A background to Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM)

A holistic approach to manage entire river basins

A river basin (or 'catchment') is the entire area drained by a river, including its tributaries. Experts agree that the best approach to conserving the world's freshwater resources is through managing river basins sustainably.

We need to make wise choices about resource use, based on an understanding of how to maintain dynamic, living systems in the long term.

Any activity that takes place in a river basin (e.g. disposal of waste water, cutting of forests) has impacts downstream. A vivid example of this was the cyanide spill in the River Tisza (a tributary of the Danube) from a mine in Romania in January 2000. The highly toxic chemical swept downstream through Hungary, devastating aquatic life along the course of the river and contaminating the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people.

River basins are important from hydrological, economic and ecological points of view. They absorb and channel the run-off from snow-melt and rainfall which, when wisely managed, can provide fresh drinking water as well as access to food, hydropower, building materials (e.g. reeds for thatching), medicines and recreational opportunities.

They also form a critical link between land and sea, providing transportation routes for people, and making it possible for fish to migrate between marine and freshwater systems. By acting as natural 'filters' and 'sponges', well-managed basins play a vital role in water purification, water retention and regulation of flood peaks. In many parts of the world, seasonal flooding remains the key to maintaining fertility for grazing and agriculture.

Last but not least, these often very large-scale ecosystems combine both terrestrial (e.g. forest and grassland) and aquatic (e.g. river, lake and marsh) components, thereby providing a wide diversity of habitats for plants and animals.
River basin map (2002) shows basins with ongoing or planned WWF basin-oriented conservation work. / ©: WWF
River basin map (2002) shows basins with ongoing or planned WWF basin-oriented conservation work. Click here to download [pdf, 632 KB]
© WWF

Related Information

Fishermen on boat with collected dead fish from the River February 2000 - Cyanide pollution, Tisza ... / ©: WWF-Canon / Nigel DICKINSON
Fishermen on boat with collected dead fish from the River February 2000 - Cyanide pollution, Tisza River, Hungary.
© WWF-Canon / Nigel DICKINSON

River basins under threat

Unfortunately, the close inter-linkages between the hydrological, ecological and socio-economic components of river basins have rarely been given adequate consideration by decision-makers such as politicians, land-use planners and water engineers.

As a result, river basins all over the world are not being managed with a view to the future and their natural values - for people and wildlife alike - are disappearing rapidly.

Better water management is not about 'quick fixes'. Though sometimes requiring extra effort to begin with, long-term solutions will generally pay back such investment - with interest.

For example, solar, wind or biogas plants provide cheaper, more sustainable means of generating energy than building large hydropower dams. Similarly, 'greening' of conventional (intensive) farming techniques, and use of locally-adapted crops can help reduce soil erosion and runoff from fertilisers and pesticides, thereby protecting rivers, lakes and streams from siltation and pollution. At the same time, use of environmentally cleaner technologies can help businesses reduce costs and boost profits.
Large dams planned in river basins around the world in 2003. / ©: World Resources Institute
Large dams planned in river basins around the world in 2003.
© World Resources Institute

International collaboration

Some 200 of the world's major rivers flow through more than one country. The potential for international conflict over such shared water resources is high. Mechanisms to ensure the equitable sharing of resources among the stakeholders concerned exist for only a relatively small number of these international rivers.

Only by taking a holistic, integrated approach to planning and managing all activities within river basins can solutions to the current global freshwater crisis be found.

This will frequently require transboundary co-operation between countries, sometimes across wide geographical, cultural, political and economic divides. It will always require that the long-term social, economic and ecological benefits of healthy freshwater ecosystems are given priority over short-term financial or political gain.

The unthinkable alternative is to lose some of the finest jewels of the natural world, including the famous rivers described below. This would indeed be a catastrophe for all life on Earth.
 / ©: WWF / Caroline LIOU
The upper reaches of the Mekong winds through Yunnan Province, China. The Mekong River Basin is spread across six countries: Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
© WWF / Caroline LIOU

Managing river basins, sustaining life

Water management objectives, including the maintenance and provision of regular water supplies, improved sanitation, increased food production, and flood damage prevention and reduction, all need to be addressed, and in ways that restore and protect environmental quality.

The forces that drive the water cycle do not follow political and administrative borders. Moreover, thousands of freshwater bodies are the shared resource of several countries. No single organisation can be responsible for the enormous challenges that we face - even the world's richest countries are struggling to manage their freshwater resources sustainably.

Positive change is possible if we recognise that sustainable water management begins with conserving and restoring the springs, rivers, lakes and marshes that are natural regulators of water quality and quantity.

To maintain the water cycle, one of the building blocks for life on Earth, all of us - governments, civil society, the business sector, non-governmental organisations and individuals - must work together and make informed, strategic choices about the way we view and use water.

To do otherwise will see the world’s dwindling freshwater supply literally going down the drain at an ever more alarming rate - eventually taking us with it.

The need to conserve and manage freshwater ecosystems at the basin scale is increasingly being recognised by governments and NGOs. The principle of integrated river basin management is included in many international agreements. However, far too little is being done to put words into action.

Tackling Poverty and Promoting Sustainable Development

Key lessons for integrated river basin management. The WWF report on managing water wisely lists seven guiding principles for managing rivers and their basins. Maintaining the health of these river basins is the key to achieving the UN's Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without access to both clean water and adequate sanitation by 2015.

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