The success of the International Hydrological Decade (1965-1974), which aimed to find solutions to the specific water resources problems of countries with different geographical conditions at different levels of technical and economic development, led to the founding of the International Hydrological Programme (IHP) in 1975. Realizing that water resources are often one of the primary factors limiting harmonious development in many regions and countries of the world, governments and the international scientific community saw the need for an internationally coordinated scientific programme focusing on water.
The first three phases of the Programme (IHP-I: 1975-1980; IHP-II: 1981-1983; IHP-III: 1984-1989) implemented over 70 projects of scientific and practical interest, guided by a number of international conferences. The hydrological cycle, water balance, surface and groundwater phenomena remained the main subjects of research, with the emphasis on the impact of people on water resources. In line with the recommendations of the 1977 Mar del Plata UN Conference on Water, the programme continued to evolve in this direction and increasingly directed its activities towards practical solutions of emerging water resources problems.
In 1984, it was decided that each Programme phase would be planned around one general unifying theme. The third phase of IHP focused on ‘Hydrology and the Scientific Bases for the Rational Management of Water Resources for Economic and Social Development,’ and began the process of questioning and analysing the role of hydrology as a scientific discipline, the potential unions between theoretical and applied aspects of hydrology, and the future interconnectedness of natural processes vis-à-vis human interventions in the field of environmental management.
In 1991 it was already clear that water would become a critical issue of global importance. Numerous indices of climatic and socio-economic development were complicating the tasks of planning and managing water resources systems: multiple objectives had to be defined, conflicting interests reconciled, and ecological, cultural and other constraints identified in order to attain the sustainable use of water resources. At this time, the focus at IHP shifted towards environmental evaluation and the interaction of water resources with ecology, society and culture. This led to a close cooperation of hydrology with the earth sciences and the social and human sciences. The former acted as the basis of water resources management, and the latter as tools of water resources management to better support planning and policy formulation.
IHP’s fifth phase set out to stimulate a stronger interrelation between scientific research, application and education, and identified groundwater and arid and semi-arid zone hydrology as priority areas. The emphasis was on environmentally sound integrated water resources management and planning, supported by a scientifically proven methodology within its overall theme. Its results continue to influence research and practice.
Finally, the current phase, IHP-VI (2002-2007) emphasizes the societal aspects of our water resources while also emphasizing the study of the occurrence and distribution of water within the natural environment. The addition of the social dimension underlines the need for an improved, more efficient assessment and management of our water resources, which in turn requires a much more accurate knowledge of the hydrological cycle.
As a result, the development of IHP-VI has been based on the fundamental principle that freshwater is as essential to sustainable development as it is to life, and that water, beyond its geophysical, chemical and biological functions in the hydrological cycle, has social, economic and environmental values that are inter-linked and mutually supportive. The launching of this effort coincides with what is seen by many water planners and managers to be a genuine shift in society’s approach to water development and management.
The strategies and themes of the next phase of IHP (IHP-VII: 2008-2013) are already being considered in light of the UN Decade of Action, ‘Water for Life’.
The IHP page on the website of UNESCO.
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