Human-Rights Based Approach to IWRM: Training Manual and Facilitator’s Guide

This publicly available document brings together two fields that, until recently, have been separate: human rights and integrated water resources management (IWRM). The union of these two fields is a natural one, as water management practitioners and human rights professionals have become increasingly aware of the importance of water in key human rights domains. Click here to download the manual >>

The competing—and sometimes conflicting—demands on water give rise to questions of equity and justice in light of IWRM

As pressures on the world’s freshwater resources increase, many river basins will face both increasing freshwater scarcity and increasing pollution – posing significant threat to the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. As this happens, organizations with integrated water resource management (IWRM) responsibilities will face greater challenges in their efforts to promote sustainable water management practices that maximize economic, social and environmental welfare. The many competing—and sometimes conflicting—demands give rise to questions of equity and justice, such as what would be considered to be a ‘fair’ or ‘balanced’ allocation of water for competing uses. The human rights system offers an important entry point for such questions of justice by offering broadly endorsed frameworks that set minimum standards for governance and defines the rights and obligations of different categories of stakeholders.

IWRM seeks to unify, in one management system, all of the different human interventions in freshwater within a given river basin, taking into consideration social, economic and environmental perspectives. Adding the lens of the human rights-based approach to this thinking offers opportunities to streamline water governance and provides coherence both in the sphere of environmental sustainability and in terms of human development. Therefore, introducing human rights-based minimum standards for justice into IWRM is an important starting point in securing a ‘just’ allocation of scarce freshwater resources.

Whichever lens one prefers to see them through, human rights, development and governance are interlinked and mutually reinforcing. Their core principles overlap, and all of them are essential to understanding and implementing IWRM.

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Promoting knowledge dissemination and providing useful experiences

The final chapter of the Manual contains tools that will increase participant inclusion, promote knowledge dissemination and provide useful experiences that will enable both the individuals undergoing training and the workshop facilitators to fulfill the proposed objectives. It seeks to respond to the needs of the practitioners for whom the Manual was developed, and facilitate the efforts of those who will plan and/or carry out the training course/workshop.

All the tools and activities described in this Manual were tried and tested during a so-called Training of Trainers held in Costa Rica in October, 2014. This four-day workshop was based on capacity-building materials developed by UNDP Cap-Net for river basin management. The partner organisations presented a draft of the Manual; feedback from the participants was used to improve it.

Cap-Net is an international network for capacity development in sustainable water management. It is made up of a partnership of autonomous international, regional and national institutions and networks committed to capacity development in the water sector. 


The Water Governance Facility (WGF) is a collaboration between the UNDP and the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). The WGF implemented parts of the UNDP Water and Ocean Governance Program by providing strategic water governance support to low- and middle-incom countries to advance socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically efficient management of water resources and water and sanitation services. 

WaterLex is an international public interest development organization and membership associtation based in Geneva, Switzerland. It is a UN-Water Partner with UN ECOSOC special  consultative status. Its mission is to develop sustainable solutions based on human rights to improve water governance worldwide, particularly in regard to consistent water law and policy frameworks. 


REDICA is a network of engineering faculties, higher education institutions, research centers and professional associations of Central America and the Dominican Republic, dedicated to promote sustainable development, IWRM, Gender Equity and Climate Change Adaptation and the cooperation among organizations in the region. 

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The human rights-based approach (HRBA) is a perspective and framework that aims to ensure that respect for human rights are integrated and mainstreamed into various activities and programmes.

The approach can thus be said to work at three levels; embracing the goals, processes and outcomes as necessary. It is commonly operationalized by ensuring that the procedural aspects of the principles of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights from 1948 and other international human rights instruments are duly taken into account, especially emphasizing participation, accountability, non-discrimination and transparency.

According to the 2003 UN Statement of Common Understanding,

  • All programmes of development cooperation, policies and technical assistance should further the realization of human rights;
  • Human rights standards contained in, and principles derived from, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments should guide all development cooperation and programming in all sectors and in all phases of the programming process; and
  • Development cooperation should contribute to the development of the capacities of “duty-bearers” to meet their obligations of “rights-holders” to claim their rights.

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Better integrating environment, equity & efficiency to water use

IWRM emerged as an accepted alternative to state-centric, top-down management, in an effort to better integrate environment, equity and efficiency to the use of water.

IWRM is the sustainable development, allocation and monitoring of water resource use in the context of cultural, social, economic and environmental objectives. It is a cross-sectorial approach that has been adopted by many countries. It has been further broadened to incorporate participatory decision-making of all stakeholders.

“IWRM is a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, and related resources in order to maximize economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems”

Global Water Partnership 2016 

The actors, processes and institutions by which decisions that effect water are made

Water governance is one of the most critical areas through which to improve the sustainable development of water resources and services.

How societies choose to govern their water resources and services has profound impacts on people’s livelihood and the sustainability of water resources. Access to water is, for many people, a matter of daily survival, or can help to break the vicious circle of poverty. Improving water governance is therefore essential to alleviating global poverty.


Water governance deals with how society governs the access to and control of water resources and their benefits. It refers to the political, social, economic and administrative systems in place that influence water’s use and management. Essentially, who gets what water, when and how, and who has the right to water and related services, and their benefits. It determines the equity and efficiency in water resource and services allocation and distribution, and balances water use between socio-economic activities and ecosystems.

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