A ‘One Water’ approach is key to combat urban challenges, manage resources

Shift needed from single-minded, linear water management to multi-dimensional integrated water management technique


Water is the most crucial natural resource for every form of life, yet it remains undervalued and inadequately managed worldwide. An integrated approach towards all sources of water is the need of the hour. 

The United Nations has estimated that by the year 2050, four billion people will be seriously affected by water shortages, which might lead to multiple conflicts between countries over water sharing. At the global level, 31 countries are already facing a shortage of water and by 2025, there will be 48 countries facing serious water shortages.

Recognising, measuring and expressing water’s worth and incorporating that into decision-making is still a challenge, apart from the water scarcity.

Failure to value water in all its forms is considered a prime cause of the mismanagement of water, according to the UN World Water Development Report 2021, published by UNESCO on behalf of the UN-Water.

Therefore, shifting the attention from a single-minded and linear water management to a multi-dimensional integrated water management approach, that is, the ‘One Water’ approach, for a comprehensive, resilient and sustainable management of water resources.

Read more: Water sharing with Bangladesh: It may still be too early to talk about Teesta river

‘One Water’ is the recognition that all water has value, regardless of its source. It includes managing that source in an integrated, inclusive and sustainable manner by including the community, business leaders, industries, farmers, conservationists, policymakers, academics and others for ecological and economic benefits.

The new water management approach, that also referred to as Integrated water resources management (IWRM). 

IWRM is an “integrated planning and implementation approach to managing finite water resources for long-term resilience and reliability meeting both community and ecosystem needs”, according to research organisation Water Research Foundation.

“One Water is the future of the water industry when the barriers conventionally separating wastewater, stormwater, drinking water, groundwater and the reuse and re-utilisation are broken down, many benefits realised,” said Robert C Renner, Water Research Foundation.

This approach also recognises that all water has value and by considering the potential of every form of water, none of them should be treated as a waste product, according to non-profit United States Water Alliance.

A ‘One Water’ approach can be analysed and implemented in many different forms, but all share some common unifying characteristics:

  • The mindset that all water has value — from the water resources in our ecosystems to our drinking water, wastewater and stormwater. 
  • A multi-faceted approach meaning that our water-related investments should provide economic, environmental, and societal returns.
  • Utilising watershed-scale thinking and action that respects and responds to the natural ecosystem, geology, and hydrology of an area. 
  • Partnerships and inclusion in recognising that real progress and achievements will only be made when all stakeholders come forward and together will take a decision.

Read more: A success story: How we restored 15 rural waterbodies in UP’s Gautam Buddha Nagar

The approach provides the potential to enhance the urban, social and environmental landscape. It is a multi-faceted collaborative technique that strives for greater coordination among various stakeholders and decision-makers with the following objectives:  

  • Reliable, secure, clean water supplies 
  • Aquifer recharge
  • Flood protection 
  • Minimising environmental pollution 
  • Efficient use and reuse of natural resources
  • Resiliency to climate 
  • Long-term sustainability
  • Equity, affordability and accessibility to safe drinking water
  • Economic growth and prosperity

There are several drivers for adopting a new holistic water management approach. Some of them are: Differences in regional water availability, pricing and affordability, the seasonal and inter-annual variation in supply, water quality and quantity, and unreliability of the resource poses great challenges.

Aged infrastructure, supply-centric management, polluted waterbodies, agricultural and industrial expansion following changes in consumption and production patterns, a changing climate and disproportionate distribution of the water also push for new water techniques. 

IWRM is superior to the conventional water management approach in several ways.

  • In the conventional water management approach, drinking water, wastewater and stormwater are managed separately, whereas in ‘One Water’, All the water systems, regardless of its source, are connected intentionally and managed meticulously for water, energy and resource.
  • Water is recycled and reused several times in IWRM, in contrast to a one-way route from supply to use, treatment and disposal.
  • Stormwater is utilised as a valuable resource to fight against water scarcity, recharge groundwater and support natural vegetation.
  • The water system includes green infrastructures and a mix of grey and green infrastructure that form a hybrid system as compared to grey infrastructure in conventional water management.
  • The interconnectedness of surface water, groundwater, stormwater and wastewater is collectively recognised and managed by these separate but connected entities.
  • Active collaborations with industry, agencies, policymakers, business leaders and various stakeholders is a regular practice in the ‘One Water’ approach, whereas collaboration is need-based in conventional water management systems.

See more: Simply Put: Looking for water

Case study: Los Angeles 

One Water Los Angeles has integrated the city of LA’s family of regional agencies, academia, businesses, environmentalists and other stakeholders. It formulated a LA 2040 Plan through a “Three legged stool approach” that ensures water quality improvement, water supply augmentation and flood risk mitigation.
It is giving a major urban smart water cycle goal by creating “short-cuts” that enhances recycling and reuse while ensuring multiple benefits.

The ‘One Water’ concept is about bringing all the diverse stakeholders together to advance common-ground solutions to combat the water and urban ecology challenges.

Every individual, every community, every sector and every stakeholder group has a role to play in an improved decision-making network, from implementing policies to formulating plans for future developments.

So together, can we secure a sustainable water future for all by contributing our ideas and innovation?

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