a long-term perspective and won't bring quick successes. Many of the IWRM principles are a challenge to traditional fragmented sectoral management and top-down approaches. It is therefore not surprising that its implementation is not easy and meeting the IWRM ideals is a long process.

All the Central Asian states have acknowledged the importance of the IWRM principles. But apart from Kazakhstan, none of the countries so far has an overall coherent and feasible IWRM plan or strategy at the government level with adequate financial support and concrete implementation. Still, all countries have undertaken efforts that were supported by donors. In late 2009, the Tajik government published a government declaration on development of an Irrigation Management Transfer Strategy and IWRM Strategy. Uzbekistan also started the preparation of an IWRM plan in 2009 with the support of UNDP. The Kyrgyz Water Code of 2005 prescribes IWRM elements like the establishment of a coordinating crosssectoral National Water Council and the delineation of river basins with the nomination of River Basin Administrations and River Basin Councils. But so far all these provisions have not yet been implemented. In August 2011, Turkmenistan established a working group to develop an IWRM roadmap. The most advanced country is Kazakhstan. It has established basin-based water resources management with River Basin Administrations for the management of the eight river basins in the country. The Water Code also provides for the establishment of River Basin Councils as advisory bodies for each of the basins and some are already working. In the framework of the EU Water Initiative, most Central Asian countries have started a National Policy Dialogue on IWRM facilitated by UNECE. [Europe Aid 2010, Nikolayenko 2009.]

Apart from that, there are many different kind of projects subsumed under the title «IWRM», often focusing on a specific aspect like development of Water User Associations (WUAs), river basin management, mini hydropower projects and rural water supply. The different understanding by different donors and government agencies is a typical phenomenon of IWRM. It increases the need to have a sound national framework in which these activities can be coordinated.