Strategic approaches to freshwater management: recommendations for action


[Note: This is a reprint of the recommendations on integrated freshwater management authored by IUCN and WWF for presentation in connection with a panel discussion on "Freshwater Ecosystem Conservation: Water for People" (21 April 1998), as part of the 6th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development, New York, 20 April to 1 May 1998.    Contact names for further information appear at the end of the paper.  I have added highlighting in red text to references to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.]

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Commission on Sustainable Development - 6th Session
New York, USA / 20 April - 1 May 1998



Recommendations for Action

The world is facing a freshwater crisis. Destruction and deterioration of freshwater ecosystems, environmental degradation, species loss and extinction are leading to negative impacts on human health, living standards and livelihoods. In response to this crisis, the UN General Assembly Special Session in June 1997 decided that the issue of freshwater will be the sectoral focus of the sixth session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD).

Paramount in the conception and implementation of a strategic approach to freshwater is the human dimension. Within an aquifer or watershed, the uses of water are interdependent. Since the amount of freshwater on the planet is finite, increased water extraction by people and industry will mean decreases in the availability of water for the environment. In addition, the world’s freshwater ecosystems are being severely polluted by human, industrial and agricultural uses. Thus, an integrated strategy at any scale – local, regional, national or international – must address water quality and quantity and seek to maximise benefits for both people and ecosystems. This will require a planning and management system based on an ecosystem approach at the catchment level.

Conservation of Freshwater Ecosystems = Water and Resources for People. This is a straightforward equation. Without ecosystem conservation, basic human needs cannot be met, and without those basic needs being met, social development is impossible and economic development to benefit people is unfeasible. Currently, international attention is focused on water allocation for human uses with less attention being paid to ecosystem conservation and maintenance. A conceptual shift is required so that neither is seen as an end in itself, but both are instead considered together with the aim of improving the health of ecosystems and the health and livelihoods of people.

In summary, WWF and IUCN call on the CSD to:

  • Recognise that ecosystem conservation is vital for meeting the basic needs of people.

  • Adopt and promote an ecosystem approach at the catchment level for the management, use, allocation and conservation of all freshwater resources and ecosystems.

  • Recognise and promote the role of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the Convention of Biological Diversity and review their contribution to the effective management of freshwater systems.

  • Promote the establishment and effective management of freshwater protected areas primarily through existing institutions and agreements.

  • Support participatory management systems that link conservation with human needs and which allow communities and other stakeholders a role in decision-making.

  • Address water quality as well as water quantity.

  • Recognise that freshwater resources have economic values including social and environmental benefits and promote definition and understanding of these values.

  • Identify mechanisms for the allocation and re-direction of funding, especially the removal of perverse incentive measures (e.g. subsidies, taxation) and the promotion of incentives for conservation and sustainable use.

In addition, there is a need and an opportunity for individual governments to demonstrate leadership by stepping forward at the CSD with concrete commitments to:

  • Greatly improve protection and management of all freshwater systems within their territories.
  • Become parties to the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, 1971).
  • Increase the protection of wetlands, floodplains and inland waters as a general stratgey, and in particular through the designation of new sites under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.


The CSD Ad Hoc Working Group on Strategic Approaches to Freshwater Management, held in February 1998, identified key issues and challenges and developed recommendations for consideration by the CSD on actions and the means of implementation. The recommendations of the Working Group provide an excellent starting point for the CSD negotiations.

As indicated in the report of the CSD Ad Hoc Working Group, "the process called for in the Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21 should focus on fostering and supporting national and international action in those areas where goals and objectives have been defined; identification of existing gaps and emerging issues; building global consensus where further understanding is required; and promoting greater coordination in approaches by the United Nations and relevant international institutions particularly in support of national implementation policy and development." (Para. 10)

The Working Group defined a number of areas that require further attention including: "awareness of the scope and function of surface and groundwater resources; the role of ecosystems in the provision of goods and services; conservation of biological diversity of freshwater ecosystems; understanding hydrology and the capacity to assess the availability and variability of water resources."(Para. 11)

This should include generating high level political support for the urgent implementation of existing agreements and programmes, assessing the effectiveness of implementation of those existing arrangements, and identifying additional necessary actions.

The Harare Expert Group Meeting on Strategic Approaches to Freshwater Management in January 1998 also developed important input to the CSD process. In addition, the International Conference on Water and Sustainable Development, held in Paris in March 1998, identified additional strategies for improving freshwater resource conservation and management.



The CSD Ad Hoc Working Group confirmed that meeting basic human needs includes: "freshwater development and management, structural reform, protection of ecosystems, sustainable management of resources and promoting participation and capacity-building." (Para. 38). The Working Group reaffirmed that "water resources are essential for … the restoration and maintenance of ecosystems." (Para. 4). In addition, Governments were encouraged to increase and improve efficiency. (Para. 29, 30)

The Harare Expert Group Meeting acknowledged that the "conservation of freshwater and related ecosystems is vital to sustainable development." The Ministerial Declaration of the Paris International Conference confirmed the importance of "the preservation of ecosystems" and of "the protection of ecosystems to maintain and rehabilitate the hydrological cycle."

The integrity, functions, goods and services provided by freshwater ecosystems, including ecological processes, as well as the quality and quantity of water must be taken into account. This means that conservation of freshwater resources and ecosystems must be an essential part of food production, industry and water supply schemes.

WWF and IUCN recommend that Governments and the CSD:

  • Develop strategies which are consistent with the requirements of basic human needs, and the maintenance of freshwater resources and their biodiversity.
  • Integrate these strategies into the Ramsar Convention and CBD frameworks, review their adequacy, and identify gaps in implementation.
  • Promote the maintenance and protection of biodiversity through the CBD, while promoting sustainable human consumption and balancing and coordinating competing demands for freshwater resources.
  • Take into account the need to conserve hydrological and ecological processes and biological diversity at the genetic, species and ecosystem level..
  • Promote increases in the efficiency of water use while improving ecosystems, especially relating to irrigation.
  • Support ecologically sound practices while improving food production systems, for example, more water-efficient organic agriculture and use of indigenous knowledge or adapted traditional systems.


Conservation and management of freshwater ecosystems and resources should be based on an ecosystem approach at the catchment level that takes into account land-use practices within a catchment or groundwater system unit, any impacts from human uses including utilisation of wild fauna or flora, and the impacts from and on other ecosystems such as forests and coastal waters.

Taking an ecosystem approach at the catchment level to freshwater management means assessing water availability (quantity and quality), identifying inter-relationships at the ecosystem level, predicting the environmental and social impact of any proposed action and evaluating the consequences before any decision is made on use.

The health – and even existence– of rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands is dependent on wise forestry and agricultural practices in the associated catchment area. While an ecosystem approach at the catchment level helps to define a management area, the consideration, priorities, support, involvement and adequate representation of local communities must be an intrinsic part of any management scheme.

The Harare Expert Group Meeting recommended that an ecosystem approach be promoted to integrated water resources planning, development and management within the framework of river basin and aquifer systems (Para. D.I.)

The CSD Ad Hoc Working Group recognised that "effective integrated water resources management should incorporate river basin, catchment, watershed and ecosystem approaches." (Para. 13).

An ecosystem approach to freshwater management emphasises the importance of maintaining ecosystem integrity, the conservation of biological diversity, and the adoption of catchments or groundwater system units as the appropriate units of management. A catchment can be defined as a natural drainage area encompassing all the parts from which rain is collected and from which a river or lake is fed. Chapter 18 of Agenda 21 recognises the importance of preserving the hydrological, biological and chemical functions of ecosystems for human use through catchment based approaches.

WWF and IUCN recommend that Governments and the CSD:

  • Adopt an ecosystem approach at the catchment level in the management and conservation of freshwater resources, taking into account land-use practices within the catchment, the conservation of biological diversity, the need to avert negative impacts from human uses, the wise use of wild flora and fauna, as well as impacts from and on other ecosystems, e.g. forests and coastal waters.
  • Develop and begin implementing in 1998 national action programmes on the sustainable management of freshwater ecosystems based on an ecosystem approach at the catchment level. Report on progress in implementation to the CSD in 2000 and 2002.
  • Develop or adjust national and international legislation and incentives to improve the management and conservation of freshwater ecosystems.
  • Encourage the development of initiatives which promote catchment and groundwater-system wide integration across international boundaries.


A broad range of existing legal and policy instruments is relevant in developing strategic approaches to freshwater management. These include the Convention of Wetlands (Ramsar), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), as well as the outcomes of the Dublin International Conference on Water and the Environment and the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).

The CSD Ad Hoc Working Group report states that "there is a need to take into account actions to implement relevant conventions in force." The Harare Expert Group also recommended taking into account existing instruments in the formulation and implementation of integrated water resources management policies and programmes.

Most importantly, Governments and the CSD must take into account the provisions and work programmes of the Convention on Wetlands and the CBD. The Convention on Wetlands is directly relevant in view of "the fundamental ecological functions of wetlands as regulators of water regimes and as habitats supporting a characteristic flora and fauna," that is recognised in the convention. More than one hundred countries are parties to the Convention on Wetlands and all have committed to the wise use of wetlands, which includes lakes and rivers.

There is also considerable scope for promoting the conservation and sustainable use of freshwater ecosystems by ensuring that the parties to the CBD are meeting their obligations with regards to habitats and species. The CBD is currently developing a programme of work on the "biological diversity of inland water ecosystems" which will be considered at the next Conference of the Parties in May 1998.

WWF and IUCN recommend that Governments and the CSD:

  • Take into account the roles and functions of the Convention on Wetlands and the CBD as well as other relevant partners.
  • Invite the Secretariats of the the Convention on Wetlands and the CBD to collaborate with the CSD Secretariat and the relevant UN agencies to identify areas of substantive cooperation and to develop a coordinated implementation plan.
  • Ensure that national water policies are developed, implemented and integrated with national Convention on Wetlands' policies and report on the status of these policies to the 2002 session of the CSD.


Freshwater ecosystems and water resources have not, for the most part, been adequately included in protected area systems. Huge international investments in water resource management have tended to focus on structural approaches with little attention being paid to the role of natural ecosystems in managing the hydrological cycle or to the potential of aquatic ecosystems as alternatives to costly engineering investments. In this respect, protected areas have a central role to play in developing new approaches to water management.

The full range of freshwater ecosystems has to be maintained through long-term conservation areas, especially those that are unique and/or natural. The number and kind of sites included under the Convention on Wetlands needs to be expanded to include under-represented areas highly dependent on freshwater inputs such as coral reefs, mangroves, sea-grass beds and peat land areas as well as trans-boundary wetlands.

Governments should note that the conservation and management of existing freshwater ecosystems should be the priority as the functions, goods and services provided by these are in most cases superior to created or restored freshwater ecosystems.

WWF and IUCN recommend that Governments and the CSD:

  • Recognise the importance of increasing the number of protected wetland and aquatic sites, in particular the designation of new sites under the Ramsar Convention.
  • Ensure adequate ecological representation in national protected area systems.
  • Ensure the sound and effective management of freshwater resources and biological diversity in national protected area systems.


Policies and recommendations on measures such as pricing, the creation of legal frameworks, and the reorienting of international institutions (e.g. World Bank), often do not adequately take into account local level realities. Furthermore, the implementation of such recommendations cannot be effective without buy-in from the communities affected.

The CSD Ad Hoc Working Group report states that "participatory approaches" need to be addressed by governments with support from the international community, and urges Governments to "strengthen institutional and human capacities at national and local levels. At the local level, this could be done through Agenda 21 processes where they exist." (Para. 11 and 26)

Furthermore, the Working Group recommended that Governments and organisations should organise meetings to "promote exchanges of information on local and national action programmes and community based efforts to implement provisions of Agenda 21 relevant to freshwater, especially advances in integrated water resource and watershed management." (Para. 47)

The Harare Expert Group recommended that integrated water resource management should "integrate the interests of all users and stakeholders … in relation to water quality and quantity and ensure effective community involvement at all levels and at all stages of the process."

Some essential aspects of community participation are:

  • recognition of local knowledge systems and rights
  • involvement and empowerment of local people and their institutions
  • special attention to disadvantaged groups as resource users, e.g. the poorest section of the community
  • long-term projects and long-term partnerships with communities
  • flexible, process-oriented projects with a diversity of options rather than blueprints
  • empowerment of women as natural resource users.
  • adequate representation of local user groups in the development, planning and implementation of water resources mangement plans.

Community participation is central to WWF and IUCN’s conservation work. Among other initiatives, WWF and UNICEF have joined forces to link the issue of conservation with basic human needs in India. The project involves the active participation of local people. The project is expected to have significant policy and programmatic implications for freshwater management in India and other countries.

WWF and IUCN recommend that Governments and the CSD:

  • Ensure the development of participatory freshwater management systems that link conservation with human needs and which allow communities and other stakeholders a role in the decision-making process.
  • Identify and encourage the replication of successful community-based models for freshwater management based on an ecosystem approach at the catchment level.
  • Ensure local water resource users are adequately represented in the development, planning and implementation of water resources management plans.
  • Improve the capacity of NGO, user-group and governmental institutions to participate in decision-making processes.


Water pollution – from agriculture, industry, sewage, disease vectors, siltation and alien species – is a key concern in all regions. Water quality degradation poses a threat since pollutants accumulate in the aquatic food chain, affecting both the health of aquatic ecosystems and human health.

There is growing concern about the effects of synthetic chemicals that interfere with the endocrine systems of humans and wildlife causing neuronal, behavioural, developmental and physical changes which in some cases lead to an incapacity to reproduce. The impacts of these endocrine disrupters are particularly severe in aquatic animals.

The CSDAd Hoc Working Group recognised the need to address "pollution prevention, sanitation and the treatment of waste water" and urged that actions be taken to implement relevant conventions and programmes of action, including the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Sources of Marine Pollution and other instruments related to water quality. (Para. 14,17)

The Harare Expert Group Meeting recognised that "in spite of high-level commitments to action . . . water quality has invariably been subordinated to water quantity." The Paris International Conference recognized the importance of information gathering for the "protection against point or non-point sources of pollution."

An integrated response to the freshwater crisis must incorporate guidelines for reducing pollution, including through support for existing programmes (including OECD pesticide reduction) and through innovative policy tools. One such tool is Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs). PRTRs are based on the principle of "Community Right to Know" and are characterised by strong partnerships between industries, various levels of government, non-governmental organisations and local communities.

WWF and IUCN recommend that Governments and the CSD:

  • Incorporate pollution prevention strategies from both point and non-point sources in the strategic approaches to freshwater.
  • Outline a framework in collaboration with the OECD and FAO for national and international pesticide reduction programmes.
  • Promote the use of Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs) with the involvement of non-governmental organisations in their design and implementation.
  • Promote open public access to information on freshwater resources, including information on pollution through the UNECE negotiation of a Public Participation Convention.


Effective pricing and regulatory mechanisms that fully reflect the cost of water supply and treatment as well as the social and environmental costs of water pollution and ecosystem degradation are needed to produce incentives for the sustainable management of water resources. Water must be seen as an economic good but this must include valuation of its social and environmental benefits.

The provision of fish for food, for example, is a benefit of aquatic ecosystems which is of critical importance. The loss of this benefit should be included in the real cost of any activity that affects the water resource and undermines its availability. Many benefits provided by freshwater ecosystems, such as flood control and nutrient stripping by wetlands, have until now been assumed to be free. As a consequence freshwater ecosystems have been grossly undervalued, which has removed incentives for their conservation.

The CSD Ad Hoc Working Group report states that "explicit linkages with socio-economic development, including sound economic policies, for equitable and efficient water allocation and use" require further attention. (Para. 11) The Working Group recognised that "all costs must be covered . . . if the provision of water is to be viable", but also that "subsidies for specific groups, particularly people living in poverty, are required in some countries." (Para. 41) Furthermore, in using economic instruments, Governments were urged by the CSD Working Group to "take into account considerations of environmental requirements, efficiency, transparency and equity, taking into particular account the needs of vulnerable groups living in poverty." (Para. 43)

The Harare Expert Group Meeting affirmed that "the use of pricing policies and other economic instruments are essential for the effective equitable allocation of the resource taking into account social and economic criteria as well as basic human needs." The Paris Conference recognised the importance of "taking into account of user-pay systems and the polluter pays principle" for the implementation of integrated water resource management, and called for the necessary measures, cross-subsidies in particular, to prevent management of services limiting access to water by low income users.

Guidance on planning and managing such economic valuation studies and details of various techniques already exist. Governments should be encouraged to produce detailed national inventories of freshwater resources, from which specific economic values and management recommendations can be derived. Some of this information has already been compiled, for example, inventories of wetlands undertaken under the Convention on Wetlands.

WWF and IUCN recommend that Governments and the CSD:

  • Take into account the full economic valuation of freshwater resources and ecosystem functions in order to assist in the development of economically and environmentally sound and sustainable incentive measures.
  • Encourage the production by governments of detailed national inventories of freshwater resources for economic valuation purposes.
  • Promote the removal of all forms of perverse subsidies which are damaging freshwater ecosystems such as those for agricultural drainage and energy production.


Not only are additional financial resources essential for implementing integrated approaches to freshwater management, but existing funds should be re-directed and technology transfer initiatives should be encouraged.

The CSD Ad Hoc Working Group recognized that official development assistance should focus on programmes aimed at meeting basic human needs through the "protection of ecosystems, sustainable management of resources and promoting participation and capacity building." (Para. 38) The Paris Conference identified priorities for ODA including: meeting basic needs and sustainable management of water-related ecosystems.

Rather than being allocated to solutions involving, for example, large quantities of concrete, funding should be redirected to changing agricultural practices and using irrigation systems requiring far less use of water such as drip rather than spray irrigation. Furthermore, funds should be used to strengthen the use of ecosystems to provide water resources for human use, e.g. the use of wetlands for water purification or flood control.

WWF and IUCN recommend that Governments and the CSD:

  • Recognise the immediate need for donor and multilateral agency support for rural and urban water supply schemes to be placed within the wider context of water resource management and of ecosystem conservation and management.
  • Promote support for the activities of the CBD and the Convention on Wetlands.
  • Support local level analysis, assessment and implementation of sustainable actions, including the launching of pilot projects adopting an integrated approach.
  • Promote innovative strategies such as trust funds for the conservation of freshwater resources and ecosystems.

For further information contact:

Carole Saint-Laurent
WWF International
c/o WWF Canada
90 Eglinton Ave. East
Suite 504
Toronto, ON M4P 2Z7
Tel.: +1 416 489 8800
Fax: +1 416 489 3611
Dr. Chris Tydeman
WWF - United Kingdom
Panda House
Weyside Park
Godalming, Surrey
Tel.: +44 1483 426 444
Fax: +44 1483 426 409
Dr. Ger Bergkamp
Ecosystem Management Group
IUCN - The World Conservation Union
1196 Gland, Switzerland
Tel.: +41 22 999 0262
Fax: +41 22 999 0025
Shannon Kearns
1400 16 th Street NW
Suite 502
Washington, DC 20036 USA
Tel.: +1 202 797 5454
Fax: +1 202 797 5461

Related text: "Strategic Approaches to Freshwater Management: Background Paper -- The Ecosystem Approach

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