A multisectoral water agenda

Saskia Hollander | February 06, 2013

Due to the relationship between water and current global challenges, such as global trade regulation, food and energy security, environmental sustainability and conflict resolution, the formulation of the post-2015 development goals requires a coherent and multidisciplinary agenda on water cooperation.

Water is the only natural resource for which there is no substitute. Yet, with an ever-growing world population, water will increasingly become a scarce resource. This not only has an effect on the drier regions in the world, but impacts upon the global community as a whole. For instance, as food and energy production both depend heavily on water supply, water scarcity is closely related to guaranteeing food and energy resources. Moreover, local water problems – both water scarcities and water abundance due to floods – are not principally the result of local water use, but increasingly the effect of global – economic – processes. Entire ecosystems are affected by local water pollution and, furthermore, changed climate conditions lead to extreme periods of drought and floods. Also, it is expected that due to water shortages and pollution, water will increasingly be a source of conflict. Due to these interconnections it has become acknowledged that global water cooperation should be high on the post-2015 development agenda in order to target these key global challenges

For this reason, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly declared 2013 as the international year of water cooperation. The objective of this year is to raise awareness both of the challenges facing water management and of the potential for increased global water cooperation. Generally, ‘water’ has been targeted in an isolated and sectoral way. Approaches to water supply management have been mainly technical and fragmented, either aimed at improving sustainable water management and use, or at providing safe drinking water and sanitation in developing countries. In addition, these approaches have generally led to top-down institutions which lack legitimacy and local ownership. 1  Yet, as current key global challenges – as outlined above – are closely connected to water issues, coherence is needed between water policy and the other post-2015 development goals. This interconnectedness requires a multidisciplinary approach and  above all global water cooperation.   

Water and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

Water supply management has conventionally been a key element of development policy. During the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, one explicit target was formulated on water. MDG7c aims to halve the proportion of the population without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. Moreover, it is widely recognized that a reliable supply of clean drinking water and sanitation is vital to fulfill the MDGs on health, education, and poverty reduction in general. Due to the subsequent reduction of water-related diseases, such as diarrheal disease, dengue fever and  schistosomiasis, clean and accessible drinking water and sanitation are vital prerequisites for universal education and will boost a country’s economic productivity. Enhancing the quantity and quality of the domestic supply of water  in developing countries has thus the potential of becoming a virtuous cycle  that improves the development of poor people. 2 This is especially the case for women and girls, as in most societies the task of collecting water falls to them. 

The post-2015 development agenda on water

The focus on universal access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) will probably remain to be a key element in the post-2015 development agenda. It composes one of the consultations leading up to the formulation of the post-2015 agenda. What is more, in 2010 safe and clean drinking water was recognized by the UN General Assembly as a basic human right, ‘indispensable for leading a life in human dignity’ and a ‘prerequisite for the realization of other human rights’.  Yet, as long as water supply management is targeted in an isolated way, these water aims will hardly be met. Rather, the formulation of the post-2015 development agenda requires a multidisciplinary approach in which water is less and less treated as independent sector, but perceived as a crucial global public good which should be managed by a global, integrated and participatory approach. The interconnectedness between water and key global challenges demonstrates the necessity of global water cooperation as a vital means to establish an overarching and multisectoral agenda on water. 3 

Water and global trade regulation

Water is a vital element in international trade regulation. While water supply has traditionally been a service provided by government, nowadays local, national and multinational private water corporations, such as the Dutch water company Veolia, the French Suez water company and the British RWE Thames Water company, are increasingly participating in the water sector in public-private partnerships. Subsequently, water has increasingly become a global commercial commodity. Those in favour of private sector participation in water supply and management argue that this is necessary due to corruption and the inefficient use of water resources by government actors. Indeed, in many developing countries private corporations are responsible for providing drinking water and sanitation due to direct government failure. Yet, a study of the World Bank has found that, although the increase in drinking water access and sanitation is facilitated by private corporations, it is mainly financed by international development aid, and hence, cannot be attributed to privatization alone.   Moreover, due to the side-effects of these public-private partnerships, it is increasingly argued that global regulation– for example when it comes to the issue of water tariffs – is needed.  

One of these side-effects is highlighted in the debate on ‘water grabbing’.  In many developing countries, the local population is deprived of water resources due to the distraction of these resources by domestic and transnational companies and – corrupt – governments. This process of grabbing is closely linked to processes of privatization – interference of private companies in the water sector – and commodification – the conversion of water from a public good to a commercial commodity. Private companies – both industrial and agricultural – mainly aim to control abundant and cheap supplies of natural resources, such as food, water and energy in order to make more profit. 4 This results in a highly unequal distribution of ‘water footprints’ – defined as the total volume of freshwater used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or nation. High water footprints in one country may lead to deprivation of water resources in other parts of the world – mainly developing countries. For instance,  importing water-intensive products like coffee and chocolate diverts natural water resources from local populations, leaving importing countries with considerably higher water footprints than others. 5 Thus, in order for  the global community to live up to UN resolution  64/292 on the right to water, the link between global trade regulation and water scarcity needs to be targeted. 

A key challenge for global water cooperation is the international trade in virtual water.  An increasing number of water-short countries, most particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, seek to preserve their domestic water resources by importing water in virtual form. This implies that these countries import water-intensive products  and export products that are less water-intensive. According to the economic theory of comparative advantage, transfer of water in virtual form can be an efficient way to decrease water scarcity problems since transfer of real water over long distances is very costly and economically unfeasible. Global cooperation can help to regulate the trade in virtual water. For example, further removal of trade barriers (often affecting countries where water is scarce), particularly with respect to agricultural commodities, will facilitate increased international trade in water intensive commodities, which might provide a solution to the problem of water grabbing. Yet, global regulation might be needed to manage these processes. As Arjen Hoekstra (2006)  argues: ‘Effective governance of the world’s water resources will require some type of coordination of the global water market, similar to the case of oil, where OPEC is one of the institutions that plays such a coordinative role.’ 6  

Water and food & energy security

There is a close relationship between water scarcity and the global agenda on food and energy security. Both sectors depend heavily on water resources. The agricultural sector, the world’s largest consumer of water, is increasingly pressured by a growing demand for food. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated: ‘Over the coming decades, feeding a growing global population and ensuring food and nutrition security for all will depend on increasing food production. This, in turn, means ensuring the sustainable use of our most critical finite source, ¬ water.’ Raising efficiency and decoupling the sector from climate conditions have become key elements in agricultural development policy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that global energy demand will grow by more than one-third over the period to 2035.  Increased water scarcity thus seriously pressures this increased demand for energy. In order to guarantee energy supply, global energy cooperation is required to increase the production of renewable energy and more water-efficient energy-production.

Water and environmental sustainability

Global water cooperation is vital to encounter the global agenda on environmental sustainability. Water pollution impacts upon entire ecosystems. Therefore, an important issue in this debate is the – global – management and treatment of wastewater. Excessive use of fertilizers by the agricultural sector, trace metals in industry and concentrated disposal of nutrient-rich wastes in densely populated areas cause disturbances in the natural cycles and impacts upon the world’s water resources. Local water pollution is often the result of international trade and consumption of all sorts of products elsewhere, and thus should be managed at the level of the global community. Regulation is needed to make sure that water footprints are sustainable. A recurring issue in international debates – both by academics and civil society –  is to make sure that consumers pay for the negative effects of their water footprints, either through an international disposal tax on goods that produce water pollution, a water scarcity tax or an international water label for water-intensive products. 7  

In addition, environmental scientists mainly agree that local extremes such as floods and droughts are the result of changed global climate conditions, and that this is – and will continue to be – the direct effect of  human activity. 8 Yet, without global cooperation, water management measures – both with respect to the management of water scarcity and water flooding – will be caught up by climate change effects. One of the main challenges in this respect is to make sure that the sustainability targets – as set out during the Rio+20 top in 2012 – will resonate with  the broad post-2015 development agenda. 

Water and conflict resolution

A final challenge concerning the post-2015 agenda on water is the increased risk of water-related conflict. As water becomes scarcer, relatively less water has to be distributed among a growing population. Moreover, an increasing proportion of the world’s population is dependent on shared water. 9  Taking into consideration that water shortage and pollution are ever growing challenges, it is expected that water will increasingly be a source of conflict

Up till now, international law is only poorly developed. Global water cooperation will thus require ways of resolving water conflicts. The potential for this has been extensively examined by the Water Conflict Management and Transformation research group at Oregon State University, which has found that there are many instances in which water scarcity has resulted in cooperation rather than conflict once countries become aware of their shared interests and start to treat water as a commonly shared value rather than in terms of its ownership. The role of the global community implies facilitating agreements between countries that share a river basin. An example is provided by the UNESCO-IHE program ‘From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential’ (PCCP), which  facilitates multi-level and interdisciplinary dialogues to enhance peace and cooperation with respect to the management of transboundary water resources.

The connection between water and these global challenges illustrates the importance of global water cooperation as a crucial way to establish a multidisciplinary and cohesive post-2015 agenda. The Broker’s online consultation will bring together a range of experts who will share their perspectives on the priorities that lie ahead in formulating this agenda.

Photo credit main picture: GWOPA


  • 1.

    United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) ‘Integrated water resources management. Planning approach for small island developing states’,

  • 2.

    Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) (2005) ‘Making water a part of economic development: The economic benefits of improved water management and services’,

  • 3.

    See for further reading: Ganoulis, J, A. Aureli and J. Fried (eds.) (2011) Transboundary Resources Management: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Wiley-VCH Verlag & Co KGaA. 

  • 4.

    Franco, J. and S. Kay (2012) ‘The Global Water Grab: A Primer’,

  • 5.

    For example, citizens in the United States have  the largest water footprint: 2480 m3 per year compared to a world average of  1240 m3 per year, Hoekstra, A.Y. and A.K. Chapagain (2006) Water footprints of nations: water use by people as a function of their consumption pattern, Water Resources Management. 

  • 6.

    Hoekstra, A.Y. (2006) ‘The global dimension of water governance: Nine reasons for global arrangements in order to cope with local water problems’, Value of water research report no. 20,

  • 7.

    Hoekstra, A.Y. (2006) ‘The global dimension of water governance: Nine reasons for global arrangements in order to cope with local water problems’, Value of water research report no. 20,

  • 8.

    Oreskes, N. (2004) ‘Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change’, in: Science, vol. 306, no. 5702, p. 1668.

  • 9.

    E.g. Egypt is highly dependent on the inflowing Nile water; Pakistan strongly depends on the water of the Indus, Cambodia on the water of the Mekong, Iraq on the Tigris and Euphrates.