Water and the post-2015 development agenda

Development Policy14 Feb 2013Pieter van der Zaag

The post-2015 agenda on water calls for more cohesion and less pragmatism.

2015, the year when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) need to be achieved, is coming closer. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed satisfaction that several of the MDGs will have been achieved by then, including the target to halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water. But there is no reason to be complacent. Many targets, such as those for hunger and sanitation, will not have been reached at all. Moreover, questions may be asked whether the goals and targets formulated in 2000 were the right ones (why, for example, was there no target to reduce the loss of lives caused by natural disasters, such as droughts, floods, hurricanes and tsunamis?), were ambitious enough (despite the drinking water target being achieved, at least 20% of the world’s rural population still have to use water from unsafe sources), whether the Global South had sufficient ownership in setting the agenda (who drove the goals?), and whether the entire MDG process made any difference.

We recall the then minister Agnes Van Ardenne committing Dutch development cooperation to bringing safe water and sanitation to 50 million households, which gave us a ‘back to the future’ feeling, reminding us of the Drinking Water Decade of the 1980s, of number games (how many water sources were formally commissioned/repaired more than once?), and of single-issue approaches (bringing water to people is one thing, but safely disposing of if after use is equally important). It also reminds us of the increasing influence of development economists who insist on quantitative and statistical evidence of development effectiveness.

So what’s next? The UN system is gearing itself towards formulating a post-2015 development agenda. This agenda is likely to “build on the MDG framework and keep the focus on human development, while addressing emerging challenges”.1 The question is: is it wise to box the agenda into a MDG-like framework? To be honest I cannot give a clear answer. But there is a danger that we will get an ‘MDG 2.0’ (known as the Sustainable Development Goals) that will proliferate many targets to suit many agendas of many different (and often opposing) interests. That would lack coherence, focus, drive and appeal. Perhaps that is why the UN observed that there is “the need not to overload the agenda”.2

I therefore make a case to reduce the number of targets to the bare essentials, and to include only those that can be clearly defined, unambiguously quantified and monitored at relatively low cost.

But the water sector is already rallying to claim new goals and targets – such as for water resources management, transboundary water cooperation and groundwater management. I would like to warn against such a pragmatic approach. Remember that the MDGs were already heavily infused by water. Some people believed that there was only one water target – the one on water and sanitation – but this was not so. At least five of the eight MDGs require good water management – in fact, they cannot be achieved without it:

• improved use of rainfall and irrigation water will increase and stabilize crop yields and may indirectly help to eradicate hunger (Goal 1 Target 2); increased access to productive water will also help to reduce poverty (Goal 1 Target 1)

• improved operation and maintenance of existing water supply systems and sanitation and sewer infrastructure and the construction of new facilities will significantly increase access (Goal 7 Target 10) and thereby reduce child mortality (Goal 4 Target 5) and the incidence of malaria and other waterborne diseases (Goal 6 Target 8), and will have a positive effect on maternal health (Goal 5 Target 6)

• recognition of the environment as a legitimate water user, improved water quality management and watershed management and nutrient recycling will all help reverse the current trend of environmental resources degradation (Goal 7 Target 9).In addition, the ’missing’ goal on disasters as well as most measures to adapt to climate change have clear and significant water dimensions. Thus, water was already everywhere, and it will remain there simply because water is integral to the development process.

According to the UN the development agenda should lead to “a shared, secure and sustainable future for all”.3 Efficient and judicious use and peaceful sharing of limited water resources will be one characteristic of such a future. The major constraining factor in getting there is not technical nor money – but actors making the right choices and decisions at various levels and scales, from repairing the leaking tap and designing and building a multiple-use system for a community to concluding a benefit-sharing agreement between upstream and downstream water users and the export of high value crops from Africa to Europe under a pro-poor ecological certification regime. Such choices are made by people (including consumers like you and me) empowered by a sound understanding of biophysical and socio-cultural processes and an appreciation of the historic role that water has played in bringing people together. Perhaps that’s a topic to coin a target for.

Who is going to decide which targets to include and which to omit? Ban Ki-moon is committed to an open and inclusive consultation process. His challenge is to ensure that actors in the Global South will articulate their priorities and perspectives and influence the development agenda accordingly. What can we do in the mean time? Trigger a debate what our role could be.


  1. United Nations, 2012. Accelerating progress towards the Millennium Development Goals: options for sustained and inclusive growth and issues for advancing the United Nations development agenda beyond 2015 – Annual report of the Secretary-General. UN General Assembly A/67/257, 6 August,
  2. Idem.
  3. Idem.