Defining the SDGs and the associated indicators will not be easy but the global community should make an extensive effort to put sustainability high on the post-2015 water agenda.
As the target date of the Millennium Development Goals – 2015 – approaches, it is clear that the outcomes are very uneven. Economic progress since 2000 has been stunning in some countries and regions, and global poverty levels have fallen quite drastically. Access to water has improved. Yet, access to safe sanitation systems is actually worse than it was 13 years ago. And how to gauge the success of measures to prevent hunger? The proportion of people without adequate access to food has declined, but the total number of hungry people remains about the same. The statistics can be interpreted in many different ways.
More importantly, as we look ahead and develop the SDGs, we need to ask what is actually missing from the MDGs - and by extension, from the international development policy agenda. Pressure on natural resources, for example, continues to mount dramatically, not least as a result of successful economic development and continued population growth. Scarcity of basic resources such as land and water is increasingly limiting countries’ development options, and it has the potential to cause competition and conflicts with global implications. Billions of people still lack access to modern energy sources, another necessity for development, which makes every day a struggle for them. Yet the global goals set in 2000 did not cover broader resource scarcity or energy access, nor did they consider ecosystem degradation, climate change, and other challenges at the intersection of development and environment. Some of these issues have been addressed through other global processes, but with only limited success.
Now, with the SDGs, we have a chance to do better. But how?The first question is whether we just need to update and build on the MDGs, or take a whole new approach. Let’s look at water, for example: The MDGs offered quite specific goals related to household access (to water and later sanitation) but much less guidance or targets related to water resources – apart from a later decision to call for integrated water resources management (IWRM) plans at Rio+10 in Johannesburg, in 2002. The SDGs should clearly continue to prioritize access to safe water and sanitation – with the target now being full access for all. Yet we also need an open discussion about setting strategic goals related to water resources.
A good approach might be to build on the ‘nexus’ concept: the recognition that water is closely connected to a number of development challenges, human security and the environment. Political leaders are increasingly aware of the nexus; now they need to apply it to the SDG process. What would this require? First of all, let us avoid separate ‘water meetings’ or ’water processes’, but rather ensure that water is discussed in the broader context of food security, energy and other development issues. For water experts and advocates, this will mean getting outside their comfort zones and really engaging with those responsible for water use, planning and management, to understand the realities they face. It is policies, strategies and actions related to agriculture, energy, urban development and industrial planning that will shape the water future.
The post-2015 goals must also consider other aspects of water security, such as the valuing of ecosystem services. As water becomes scarcer, there will be a strong push to maximize productivity, and the risk is that we will focus too narrowly on ‘crop per drop’ or ’revenue per drop’. That will inevitably favour irrigation and (well-paid) urban use at the expense of ecosystems – yet ecosystems are not just inherently valuable, but also economically valuable in the services they provide. Can such aspects be integrated in SDGs?
Finally, the new goals must also dare to address politically sensitive considerations. After all, they are called ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ and should be integrative; deal with potentially conflicting objectives; contain economic, social and environmental dimensions, and be universally applicable and locally relevant. As an example, transboundary water resources management cannot be left out in the cold. Bioenergy and competition with agriculture (both water and land) must be tackled. The role of water in climate adaptation is a must. The list can be long.
Defining the SDGs and the associated indicators will not be easy. But who said it would be easy to strike a balance between ensuring equitable development for a fast-growing population and sustaining a healthy environment and its life-supporting ecosystem services? We must be pragmatic. We must be ambitious. We must be realistic. Can it be done? It will be challenging, but there is no other option!
Photo credit main picture: sea turtle