Water Resources Management: Sector Results Profile

April 11, 2014

Edwin Huffman/World Bank

The world will not be able to meet the great development challenges of the 21st century – access to safe drinking water and sanitation for all, livable cities, food security, energy security, jobs through economic growth, and healthy ecosystems – without improving how countries manage their water resources. Population and economic growth, along with increased climate variability, will further exacerbate current water stress. As one of the key external financiers in water resources management, the World Bank is actively working to address these challenges through cross-sectoral approaches that encompass infrastructure development, institutional strengthening, and a particular focus on the poor. Supporting water resources management in client countries is contributing to the World Bank Group’s twin goals of ending extreme poverty by 2030 and promoting shared prosperity for the poorest 40 percent of the population in every country.


Water is one of the most basic human needs and is indispensable to almost all economic activities, including agriculture, energy production, industry, and mining. With impacts on health, gender equity, education and livelihood, water management is crucial to sustainable economic development and the alleviation of poverty. Yet water is under unprecedented pressures as growing populations and competing economic sectors demand more of it leaving insufficient water to meet human needs, as well as sustaining the environmental flows that keep our ecosystems healthy. Groundwater reserves are depleted in many places, leaving current and future generations with close to no buffer against increased climate variability.

Worsening water quality resulting from a wide range of economic activities is reducing the available amount of fresh water, degrading land, impacting many terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and adding to the costs of water treatment.  Access to safe sanitation and water is still out of reach for 2.5 billion and 768 million people respectively, leading to thousands of lives lost daily and billions of dollars in economic losses annually.

Ample evidence exists that climate change will exacerbate the challenge by increasing hydrologic variability which will result in more frequent and intense weather events like droughts, floods and major storms. Experts estimate that by 2080, 43 to 50 percent of the global population will be living in water-scarce countries, compared to 28 percent today. A recent World Bank report, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C world must be avoided, suggests that in a 4°Celsius warmer world, water stress will increase in areas around the world. The roughly 1 billion people living in monsoonal basins and the 500 million people living in deltas are especially vulnerable. The poorest people will suffer the most and are the least prepared. 

Water-resources management issues have become so pressing that the World Economic Forum named water as one of its top challenges two years in a row, in 2013 and 2014. Within this changing physical and socio-economic landscape, water practices of the past are no longer adequate. Countries cannot grow sustainably, or strengthen their resilience to climate change, without smart water management that takes into account decreasing water availability and quality, and the need for deliberative allocation based on social, environmental, and economic needs.

Global water challenges require multi-sectoral solutions:

  • Water and agriculture: By 2050 the world will need to feed 9 billion people — 2 billion more than today’s population. This will result in a 50 percent increase in agricultural production and a 15 percent increase in already-strained water withdrawals. Already, the agricultural sector is by far the largest global user of water. Irrigated agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of total freshwater withdrawals worldwide. Yet, water is becoming increasingly scarce as a result of continued population growth, declining groundwater supplies and water quality issues. Climate change will worsen the situation by increasing water stress. Poorer countries contributing least to the problem will be most affected.
  • Water and energy: Today, over 1.2 billion people lack access to electricity. Currently, water withdrawals for energy are estimated at around 15% of global water withdrawals. At the same time, estimates show that by 2035, global energy consumption will increase by 35%, and while water use will become more efficient, actual water consumption by the energy sec­tor may increase by 85%.   
  • Water and sustainable cities: over the next 20 years, cities in developing countries will double and so will their demand for integrated approaches to managing water supply, water quality, sanitation, drainage, recreational use, and flood management.
  • Water and disaster risk management: Many of the impacts of natural disasters on socio-economic development occur through water. Water-related hazards account for 90% of all natural hazards, and their frequency and intensity is generally rising. Some 373 natural disasters killed over 296,800 people in 2010, affecting nearly 208 million others and costing nearly US$110 billion (Source: United Nations Secretary General Report to the 66th General Assembly on the Implementation of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. New York, UN).
  • Water and sanitation: at least 2.5 billion and 768 million people remain without access to improved sanitation and water, respectively. Providing these services sustainably requires integrated planning and management, including securing a quality water supply. 

Most economic activities (e.g. agriculture, energy, industry, and mining) affect not only the quantity but also the quality of water resources, thereby further limiting water availability. Allocation of limited water resources among competing economic sectors and environmental water needs will be an increasing challenge for many countries. Failing to establish appropriate allocation mechanisms will impede development, resulting in increased income inequality and exacerbating environmental pressures.


The World Bank is positioned to play a key role by working across sectors and countries to help communities build resilience to climate change through integrated water resources management (WRM). The Bank is one of the key providers of knowledge and technical assistance on water.  It is the largest multilateral donor for water development with a water portfolio accounting for 18 percent of its overall portfolio (representing 32 billion dollars in active commitments) as of 2014, with a clear focus on building foundations for shared prosperity and poverty alleviation.


On-the-ground results related to IDA and IBRD-financed activities can be highlighted in the following critical areas.

Climate change adaptation

World Bank-funded water resources management projects aim to increase countries’ preparedness in responding to climate change. For instance, in Vietnam, the World Bank supported in 2012 the completion of an adaptation prioritization methodology that could feed into the drafting of a National Adaptation Plan (NAP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This is especially important in Vietnam, which is home to fragile ecosystems such as the Mekong Delta, which is a source of food and livelihood for millions of people. 

Long-term planning in water resources and watershed management bring benefits to water supply, agriculture, aquaculture and eco-systems, and also helps to reduce the intensity of flooding or exposure to droughts.. In Yemen, US$45.2 million in IDA financing (2002-2008) provided vital flood control structures in the city of Taiz and its surrounding areas. By the project’s close, major parts of Taiz city were transformed into livable and flash flood-secure neighborhoods. The project contributed to an increase in land values by more than 100 percent, and a reduction in the number of damages to residential properties and businesses from 160 and 660 incidents per year to zero, and led to an additional US $ 35 million of IDA financing to support scale-up activities to enhance the development impact of the original project. Flood structures and complementary wastewater connections helped to improve health and sanitary conditions by reducing the wastewater flow into areas that were breeding grounds for malaria-infested mosquitoes.

Sustainable use of groundwater is also critical to drought and climate resilience, providing a sustainable water buffer during periods of low surface water availability.  The IDA-financed Sana’a Basin Water Management Project (2003-2010, US$24 million) was the first initiative in Yemen to address the crisis in groundwater depletion by reducing agricultural groundwater use of about 4,000 hectares (ha) of irrigated area and increasing groundwater recharge, which saved more than 15 million cubic meters of water annually extracted from the local aquifer.

Water and Energy Security

Significant amounts of water are needed in almost all energy generation processes, from generating hydropower, to cooling thermal power plants, to driving steam turbines in concentrated solar plants. Population growth and rapidly-expand­ing economies place additional demands on water and energy, and several regions around the world are already experiencing significant water and energy shortages. To address these challenges, the World Bank is pioneering a number of innovative solutions, from the largest public insurance against droughts and high oil prices in Uruguay ($450 million) to protect consumers against high and volatile electricity prices in case of drought, to developing integrated water and energy planning tools under the Thirsty Energy initiative in South Africa.

Hydropower is currently the world's largest source of affordable renewable low-carbon energy. The IBRD-funded Vietnam Trung Son Hydropower Project (US$330 million) approved in fiscal year (FY)11 aims to supply least-cost electric power in a safe and environmentally sustainable way. The first phase of dam-building started in December 2013 and will be completed in 2017;  at completion, the project is expected to produce an average of 1,019 gigawatt hour (GWh) of electricity a year, help control annual flooding in the river valley downstream, and supplement water supplies for agricultural use during the dry season. In FY10, IDA contributed US$85 million in additional financing for the 60MW Felou Hydroelectric Project in Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea and Mali as a means of increasing access to stable, reliable, and affordable electricity to the citizens of the Economic Community of West African States.

Water and Food Security

Agriculture is the largest user of water worldwide; and in many low-income countries, agriculture employs the largest share of people. Most viable agricultural land is already being used, and the significant growth in output required to feed the world’s growing population will take place mostly on irrigated land.

The On-Farm Irrigation Project in the Kyrgyz Republic (2000-2013, US$20 million) was designed to increase crop production through reliable and sustainable water distribution in formerly state and collective farms. A core activity has been strengthening services to about 450 water users associations, including training and support. Considerable success was achieved in establishing and improving water user associations. Over 50,000 people were trained, and approximately 450 user associations, with 166,000 members, were formally registered to manage irrigation areas covering 710,000 hectares, or about 70 percent of the country's irrigated land.

In China, the Hai Basin Integrated Water and Environment Management Project (completed in 2011) promoted an integrated approach to water resource management and pollution control, and contributed to the restoration and protection of marine environment, ecosystem and biodiversity in the Bohai Sea. It was implemented in 16 counties in northern China, benefitting over 20 million people. Better water use and pollution control in the Basin has improved local health and living standards, eliminated odors, and ameliorated aesthetic and recreational conditions. Farmers also benefited from more efficient consumption-based irrigation management, which increased water productivity, crop yields, and household incomes. In the longer term, benefits will also accrue to fishers and people fringing the Bohai Sea through improved water quality, fishery stocks and biodiversity.

Developing ownership of water resource management at the local level

Institutions in water resources management span the range of local, basin, national and international levels. With the support of IBRD, Colombia (US$800 million total) introduced a number of reforms for improved environmental management, including water resources. The government approved a national policy for water, and created a Water Resources Group in the Ministry of Environment, Housing, and Territorial Development. This is the first centralized group responsible for planning and budgeting activities related to water resources management in the country. At least 25 municipalities adopted watershed management plans in areas of water scarcity in order to manage and monitor valuable national resources better.

Strengthening partnerships to leverage knowledge and innovative technologies are an important part of the response. For example, the World Bank recently provided a US$5 million grant to improve water resource and agricultural management within, and across, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, and the Arab Water Council. The World Bank partnered with NASA and USAID to bring state-of-the-art remote sensing technology to help increase both access and capacity to monitor droughts and floods. The beneficiaries are ultimately farmers and their families who can make better informed decisions about their crops. It also helps better water management decisions.

Trans-boundary River Management

With 263 international rivers in the world, supporting their cooperative management is an important contribution for fostering gains from water resources use and thus contributing to poverty alleviation. The Bank supports the joint management of trans-boundary watercourses in various ways, especially in Africa. In the Senegal River Basin, IDA-financed projects have contributed to more effective management of the resources of the Senegal River and to the inclusion of Guinea into the organization responsible for this management, enabling integrated water resources management in the entire basin. The donor supported Cooperation in International Waters in Africa initiative has advanced trans-boundary programs in the Nile, as well as in Southern and West Africa. For instance, the Rusumo Falls Hydroelectric Project, a joint undertaking and collaboration between Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania, is expected to be completed in 2016 and represents a major milestone for trans-boundary cooperation for the Nile and the participating countries. In the Mekong River Basin, the Bank is supporting riparian states to strengthen their integrated water resource management and disaster risk management capacities, cooperating closely with the Mekong River Commission that manages the basin. 

Bank Group Contribution

The World Bank funding for water resources management amounted to about US$8.08 billion across projects approved during fiscal years 2004-2013.  In FY11 as well as FY12, World Bank funding for water resources management amounted to US$1.2 billion; in FY13, it amounted to US$ 800 million.


The Bank collaborates with partners to support innovation in integrated water resources management. Given the broad reach of water resources management needs and initiatives, this type of collaboration has been significant.

The World Bank strengthens the quality of its water projects through additional support from Global Partnership Programs.

The Bank’s Water Partnership Program (WPP), a multi-donor trust fund, contributes to the Bank’s efforts to reduce poverty by bolstering operational and analytical work through the mainstreaming of pragmatic approaches for water resources management and water supply and sanitation service delivery. Under its first phase (2009-2012), the program helped influence almost US$11.7 billion in Bank financing and secured access to improved water and sanitation services for more than 50 million people. Under the WPP's second phase (2013-2016) more than $40 million will be committed to tackling water challenges by working at the nexus of food, energy and water security, and by supporting paths to climate-resilient, green growth.

Significant amounts of water are needed in almost all energy generation processes. Conversely, the water sector needs energy to extract, treat and transport water and both energy and water are used in the production of crops. To support countries’ efforts to address chal­lenges in energy and water management proactively, the World Bank with the support of WPP has embarked in 2013 on a global initiative: Thirsty Energy. The initiative aims to help governments prepare for an uncertain future, and break disciplinary silos that prevent cross-sectoral planning. Thirsty Energy demonstrates the importance of combined energy and water management approaches through demand-based work in several countries, thus providing examples of how evidence-based operational tools in resource management can enhance sustain­able development.

Next to innovative and often integrated water services solutions, WPP activities take a comprehensive approach to water resources, working at the river basin, delta, or country level to assess and define the best strategies for sustainable management. The program’s Water Expert Team (WET), which mobilizes high-level global expertise to meet complex and urgent demand, also devotes two-thirds of its support to World Bank water resources management programs that focus on improved decision making for disaster risk management and uncertainty under natural water variability and climate change impacts.

Established in 2009, the South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI) is a multi-donor partnership between the World Bank and the governments of United Kingdom, Australia and Norway. The overarching objective of SAWI is to: increase regional cooperation in the management of the major Himalayan river systems in South Asia to deliver sustainable, fair and inclusive development and climate resilience. SAWI supports activities related to the management of the Greater Himalayas transboundary water systems in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. The key rationale for engagement is to demonstrate and then to help achieve the mutual benefits of cooperation across shared river basins.

Cooperation in International Waters in Africa (CIWA) aims to support and assist riparian governments in Africa to work together to address and unlock the constraints on growth and development posed by international waters. Specifically, it focuses on strengthening regional cooperation, water resources management and development, and stakeholder engagement and coordination by enabling greater voice and accountability. The program is supported by Development Partners, including the UK, Denmark and Norway.

In March 2011, the World Bank signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the United States government to expand and enhance collaboration in the water sector. The Bank is working in close cooperation with 16 U.S. agencies to support developing countries in managing global water crises, such as the lack of safe drinking water and sanitation, diminishing aquifers, drought, flooding, and climate change impacts.

Moving Forward

Continuous Bank leadership and strengthened support will be critical to secure the above achievements and increase the benefits to poverty alleviation and sustainable development. The World Bank is currently developing a new vision for water that strengthens the water practice to deliver on the bold leadership aspirations and meet changing client need. The vision places water at the center of helping people, economies and ecosystems thrive and thus contributing to a world free of poverty. Moving forward the Bank will:

  • Strengthen efforts to address climate variability in Bank-financed projects through improved storage and other adaptation measures, flood control, and emergency response preparedness
  • Devote more resources to explore and strengthen the linkages between water and other sectors such as energy, agriculture and the environment, and support initiatives that aim at improving water allocation mechanisms and institutions
  • Ensure that water considerations are included in country-sectoral planning
  • Improve efficiency of water supply systems
  • Ensure that the food security agenda considers irrigation and work with clients to improve water efficiency of existing irrigation schemes
  • Strengthen the use and supply of data for decision making and dialogue between countries, and facilitate the integration of technologies for more reliable information
  • Continue its strong support to institutional reform and capacity building of relevant organizations, and strengthen global water partnerships for lasting impact


It is something Arwa Mohamed remembers well.   When it rained, the floodwaters in the streets in her Taiz neighborhood in Yemen were so high people were stuck for days “When it would rain and the kids were in school, we were afraid, because the floods would come and cut off the streets, and whoever was home - the mothers - would wait by the windows to see their children coming, and scream out ‘don’t try to cross, it is dangerous.’  The flood once even swept away an old woman and her grandchild.” Finally, says Arwa, “her neighborhood is safe.” The rain waters still come, but now travel underneath her neighborhood, instead of through it, by way of a covered channel.  “Now we have these nicely paved streets, and we can cross even during floods, but before, we were completely cut from life when it rained, see what I mean?”

Shawki Ahmed Hayel Saeed, Taiz Local Council and businessman “It was not only the improvements of solving the problems of the water flooding that happened in Taiz in the last few years, but it was also for the additional contracts that were implemented in these projects, for  paving and asphalting a lot of streets in the city, employing a lot of people, and also helping the local council in training and improving the revenues for the people’s  participation in the project in Taiz.”

For 28-year old grocer, Amin Jibari, the project has finally brought security to his basement home “ no more, everything now is good, after they built the channel and a protection wall, the floods don’t come here, we are relaxed, no flooding!” Amin says since the construction of a covered channel nearby, he and his family of five are no longer in danger!

Saved 15 million
cubic meters of water annually extracted from the local aquifer as a result of irrigation area improvements in Yemen