Water: Eventually We will get it Right…

Blog by James Dalton. The future of our planet and the stability of our natural, social, and economic systems will very much be measured by the impact of activities at the national level, in countries, doing things, on-the-ground. Guided by the Sustainable Development Goals, the targets and indicators of progress for the Goals are currently under scrutiny by countries at the UN Headquarters in New York.

James Dalton at HLPF SDG6 review, 9 July 2018, New York

At the United Nations High-level Political Forum, progress against the goals is being reviewed, based on a sub-set of goals to be reviewed each year. This year the focus is on Goal 6: Water; Goal 7: Energy; Goal 11: Cities; Goal 12; Sustainable Consumption and Production; Goal 15: Life on Land; and Goal 17 on the Means of Implementation. 

Reporting on the progress with the different UN agencies and partners involved, the Review of SDG6 Implementation session took place on Monday 9th July. The SDG6 synthesis report launched at the week highlighted some familiar messages:

  • Agriculture offers the opportunity for significant savings on water as the sector responsible for 70% of withdrawals.  The largest user being irrigated agriculture;
  • Water quality continues to get worse, and things are not moving fast enough to deal with this problem that can directly affect human health.
  • Globally, we have lost 70 per cent of our natural wetlands over the last century.
  • Not enough is being done to downscale the SDG targets into national planning processes, policies, and strategies to localise the targets into tangible actions.
  • Data remains a missing foundation to inform, improve decision making, drive better governance and transparency. 

It is not easy reading – partly due to its familiarity.

What this all means is that things are off-track.  Way off-track.

Discussions on Monday served as reminders of the challenge ahead, with the call for increasing partnerships and finance.  But what was not clear is where the finance will come from?  Finance was a clear limit to success in reporting on Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) progress, and crucially for water supply and sanitation – also off-track.  As countries themselves are responsible in downscaling the SDG targets to their own situations, and for directing and sourcing resources to achieve the targets, the actual sources of finance were worryingly absent in the discussion. 

Technically the world knows how to manage water.  We have been doing it for some time.  It needs modernising – the contemporary needs to become the new conventional, and there are some sure signs of progress from non-state actors and the private sector around new water management including Nature-Based Solutions in modernising IWRM.

As our hydrology changes due to climate change, and our social and industrial needs for water add further stress to water resources, so we need to manage it for the scarce, valuable, crucial resource it is.  We have not done this to date. 

We have instead used it based on different sectoral needs, and then thrown the wastewater downstream or into the ocean – out of sight and out of mind.

This annual meeting to review progress against the SDG goals is a warning sign.  A warning that we are not doing enough, and what we are doing is not at the speed and scale needed. 

What is needed is a new water culture, the recognition that the contractual partnerships of the past are not going to work for us in the future. We need new, multi-funded collaboratives of different partners. Collaborations that are guided by the SDG’s into national targets.  Targets that can then be matched to on-the-ground existing or new projects and programmes with the requisite policy review and reform at a speed that matches the severity of the problems, starting with the targets that are most off-track.

As finance needs to be blended and decentralised for different objectives, returns, and donors, so do the partners in new collaborations.  It is the culture of water then that needs to change – a move away from the dominance of centralised, infrastructure planning, decisions to multi-scale collaboration across agencies - accessing, generating, and mobilising decentralised finance.

This wasn’t in the room on Monday. Change then is needed. 

Wind turbines at seashore wetland Photo: ©Richie Chan/Shutterstock

But we should be hopeful.  Not achieving the targets under SDG6 will create additional costs, and in some ways, crises. These will manifest through not delivering against the other targets such as food security.  We cannot easily reduce poverty without water, or improve human health, or grow more food, or generate electricity, or protect our natural ecosystems that supply us with the resources we need to sustain economic growth.

Target 15.1, to ‘…ensure the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services, in particular forests, wetlands, mountains and drylands, in line with obligations under international agreement’ would be a surefire way to underpin the success of all other goals. And it’s a target all sectors should be supporting if you reflect on the underlying principles of sustainable development - development that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations.

The inter-linkages across the SDGs are vast.  So too then the collaboration needed across institutions to mobilise the solutions, to change the culture of water management through greater alliances across sectors, and to use better water management to achieve all the SDGs.

Culture, after all, eats strategy for breakfast.

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Dr James Dalton is a.i. Director of the IUCN Global Water Programme

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