Using water wisely – Recommendations for the Post-2015 agenda

Development Policy26 Mar 2013Saskia Hollander, Karlijn Muiderman

The contributors to ‘Prioritising Water’ offered a wide range of sometimes detailed recommendations on how the post-2015 agenda should address the key challenges discussed during the debate. Below we take a look at these recommendations in the context of a number of broader lines of thought.

Nexus approach

There was a broad consensus among the contributors on the need to develop an integrated framework which acknowledges the interconnection between water and other key global challenges, such as food and energy security, health, poverty, conflict resolution and environmental sustainability. Some participants put special emphasis on the ‘water-food-energy nexus’ (see for example Katharine Cross), which addresses competing water needs and the development of infrastructure for multiple uses of water. For example, as Arjen Hoekstra points out,85 per cent of humanity’s water footprint is related to the consumption of agricultural products, 10 per cent to industrial products and ‘only’ 5 per cent to domestic consumption. There is, however, considerable variation between countries, depending on demographic differences and the scope and character of their economies. Policy should therefore be no longer focus on specific isolated water needs, but integrate the total water cycle, from source to multiple uses (see for example Gerardo van Halsema; Riant Nugroho). As Johan Kuylenstierna argues, this implies for example that separate ‘water meetings’ or ‘water processes’ should be avoided. The interconnection between water and other development goals demands cooperation and knowledge-sharing between different sectors and academic disciplines, including agriculture, energy production, natural resource management, and engineering.

However, the practical implications of this nexus approach remain largely unaddressed, especially in terms of the character of the post-2015 framework. Policy coherence can be integrated in the mainstream – MDG-style – framework. This would imply not introducing new goals and targets for water management, but acknowledging that other goals and targets already imply a water dimension. It could also imply formulating water targets within other goals (for example introducing a water target within the education goal). More fundamentally, coherence can also mean abandoning the framework of separate goals in favour of a more context- specific approach stressing the interconnections between water and future challenges within a more broadly defined agenda.

Water as a vital resource

A first recommendation that can be derived from our debate is the need for a different perspective on water. According to many of our contributors, water should no longer be perceived as a commodity which can be traded and privatised without recognising that this has clear implications in terms of inequality. Instead, water should be seen as a vital resource, necessary for human life and economic welfare. Several contributors argued that such a shift has already partly been made by UN resolution 64/292, which recognised access to drinking water and sanitation as a basic human right. However, as Jerry van den Berge argued, we need to exert pressure on governments to make sure that resolution 64/292 is implemented into national legislation. Water as a human right entails a clear responsibility for national and local authorities in providing water. As the market has no incentive to deliver water and sanitation to the most remote and poorest areas, governments must take on this responsibility, which might imply cross-subsidising.

We, as a global community, should also take responsibility for treating water as a vital resource and recognising its intrinsic value. As Sister Jayanti pointed out, this change starts above all at individual level. A wide range of participants, from business, civil society, youth and spiritual organisations, called attention to the need to raise consumer awareness about how they use and waste water, directly and indirectly. A comprehensive water development framework can only be developed with such a change of perspective.

Alternative partnerships based on participatory policy-making

Perceiving water as a public good implies that it should also by managed by the public. In many countries, this would require vast investments in the public sector. As Sunil Tankha clearly showed, many public authorities in developing countries suffer from inefficiency and corruption. Several contributors suggested that one way of tackling failing public authorities, without outsourcing responsibility to private companies or setting up public-private partnerships (PPPs), is to establish public-public partnerships (PUPs). PUPs are based on cooperation between actors like public authorities, trade unions, academic institutions, and civil society organisations. As Riant Nugroho explained, it is important that water allocation and implementation policies are decentralised, based on local contexts and needs. This means creating community ownership by ensuring that decision-making is participatory, inclusive and transparent.

Integrating the ‘S’ factor

An important issue in the debate was how to integrate the ‘S’ factor (sustainability) in the post-2015 development agenda (see Marco Schouten). Getting all countries, including the emerging industrial states, implies ensuring that new goals do not impose sustainability targets that restrict economic growth (see Muiderman, ‘Post-2015: SDGs or Post-MDGs?’). This was also a vital issue in the pre-MDG negotiations, explaining why the MDGs contained very few sustainability measures. Many contributors to the debate saw the post-2015 process as a new opportunity to make a change. They disagreed, however, on how to do this exactly, viewing the issue from two different angles: adopting the mainstream MDG framework with measurable goals and targets, or devising a more overarching perspective and making sustainability a central theme in the post-2015 agenda. Authors like Julia Bucknall and Marco Schouten favoured the first route, arguing that we need global standards to measure sustainability, with respect to both water consumption and water-related risk management. A lack of such standards has led the water sector to focus predominantly on more easily quantifiable WASH indicators rather than on sustainable water resource management, water quality and wastewater management.

One advocate of an integrated approach, Johan Kuylenstierna, argued that this will enable sustainability to be put high on the post-2015 agenda. This can be achieved by, for example, making sustainability an overarching theme, implying the need to be aware of the environmental effects of policies and actions in other sectors. Rather than developing specific goals and targets, global mechanisms like carbon and phosphate taxing, should be introduced (see Huub Savenije) to enhance environmental sustainability.

Sustainability can also be promoted within a global trade agenda, for example by regulating the virtual water trade (the hidden flow of water in food or other commodities) idem GPGs (see Arjen Hoekstra). This would make sure that water-intensive products are no longer produced in and exported by water-stressed countries.

Box 4: Designing the Post-2015 agenda

The Broker will be following the wider Post-2015 process closely in the upcoming dossier on Post-2015. The United Nations are mobilizing Member States, civil society, academia, trade unions and the private sector to design the next generation of global development goals. The eleven thematic consultations cover: conflict & fragility, education, energy, environmental sustainability, hunger- nutrition & food security, governance, growth & employment, health, inequalities, population dynamics, and water. As the MDG’s will expire in 2015, the big question is what the goals should look like in order to sustain the kind of global enthusiasm that inspired a world wide commitment to make poverty history.

The information that will be generated through consultations should influence the proceedings of the UN International High-Level Panel on post-2015. This Panel, composed of 27 eminent persons, will meet for the fourth time at the end of March 2013 in Bali before presenting its concluding advise in May to UN Secretary general Ban Ki-Moon on how to reshape an acceptable framework.

The latest progress chart published by the UN shows that not all the goals have been met and a logical route would be to just carry on with the unfinished business (see WEF report “Getting to Zero” for this view). A UN System Task Team, co-chaired by UNDESA and the UNDP, brings together senior experts from over 50 UN entities and international organizations. It is mandated to examine the success and shortcomings of the MDGs and to develop a vision.

However, the current development context demands urgent attention for the critical environmental challenges of this time. RIO+20 therefore led to an additional negotiation track: the UNGA Open Working Group that will work on a set of SDG’s in parallel to the HLP and submit their report to the 68th Session on UNGA in September

2013.1 The processes are most likely to result in a unified discussion where MDG’s will cover economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability.

Focus on inequality

One of the main issues in the debate was how to deal with unequal access to water. Different perspectives on this question reflected different perspectives towards the relationship between inequality and economic development. The business sector in particular – but also some government and semi- governmental agencies – have conventionally focused on promoting economic growth, seeing it as a prerequisite for reducing poverty and inequality, as economic development will eventually trickle down to the poor. This perspective is founded on the emergence of a middle class as economies develop. Guaranteeing access to water and sanitation for this emerging middle class will have a spill-over effect, reducing inequalities and eventually leading to water and sanitation for all. Water and sanitation projects have therefore often adopted a universal approach, covering entire geographical areas, based on the underlying assumption that this would boost human health and, subsequently, economic productivity. With a developed middle class, investments in water and sanitation will automatically increase, eventually benefiting those who have formerly been excluded from such policies (see Catarina Fonseca for overview).

Box 5: The Broker Inequality debate

The main question that has been at the heart of The Broker’s inequality debate ( from the very start is whether or not inequality should be an explicit goal of the post-2015 agenda. One of the thematic consultations of the post-2015 development agenda is dedicated to ‘addressing inequalities’, but addressing the structural causes of inequality is something else than tackling individual inequalities.

At first sight, inequality and inequalities may appear to be the same: certainly, a lack of equality in a society expresses itself in the economic, social and political exclusion of specific groups, such as the poor, women or children – in other words, its most vulnerable members. As the debate showed, there are many different categories of inequalities (e.g. economic, social or political), which are applicable to particular groups, like children, women or the poor. But examining the more systemic and structural factors that may lead to these inequalities means taking the structure of the global economy into account. The deregulation of financial markets, trade liberalisation or the privatisation of public goods (including water) are important drivers of global inequality.

In this respect, it is important to distinguish between inequality as a cause and as a consequence. Take the relationship between inequality, poverty and economic growth, for example. High rates of inequality might hinder economic growth, implying that inequality may cause sustained poverty. But this causality can also be reversed: if the poor are hindered from participating in society because they lack the financial and other means to do so, inequality in the economic (access to labour markets), social (access to education and health provision) and political (participating in policy-making processes) spheres might worsen, which could interfere with economic growth. Most of the MDGs are therefore targeted at improving these basic social needs. Universal access to clean water and sanitation, for example, might improve people’s health, which will in its turn strengthen their position on the labour market.

Furthermore, one kind of inequality may lead to another: unequal opportunities in education could in the future increase inequalities on the labour market. In this respect, both inequality of opportunities and inequality of outcomes must be taken into account. Or, to put it in the words UN System Task Team: “Most of the world’s poor people occupy highly disadvantaged starting positions [inequality of opportunities], which impede the development of their capabilities as well as their ability to capitalize on opportunities. Focusing only on the symptoms and manifestations of poverty or exclusion (e.g. lack of income, education or health), rather than their structural causes (e.g. discrimination, lack of access to resources, lack of representation), has often led to narrow, discretionary measures aimed at addressing short-term needs.” In other words, the post-2015 agenda should aim at an integrated approach to inequality, which takes both the causes and consequences on inequality into account, and analyses the relations between different kinds of inequalities.

Other contributors, especially from civil society but also development economists, challenged this view. For them, inequalities – including inequality of access to water and sanitation – are a constraint to economic development. Representatives of civil society in particular argued that policies aimed at universal access and entire geographical areas do not necessarily reach everyone. Experience has shown that introducing universal access to water does not automatically result in trickle down to the socially excluded, for example the masses of people who are active in the informal sector and often lack the social provisions available in the formal economy. Specific targets should therefore ensure that the most vulnerable in society (children, women and the poor) are able to benefit from improved access to basic provisions. This will also boost economic development. As Catarina Fonseca said, ‘Rising inequalities are a global concern, economically inefficient and will not deliver a better world in the future’.

Addressing inequalities should be central in the post-2015 agenda. Not only because unequal access to water and sanitation pose a threat to human and economic development, but also because UN resolution64/292 provides a legal framework for recognizing water and sanitation as a basic human right. This is an incentive for all sectors to reduce disparities in water and sanitation supply. To achieve this, policies aimed at universal access to water and sanitation should take account of socioeconomic and cultural structures (see for example Vivienne Bennett; Laurens Higler). Again this could either mean addressing inequalities by specifying targets (as advocated by Catarina Fonseca) or addressing water within a broader agenda on inequality, stressing the interconnection between water, inequality and development.

An international legal framework

As many participants in the debate pointed out, water scarcity will increasingly become a potential source of conflict. Catherine Brölmann argued that international law has an important role to play in this respect. International water law is poorly developed and water has long been perceived as part of sovereign territory. Developing a legal framework for water governance has therefore been difficult. In the absence of a world constitution or central legislator, global water governance still largely evolves on the basis of freely agreed, loose commitments by territorially sovereign states. UN resolution 64/292 provides a clear legal framework for water governance and should be perceived as the first entry point for international law to play a role.

…but within what kind of agenda?

While the contributors agreed that these issues should be addressed in the post-2015 development framework, the question of how remains unanswered. This is partly because there is still no certainty about what form this framework should and eventually will take. As mentioned above, there is a clear difference between those opting for a mainstream MDG framework with a limited number of separate quantitative goals and targets – which eventually implies a choice between introducing a separate water goal or not – and those who prefer a more comprehensive approach within a more broadly defined agenda, stressing the more systemic causes of the challenges that lie ahead in an integrated manner. Prioritising Water may not have produced a conclusive answer to this question, but it did show that greater coherence is needed, whether this is within or outside an MDG-style framework.


  1. 1. UN (2012). UN Systems Taks Team on the Post-2015 development agenda, ECE, ESCAP, UNDESA, UNICEF, UNRISD, UN.