Q&A: Mark Giordano on the Sustainable Development Goal for Integrated Water Resources Management

Mark Giordano is the director of the Program in Science, Technology and International Affairs at Georgetown University. He researches natural resources management and has written extensively about water management in developing countries. He talks with Circle of Blue about the Sustainable Development subgoal to implement integrated water resources management.

In a series of Q&As with water experts, Circle of Blue explores the significance of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for water, how they can be achieved, and how they will be measured. We spoke with Mark Giordano about the 6.5 subgoal, which aims, by 2030, to “implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.”

Mark Giordano director Program in Science, Technology and International Affairs Georgetown University integrated water resources management Sustainable Development Goals Q&A Circle of Blue

Photo courtesy of Mark Giordano
Circle of Blue: How is integrated water resources management different from what has been practiced, and where did the idea originate?

Mark Giordano: The big issues used to be that, because water wasn’t scarce, people in different sectors just used it however they wanted. As water scarcity increased, we realized how interconnected water is with almost everything and how use in one sector impacted others, leading to conflicts and misuse.

So we said let’s stop thinking about water sector by sector and think instead of an integrated way to manage it. That is where the idea of integrated water management—with small letters—comes from.

It makes sense, of course. We shouldn’t be using water across purposes and not understanding what the tradeoffs are. But in some cases the idea of integrated water resources management has turned from a good idea to acknowledge into more of a prescription of exactly how we should manage water, and it has become something in large capitals—IWRM.

How is IWRM being implemented?
Mark Giordano: This is not the case everywhere, but one of the downsides is that implementing something called IWMR can become a prerequisite for action to happen. For example, an international lender may not lend to another country if it does not have IWRM in place. The country may put the IWRM policies in place but with no intention to implement and with no meaning on the ground. Or worst case, it may implement a poorly thought out IWRM plan. Different things work in different places, and countries themselves have to decide how to solve the water management problems they have, and not follow some outside prescription.
Kaye LaFond global world water use water withdrawals agriculture municipal industrial integrated water resources management Sustainable Development Goals Q&A Circle of Blue

Graphic by Kaye LaFond / Circle of Blue
Globally, agricultural users withdraw the most water. Sources: USGS; FAO Aquastat
What opportunities and challenges for water management does urbanization present?
Mark Giordano: The urban users tend to be the highly valued users. They’re willing to pay more for their water than agricultural users, who are the main water users generally. It can create conflict in places where water is scarce, and the question is, how do you move water from agriculture into cities where it has more value without destroying food security or hurting farmers.
What happens when now, in some cases, the environment is reintroduced as a water user?

Mark Giordano: We forgot that the environment needed water — this is in the U.S. case — and we didn’t consider that surface water and groundwater were interconnected. We over-allocated surface water, we over-allocated groundwater, and then we remembered we should have left some for the environment.

There is now increasing awareness in the U.S. and elsewhere that the environment needs water too, not just because of an intrinsic value, but also because of all the services it provides.

As the Sustainable Development Summit kicks off this weekend, in your opinion, what should the representatives keep in mind when they address this goal?
Mark Giordano: Getting clean drinking water to everyone is a moral imperative. We can worry about how you finance it in the long-term, but the number one priority is to get water to the people now.
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