Water Will Transform the World

  • 2015•09•14

    Zafar Adeel

    The Global Goals

    This article is part of UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.

    Goal #6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

    The global leadership is about to adopt a historic development model in New York, which will not only outline the major objectives to be achieved by the year 2030 but also provide the means and approaches for successfully achieving them.

    Never before has such an ambitious and complex task been conceived, let alone undertaken. Importantly, this so-called 2030 Development Agenda — and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that it contains — brings a renewed focus on people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. These age-old concepts are being recombined to create a brand new DNA that conceives the parallel achievement of social, environmental, and economic development. In so doing, the agenda seeks to overcome some of the greatest challenges of our times: lack of dignity, rising inequalities, threats to health & well-being, natural resource depletion, environmental degradation, and climate change.

    Reading through the details of various SDGs, it is very clear that water serves as the foundation for ecological stability, economic development, and human health and well-being. Water is, by default, a cross-cutting dimension of societal and economic development. We could be bold enough to claim that achievement of other SDGs will remain out of our grasp if we do not properly manage our water-related problems. 

    SDG #6 includes eight targets that address such issues as access to safe water and adequate sanitation, water quality, water-use efficiency, ecosystem protection, transboundary cooperation, and integrated water resources management. In comparison with previous goal-setting exercises, this formulation of goals and targets attempts to be comprehensive in addressing all inter-related challenges. The approach tackles the issue of inequality head-on, and outlines methods for capacity development and strengthening of communities.

    However, the water story does not end with SDG #6. A number of other SDGs either contain specific and quantified water-related targets, or require successful water management for their achievement. In the first category, we can include the goals on health (SDG #3), cities (SDG #11), consumption–production (SDG #12), marine resources (SDG #14), and terrestrial ecosystems (SDG #15). In the second category, it has been argued that water underpins the success of nearly all the SDGs. Water thus emerges as fundamental for achievement of the overall 2030 Development Agenda.

    We must focus, too, on aspects and dimensions of water that have not received adequate attention in formulation of the SDGs. Prime amongst these lost opportunities is the notion of cross-linking SDG (and, by default, the corresponding sectors) in order to optimise resource efficiency.

    For example, while the health goal (#3) aims at reducing maternal mortality and ending preventable deaths of children under the age of 5, it does not explicitly recognise water, sanitation, and hygiene as key ingredients for achieving both of these targets. Similarly, although SDG #7 correctly recognises the need for universal provisioning of modern forms of energy and increasing the proportion of renewable resources, it does not explicitly consider that hydropower generation is, and will remain, a significant component of the renewable energy equation. An integrated formulation of SDG targets could have been used to create a bridge between the water and energy sectors.

    A number of serious questions must now be urgently addressed to successfully achieve SDG #6 and other water-related target: How best can those countries be helped where the capacity to achieve these water-related goals and targets is simply missing? Could we envision a large global fund, operating much like the Green Climate Fund, to support capacity development efforts? In the medium-term, how will national governments and their planning divisions reallocate their resources? Do we possess the right tools to systematically analyse our water challenges, not just for today but for at least the next 15 years? Will developed countries take the notion of universality seriously, and recast their own water-related policies and investments?

    The United Nations University, working together with its research partners, can take on the underlying investigations to respond to some of these fundamental questions. Previous UNU reports have tackled these questions for implementation of water-related SDGs (see Water in the World We Want and Catalyzing Water for Sustainable Development and Growth), but much work remains to be done.

    We need to fully think through the role that the United Nations system, with cooperation from the international community, can play to support UN Member States in implementation of the SDG framework. In particular, there is no single United Nations organisation or agency responsible for supporting water causes. This leads to inherent inefficiencies, even when UN-Water is tasked with enhancing mutual coordination among some 30-odd organisations. The argument could be made that UN Member States should give serious consideration to retooling some components of the UN system, recasting them as fit-for-purpose mechanisms to fill institutional and capacity gaps.

    Despite its imperfections and lost opportunities, the SDG framework offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the face of the earth. We must not falter in delivering on this opportunity.


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    Water Will Transform the World by Zafar Adeel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.