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Frits Ahlefeldt/ Hiking Artist

Water flows through the SDGs

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This week will witness the global culmination of nearly three years of work by a host of negotiators, and representatives from government, civil society and the private sector.

Just over a year ago, delegates from the United Nations representing 70 countries concluded an 18 month marathon of debate and consultation that produced the first agreed set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the world. The SDGs, are meant to guide investments and social policy to end poverty and hunger, and to sustainably steward the earth's natural resources.

Discussions have continued, but this Friday the UN summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda will begin, with the expectation that the 17 SDGs will be endorsed by the international community.  

In a troubled world, this process has been a heartening example of international cooperation - and the critical role of water has repeatedly emerged during the negotiations.

climate change cartoon frits ahlefeldt
"Understanding climate change is essential, but far from enough – the most difficult part is going from words to action, starting to create the necessary changes."
Frits Ahlefeldt/ Hiking Artist

Of all our natural resources, water underpins sustainable development as perhaps none other.  Food, energy, health, industry, biodiversity—there is no sphere of planetary life or human endeavor untouched by water. 

But, in many cases, urbanization, economic development, climate change, and the need to produce more food for a growing population are limiting water availability.  Water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. A central challenge for sustainable development is how to balance the competing uses of water; ensure that the needs of all—especially of the poor and marginalized—are met; and maintain healthy and diverse ecosystems.

It is therefore no surprise and that water appears explicitly as a recurring theme in many of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and the proposed "targets" that serve as guideposts toward their achievement.

But when it comes to managing water—our most precious natural resource—the targets set for achieving the relevant SDGs need to ensure we can both deliver on what has been agreed, and still take into account that different countries will need to adopt different approaches. For instance, especially when it comes to water, targets that prescribe general policy approaches likely will not be appropriate for all countries, given the vastly different levels of economic and social development among the 193 member states of the United Nations. Ideally, all of these states will ultimately adopt the SDGs and strive to deliver on targets appropriate to their specific circumstances.

Some of the proposed targets are focused more on principle than on practical application.  Policies that sound good on paper can be difficult to achieve and sometimes come at a real cost to people—especially the poor, women and marginalized groups—and to the environment.  Sustainable and efficient management of our water resources requires frameworks responsive enough to address a wide range of national and local contexts, along with monitoring systems to ensure that these efforts are delivering on what is expected in the context.

Take for example the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) approach. While its principles provide a good overall framework for managing water resources, addressing water challenges in a specific context often requires the implementation of solutions that for pragmatic reasons have to deviate from these principles. 

Plans to Action

One principle, for example, is decentralization and inclusive decision making.  But in China, a top-down approach and centralized decision-making actually succeeded in improving rice and water productivity.  When rapid urbanization prompted government officials to allocate more water to cities, farmers had to respond.  They did so by building their own ponds to store water supplied by the system, thereby improve the timing of water to the crops, and reducing the amount of water they used for irrigation, while also managing to increase agricultural productivity considerably.

Prescribing institutional and governance arrangements, including such things as introduction of water licensing, permits and pricing, that are not appropriate in the given context can undermine local efforts to increase reliable access to water, including for smallholder farmers and marginal communities. For example, efforts to formalize water rights and institutions in some developing countries have ignored the existing informal arrangements in place in both irrigated and rain-fed systems.   Small-scale farmers need secure water and land rights, so that they are empowered to invest in their farms and improve their productivity.  This is key to ensure that efforts to improve water security also contribute to ending poverty and improving sustainability. 

Similarly, new technologies and practices need to consider the institutional and policy environment in the success of water-interventions, not only in terms of supporting implementation, but also in minimizing social, economic and environmental trade-offs. 

In the case of Pakistan, where water scarcity is major a concern, the government and international donors have been promoting technologies and practices on-farm to reduce the use of water while maintaining or even increasing productivity in the rice-wheat systems across the country.  These approaches have been relatively successful, at least at the farm scale.  However, this has not always translated into savings for the region as a whole. As productivity rose, farmers upstream expanded the amount of land under irrigation, resulting in less water available for the small scale-farmers downstream.  

When it comes to making more efficient use of water, pragmatic, holistic solutions are needed.

In the end, much of the pressure on water resources today and tomorrow could be reduced through water management that’s appropriate to the context in and scale at which it is to be applied. Managing our water resources well will drive progress toward meeting the crucial goals of sustainable development.

The United Nations has set seventeen new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as global guidelines to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. WLE contributes to this global process in numerous ways, including the timely support and provision of integrated and scientifically sound indicators, data, tools and solution - Read more.


A very insightful piece with great thoughts and practical examples from China, Pakistan and other contexts. For me the most notable messages are:
1. Sustainable water management is crucial not just for water-related SDGs but for all the SDGs simultaneously, as most are mutually supportive and interlinked - put so nicely "there is no sphere of planetary life or human endeavor untouched by water".
2. The focus on minimizing social, economic and environmental trade-offs. e.g., not just yield increase but with a greater emphasis on sustainability and link with nature.
3. Efforts to improve water security must target smallholders and other marginalized social groups to sustainably ending poverty and advancing the SDGs.