"Hot Water after the Cold War"

March 27, 2009.  

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A group of eight international water research experts from the US, Australia, Europe, South Africa, Canada and Central Asia met at ZEF from March 24-25 2009 to exchange views, insights and research results on "Water Policy Dynamics in State-Centric Regimes". We interviewed Peter Mollinga, Senior Researcher at ZEF's Department of Political and Cultural Change, and Anjali Bhat, Junior Researcher and co-organizer, on the outcome of the workshop.


Q.: At the workshop case studies from countries and regions such as China, Vietnam, South Africa and Central Asia were presented and discussed. Can you summarize the main outcome and common conclusions?

A.: "Well, interesting was that we all saw that after around 10 to 15 years talking about (policy makers), doing research on (researchers) and trying to implement (practitioners) Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), it's about time to draw up a balance. The idea that IWRM is a globally implementable concept came up in the early 1990s. In fact it was a kind of spin off of the different notions of globalization becoming en vogue by that time: The economic power of globalizing markets, the political power of democratization, and the ecological value of sustainability. That's why one of the workshop's participants, James Nickum, from the Tokyo Jogakkan College in Japan, called it "Hot water after the Cold War". IWRM was a break with the so far engineering- and hydrology- focused research and policy making on water. IWRM should 'solve it all' by integrating all possible components into one concept: water engineering, economic as well as gender issues, ecological sustainability, good governance, tradable water rights, etc, etc. In fact, IWRM was meant to be a more globalized way of understanding water."


Q.: So what do the preliminary balance and the research done to date say about the advantages and disadvantages that IWRM has brought us?

A.: "Well, on the positive side we see that the debate on IWRM generated a broad discussion on water related issues, concepts and research. In principle, IWRM is a good set of overall ideas on how to manage water resources in an integrated way. But this is at the same time its weakness, since it is not implementable everywhere in the same way. This is most obvious in (formerly) semi-authoritarian states, where a lot of restructuring processes occur simultaneously since the early 1990s: economic and political liberalization, as well as independence and autonomy movements. One of the basic problems with IWRM is that it does not start from and is not based on local realities, whereas local dynamics play a crucial role in the implementation process."


Q.: So what happened to all the political, economic, social and scientific efforts initiated to realize IWRM in the past 10 to 15 years?

A.: "We can not ignore the fact that a lot of funds allocated for IWRM were mainly used for classical water management measures: building dams, infrastructure, and hydropower. Of course, these are important measures in the developing world, but this is not IWRM. In a lot of these cases, the required institutional and ecological back-up is lacking. A negative and well-known example is the Aral Sea Region: Despite long-term international attention and funding, the region is an ecological disaster, with regional governments being clear about the fact that it is lost, while the international water community continues to discuss restoration."


Q.: So what are the perspectives for the future?

A.: "We as scientists have analyzed

- on the basis of case studies - how IWRM has fared so far in countries involved in structural transformation processes; post-Soviet, post-apartheid, or otherwise.Based on these analyses we can show whether this global policy concoction has local relevance, and in what way it is concretely used in different contexts. We would like to see policies and approaches to be adjusted accordingly and local conditions to be taken into account more structurally

and properly in the future."


Interview by Alma van der Veen