Water Resources case study: How do different countries practice Integrated Water Resources Management?
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Learning Objectives


By completing this case study, you will be able to:

1. Explain the guiding principles of Integrated Water Resources Management.

2. Discuss the relationship between natural wetland sewage treatment and water quality standards in Cambodia.

3. Describe the competing uses of water in Malaysia.

4. Identify how governance structures impact water distribution in the southeast United States.





This case study draws on the ideas of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) to examine principles of water quality (in the context of Cambodia), competing water uses (in the context of Malaysia), and water governance (in the context of the United States).  Refer to pages 16 and 17 of the Conceptual Framework for important background information on the guiding principles of IWRM and the conditions essential for successful IWRM implementation. Although the three countries provide a geographical context for illustrating principles of IWRM, it is important to understand that flowing water does not naturally recognize political boundaries and that the issues discussed here can be international and transboundary in nature. It also is important to recognize that physical, social, cultural, political, and economic factors will differ regionally and that these various factors influence the path of IWRM implementation. The organization of this case study is presented in Figure 1.


Figure 1. Organization of the Case Study


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Suggested citation: Irvine, K., Mustafa, F. B., and Martin, R. 2010. Water Resources case study: How do different countries practice Integrated Water Resources Management? In Solem, M., Klein, P., Muñiz-Solari, O., and Ray, W., eds., AAG Center for Global Geography Education. Available from http://globalgeography.aag.org.


IWRM Principle 1. Water Quality - Natural Wetlands Treatment of Sewage Discharges from Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors, Cambodia (Figure 2) is relatively poor, ranking 124 of 169 countries based on the United Nations Human Development Index for 2010 (UNDP 2010); the percentage of population living below $2 and $1.25 per day in the period 2000-2007 was 68.2% and 40.2%, respectively (UNDP 2009). Environmental and socio-economic challenges in Cambodia have been summarized by Irvine et al. (2006).


Figure 2. Cambodia and Phnom Penh


IN DEPTH: Socio-economic and Environmental Challenges for Cambodia in the post-Khmer Rouge Period


Life expectancy in Cambodia has been increasing recently (now 60 years for men; 64 years for women) as the result of improving health care, and the GDP also has been increasing with greater manufacturing opportunities, but both still lag behind most Southeast Asian countries. Demographically, 33% of the population is age 14 or less and approximately 80% of the population is rural. There is a missing generation of technically skilled and educated people. All of these issues represent challenges to modern Cambodia and there remains a need for capacity building, but Irvine et al. (2010) concluded that the basic mechanisms (specifically laws, government agencies, and to some extent, public policy) are in place to begin implementing IWRM principles. The primary environmental issues facing Cambodia today include:


Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, has a population of approximately 1.4 million and is growing rapidly, at a rate of around 4% annually. The city is serviced by a combined sewer system with a network of underground sewer pipes (0.3-1.5 m in diameter) that drain to larger, open channels. These open interceptor channels are pumped to naturally-occurring wetlands located around the city for treatment before discharge to the Tonle Sap-Mekong-Bassac River system. A peri-urban community lives around the wetland and uses it for fishing and raising crops, including water spinach (Ipomoea aquatic) and water mimosa (Neptunia oleracea). As such, the wetland is a multi-purpose resource.


Click on the Photo Album Activity icon below to view a photo album of Phnom Penh's combined sewer system.

 Hyperlink to Photo Album Activity 


There is considerable concern, particularly from downstream stakeholders (e.g. Trinh Thi, 2010) as to whether the wetlands are effectively treating Phnom Penh's waste. In this part of the case study you will examine data to assess the treatment efficiency of the natural wetland and consider several associated issues.


IN DEPTH: Data needs to support IWRM decision-making


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Sample Collection


A full description of sample collection and analytical methodologies is provided by Yim et al. (2008) and Tiev et al. (2010). In brief, water grab samples were collected during dry weather and storm events within the major open sewer channels, at the middle of the largest treatment wetland (Boeng Cheung Ek), and at the outlet from Boeng Cheung Ek (leading to the Bassac River) (Figure 3). In this case study samples from the dry season only are examined. Continuous monitoring (measurements every 15 minutes) of dissolved oxygen, temperature, conductivity, pH, and turbidity was done using YSI 6920 datasondes (Figures 4-6) in the wetland near the Meanchey Channel input (Meanin) and at the outlet from Boeng Cheung Ek (Figure 7). 



 Figure 3. Sample Site Locations




Figure 4.Installing a YSI 6920 on a pole at the outlet channel from Boeng Cheung Ek. (Photo by Kim Irvine).




Figure 5.A YSI 6920 hanging from an anchor and float system at the Meanin site. (Photo by Kim Irvine).




Figure 6.YSI 6920 in hand, discussing a possible sample location near the middle of the Boeng Cheung Ek wetland. (Photo courtesy of Yim Mongtoeun).


As an added level of complexity to this system, it must be remembered that Cambodia experiences a monsoon climate with dry (generally December to May) and wet (June to November) seasons. During the dry and early and late wet seasons, flow moves directly from the sewage pump stations, through Boeng Cheung Ek, and to the outlet in the south (Figure 3).  During the wet season, water levels on the Bassac River are high enough so that fresh water flow enters the wetland via the outlet channel. Sewage continues to enter the wetland in the north during this time.


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The mean levels for selected contaminants are summarized in Table 1. Mouse-over the contaminant column headings to view the associated water quality standards and refer to the "Depth Box" below for more information about the standards. The data was collected as part of an International Foundation for Science (IFS)/Swedish International Development cooperation Agency (SIDA) team project. All parameters are arithmetic mean except for E. coli which is a geometric mean. See Yim et al. (2008) and Tiev et al. (2010) for details.


Table 1. Mean Contaminant Levels, Dry Weather Samples from Dry Seasons, 2007 and 2008 (n=14)






Total Phosphorus




E. coli/100 mL

Trabek Upstream






Trabek Downstream






Meanchey Upstream






Meanchey Downstream






Middle Boeng Cheung Ek






Outlet Boeng Cheung Ek







Results from the continuous monitoring with the YSI datasondes are shown in Figures 7 and 8. Data was collected as part of an International Foundation for Science (IFS)/Swedish International Development cooperation Agency (SIDA) team project and modified after Tiev et al. (2010).



Figure 7. Dissolved oxygen (15 minute time steps) from YSI datasondes in Boeng Cheung Ek near the Meanchey Channel discharge to the wetland (Meanin) and at the outlet channel from the wetland (Outlet).



Figure 8.Weekly mean YSI datasonde results at the outlet channel from Boeng Cheung Ek.



IN DEPTH: What are these water quality parameters?


 Water Resource Management Challenge


Several of the natural treatment wetlands around Phnom Penh (including Boeng Cheung Ek) are being filled in to make space for new construction in the city. Therefore, as the city continues to grow, it is simultaneously reducing its capacity to treat waste.


As noted earlier in the case study, a peri-urban community lives on Boeng Cheung Ek and uses the waters for fishing and raising water-based crops. Some concern has been raised regarding possible health impacts associated with these activities. These concerns are addressed in detail by Chea et al. (2010) and Ngoen-klan et al. (2010).


Pause and Reflect 1:

Given the data in Table 1, are the wetlands effectively treating wastewater?

How do these results compare to conventional (western) wastewater treatment plants?


Describe the daily and seasonal trends in dissolved oxygen. Why do we see these trends?


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IWRM Principle 2: Competing Water Uses in Malaysia


Most watersheds have competing uses for the available water. The competitive structure may be fairly simple in some watersheds (e.g. domestic use vs. agriculture vs. minimum flows for ecological purposes), while in other watersheds, such as the Laurentian Great Lakes Basin (U.S. and Canada), or the Colorado River (U.S.), there may be multiple stakeholders, including agriculture, domestic and municipal users, commercial and recreational fishing, industry, recreation, navigation, hydropower production, mining, wastewater disposal, and riparian landowners. Water is critical to all and when there is sufficient supply, conflict between competing demands is minimal. However, in the case of transboundary water issues (e.g. the Jordan module in this series or the Mekong River Basin), or when demand exceeds availability, a clear, but flexible water allocation plan is critical. UNESCO (2009) noted that a water allocation plan is one of the essential elements in successful implementation of IWRM and one of the eight IWRM principles (see the Introduction to Integrated Water Resources Management on pages 16 and 17 of the Conceptual Framework) is that water allocation should be agreed to between stakeholders within a national framework.


A first step in the development of an allocation plan, then, is to identify the stakeholders within the watershed and the volumetric and timing needs of these stakeholders. The stakeholder demands must be compared with available water, which of course must be based on hydrologic measurements and data collection (a theme echoed in the water quality discussions of IWRM Principle 1). It is worth recalling that the water allocation plan of the Colorado River Compact (1922) was based on flow data collected during a period of particularly high flows and as such, the allocated withdrawals cumulatively were greater than the long term mean flow for the river (Tarboton, 1995; MacDonnell et al. 1995).  The question then becomes, what uses get priority in the water allocation? Frequently the allocation decisions are based on economic optimization analysis (Babel et al., 2005), although such optimizations often do a dis-service to those stakeholders who already are economically and politically marginalized. Gleick (2000) concluded that we are experiencing a paradigm shift in water resources management that emphasizes meeting basic human needs for water services, incorporates ecological values into water policy, and starts to break the ties between economic growth and water use. In the next part of this case study we highlight the ecological, social (human needs), and economic uses of water within the Malaysian context.


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Malaysia's Physical Geography


Malaysia lies just north of the equator and comprises Peninsular Malaysia which is the southernmost part of the Asian mainland, as well as Sabah and Sarawak, known as East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo (Figure 9). 


Figure 9. Malaysia


 The climate of Malaysia generally is classified under the Koppen Climate Classification scheme as an Af, Tropical Wet climate (Figure 10), with some small areas of a Highland climate (H).



Figure 10. Climograph for Kuala Lumpur. (Data source: WorldClimate).


The Sungai Perak (390 km), Sungai Selangor (80km) and Sungai Muar (190 km) Rivers, which drain into the Straits of Malacca and the Sungai Kelantan (250 km) and Sungai Pahang (500 km) Rivers which drain into the South China Sea, are among the major rivers in Peninsular Malaysia. In East Malaysia, the two principal rivers are the Sungai Rajang in Sarawak and Sungai Kinabatangan in Sabah. The Sungai Rajang (760 km) is the longest river in Malaysia while Sungai Kinabatangan (560 km), draining much of the eastern state of Sabah, ranks as Malaysia's second longest river. The Golok River plays the role of an international boundary between Malaysia and Thailand, while several other rivers, including the Perak, Selangor, and Pahang form the boundaries between Malaysian states.


Malaysia's rivers generally flow in abundance, as a result of the high rainfall (Figure 10) and are still in a pristine and natural state in most places especially in the upstream reaches. Headwaters generally originate in highland forest areas and the rivers exhibit distinct change along their course, going from high energy river systems to lower energy, meandering systems near the ocean (Figures 11 and 12).



Figure 11. A typical highland, headwater area. (Photo by Firuza Begham Mustafa).




Figure 12. The low energy estuary area of the Sungai Kelantan River. (Photo by Firuza Begham Mustafa).


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Competing Water Uses I: Biodiversity


We will look at competing water uses in Malaysian watersheds under three general categories: i) biodiversity; ii) economic; and iii) social.




Malaysian rivers are endowed with rich plant and animal life. Rivers support and sustain biodiversity within the river itself, along riverbanks and in the surrounding environment. As a river journeys from its highland origins on to its lower reaches, flora and fauna, both aquatic and wetland, differ along its course (WWF, 2010).


Click on the Photo Album Activity icon below to view a photo album of Malaysia's biodiversity. Photos by Firuza Begham Mustafa.

 Hyperlink to Photo Album Activity 


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Competing Water Uses II: Economic Activities




Rivers in Malaysia are used extensively for cage aquaculture (Figures 13 and 14).  The major rivers used for aquaculture production are the Sungai Merbok, Sungai Pahang, Sungai Selangor, Sungai Bernam, and Sungai Lebam. Cockles, shrimp, fish, mollusk and other marine and brackish water aquatic life also are reared and details regarding the Malaysian brackish aquaculture industry are provided by Mustafa and Ibrahim (2010). 



Figure 13. Aquaculture in Malaysian rivers; Sungai Pahang River. (Photo by Firuza Begham Mustafa).



Figure 14. Sungai Pahang River. (Photo by Firuza Begham Mustafa).





About 70% of all available freshwater is used for agriculture.  Major cash crops are rice paddy, oil palm, rubber, coconut and tobacco (Figures 15 and 16). The States of Selangor, Perak, Pahang and Johore are the highest agricultural producers in Malaysia. Overall, agriculture is less important as a source of employment in Malaysia than in many of its Southeast Asian neighbors (Figure 17) and accounts for only 10.1% of the country's Gross Domestic Product (as compared to the industrial and service sectors at 42.3% and 47.6%, respectively (World Factbook 2010).



Figure 15. Oil palm plantations and banana farm in Sungai Tengkorak Kuala Selangor. (Photo by Firuza Begham Mustafa).




Figure 16. Coconut plantation in Sungai Tengkorak Kuala Selangor. (Photo by Firuza Begham Mustafa).




Figure 17. Agriculture labor force comparisons. (Data source: World Factbook 2010).




Some of the remote and interior villages in Sarawak, Sabah, Perak and Pahang depend on rivers for transportation. This traditional role of rivers continues even today though at a much smaller scale than before. Without alternative modes of transportation and limited access, rivers provide the sole means to get in touch with the outside world (WWF, 2010) (Figure 18).


Figure18aNEW.jpg Figure18bNEW.jpg  

Figure 18.Water transportation. (Photos by Firuza Begham Mustafa).


Hydropower Production 


For the period from 1996 to 2000, hydroelectric power output constituted between 7% and 12% of the total national energy generated annually and in 2010 it is estimated to account for 9% of generation in the country (Figure 19). It was estimated that 85% of the total hydropower potential of the country is found in the states of Sabah and Sarawak. Only approximately 2,000 mW of a potential 29,000 mW of hydropower have been constructed throughout Malaysia (Mohamed and Teong, 2004), but hydropower construction does not seem to be as contentious in Malaysia as it is in the Mekong Basin (Hirsch and Wyatt, 2004; Molle et al., 2009). 


Figure 19. Projected Fuel Mix in 2010 for Malaysia.




The tin mining industry was once a major contributor to the Malaysian economy, although its importance has declined considerably in the last 20 years. One of the common mining methodologies was floating platform dredging of alluvial deposits. Alluvial and fluvial deposits also are mined for sand for the construction industry (Figures 20).




Figure 20. Tin mining activities in Ipoh Perak. (Photo by Firuza Begham Mustafa).

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Competing Water Uses III: Social Uses




Kampung Air are a common village type in Sabah (Figure 21). They are located on the water near the river mouth or coastal areas. Typically the structures are built on stilts over the water and are connected by wooden walkways. These villages have become a major tourist attraction. Pulau Duyung (Mermaid Island) in the Terengganu River is a thriving village of fisherman and boat builders while raft houses are famous in the Pahang River (Figure 22). Traditional villages were established before the advent of roads and railways and abounded along the middle course of rivers. These riverine villages grew in size and later were linked by road and train e.g. Temerloh, Kuala Lipis, Alor Setar, Sungai Petani, Klang and Kuala Lumpur.



Figure 21. Kampung Air village. (Photo from Firuza Begham Mustafa).




Figure 22. Raft house on the Sungai Pahang. (Photo from Firuza Begham Mustafa).



Cultural Traditions


Malays Community: Mandi Safar (Safar bath-cleansing rites) historically was practiced by Malays communities, usually on the last Wednesday in the month of Safar in the Muslim calendar. Mandi Safar traditionally is a festival in which young people, chaperoned by elderly women, traveled to river banks (and seasides) and participated in traditional songs and dances the night before the ceremonial bathing. On the day of Mandi Safar all people immersed themselves in the river to cleanse themselves of spiritual impurity and to provide protection from future misfortune (Singaravelu, 1986). This festival seems to have developed from the connections between the Malay and Tamil communities and it now has been banned in Malaysia as it contravenes the teaching of Islam.


Chinese Community: The 15th day of Chinese New Year known as Chap Goh Mei where on this occasion young maidens throw mandarin oranges into rivers to wish for good husbands. Take a look at the news article "Fruitful attempt at looking for love" and the blog post "KY - CNY chap gor meh with fakeplan at Taman Jaya" for photographs.


Indian Community: Believes wedding invitations should be placed in running water to make the marriage life-long. The community also practices the ritual of taking a bath in the river to cleanse the soul. Local traditions also include Adi Perakku, celebrated on the 18th day in the month of Adi (July/August), in association with the waters of the River Kaveri and the start of cultivation.




Many Malaysian rivers have high recreational value, providing a variety of opportunities for outdoor activities. For the adventurous, the Pelagus rapids on Rajang River in Sarawak and the Padas, Tuaran and Papar Rivers in Sabah are popular for white-water rafting (Figure 23), while the Nenggiri River in Kelantan and Tembeling River in Pahang are favorite locations for kayaking and canoeing. Recreational fishing is also becoming popular, as is scenic trekking to the many waterfalls in the highlands. The rivers also are traditional play areas for children in rural communities (Figure 23).



Figure 23.White water rafting as a recreational activity. (Photo by Firuza Begham Mustafa).



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Figure 24. Traditional play areas. (Photos by Firuza Begham Mustafa).



Pause and Reflect 2:

Why do Malaysian rivers exhibit such high biodiversity?

 What impact would new hydropower construction have on other uses of a river? How could these impacts be mitigated?


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IWRM Principle 3: Water Governance in the Southeast United States


Appropriate water governance is a key aspect of IWRM. Appropriate water governance is underpinned by well-defined, flexible, and enforceable legal frameworks and regulation, water allocation plans, a political will and commitment to watershed management, and involvement of all stakeholders. UNESCO (2009) notes: Basin level water resources management should coincide with a national 'vision' and principles for sustainable development, but also reflect basin-specific issues in its management plans and implementation, involving basin-wide stakeholders in an appropriate manner. This simple statement by UNESCO captures the essence of appropriate water governance.


The Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, Flint (ACF) basin will serve as an example of the governance component of IWRM. The ACF basin consists of three rivers (Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint) whose watersheds intersect the state boundaries of Alabama, Florida and Georgia (Figure 25). The head waters of the Chattahoochee River are located in the southern Appalachian mountains of northern Georgia. The Chattahoochee River traverses the state, and becomes the border for Alabama and Georgia. The Flint River is located in the piedmont/coastal plains region of Georgia, south of the Chattahoochee. The confluence of these two rivers in the southwest of Georgia marks the beginning of the Apalachicola River. The Apalachicola River then continues south through the panhandle of Florida where it flows into the Gulf of Mexico. 


There are several dams of varying magnitude located on each of these rivers. The largest dam and where much of the controversy finds its home, is the Buford Dam on the Chattahoochee River. This dam is located northeast of Atlanta and forms Lake Sydney Lanier.


Figure 25. The Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, Flint (ACF) basin.


The water uses vary with each river. The Chattahoochee River is used primarily as a water source for the Atlanta Metro area, although several small municipalities also use the water (Figure 26). The Atlanta area has, in recent years, seen a population boom and is currently home to almost 6 million people. Obviously, all of these people are going to use a lot of water, however, it is very important to note that a large portion of the water used by Atlanta is treated and returned to the Chattahoochee. The Flint River primarily is used as the water source for agriculture in southern Georgia, which is a consumptive use. Agriculture withdraws less water than Atlanta, but the water of the Flint River often leaves the ACF watershed in the form of fruits and vegetables, and evapotranspiration. The water that then continues to form the Apalachicola river is used as a source of water for several small municipalities.


Oyster farming in the Apalachicola Estuary is a major industry for Florida (Figure 27). The existence of oysters relies on a delicate balance of salinity and nutrient flux, between the fresh water discharge of the Apalachicola River and the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico (Wilber, 1992). Reductions in discharge can result in higher salinity further into the estuary.



Figure 26. Sources of water for metropolitan Atlanta.





Figure 27. Oyster farming in the Apalachicola Estuary.


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Nature of the Water Wars


In order to fully understand the dispute it is necessary to put it in historical context. Under the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1946 (O'Day, 2009) the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received congressional approval to construct Buford Dam on the Chattahoochee River, forming Lake Sydney Lanier. The dam was completed in 1956. The ACF experienced droughts in the 1980's which prompted the U.S. Army Corp's re-evaluation of the water allocations (Ruhl, 2005). These re-allocations favored the water needs of Georgia, which caused the "water wars" to begin officially. In 1990 Alabama, concerned about the impacts of the ever increasing Atlanta area, filed a suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (O'Day, 2009). Florida soon entered into the dispute to protect the Apalachicola Bay estuary. The three states and the U.S. Army Corps commenced discussions to solve the dispute. These negotiations lasted until 1997, when the ACF Compact was approved by Congress and the President (O'Day, 2009). The ACF Compact did not allocate water, but it requires that the states share data and work together to solve any dispute that may arise; meanwhile the states would actively seek a permanent water allocation agreement (O'Day 2009). By August of 2003, after several extensions of the deadlines set forth in the ACF Compact, the compact expired leaving the states in essentially the same position as before the compact was signed (Ruhl, 2005). The states were once again looking to the Supreme Court to solve the issue.


In 2007 the ACF and the entire southeast experienced record droughts. The population of Atlanta was still growing and as a result, the water of Lake Sydney Lanier was depleted so that the pool depth reached a record low of 20 feet (6.1 m) below normal. A certain quantity of water was required to be released to satisfy Florida, downstream. However, Atlanta needs to store that same water in order to serve its population. With this drought the "water wars" gained a new vigor. It was apparent that the population of Atlanta required large amounts of water, but Florida needed to maintain the ecologic balance of its estuaries.


In 2009 a federal judge ruled that Congress had never authorized Lake Sydney Lanier to be used as the water supply for Metro Atlanta, despite the fact that this lake provides 75% of the water Atlanta needs. The State of Georgia was given three years to either reduce its dependence on Lake Lanier, or reach an agreement with Florida and Alabama.


Pause and Reflect 3:

Why are the Flint River water uses not being questioned? Why is all the blame on the city of Atlanta and Lake Sydney Lanier? Consider the difference between consumptive and non-consumptive water uses. How could water be used more efficiently within the watershed, so that Florida gets the amount it needs?


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