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Sustainable development goals offer unique opportunity to transform management of critical water resources

Targets that promote efficient and appropriate water use will be key to achieving the SDGs

Source: IWMI

The proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a set of goals to end poverty and hunger and sustain the environment, drafted by 70 nations and presently being discussed in the UN General Assembly – will guide social policy and investments for decades to come. Their approach to water management will be key to success, according to a new report.

The report, On Target for People and Planet: Setting and Achieving Water-Related Sustainable Development Goals, comes from scientists at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). It cautions against an overly rigid approach to implementing SDGs, which could limit development options for poor countries, particularly in how they are able to manage critical water resources.

Pages from setting_and_achieving_water-related_sustainable_development_goalsAccording to the United Nations, water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population in the last century, and an increasing number of regions are chronically short of water. At the same time, water is a crucial resource for meeting the development aspirations of poor countries, especially in Asia and Africa.

“Of all our natural resources, water underpins sustainable development perhaps more than any other,” said IWMI Director-General Jeremy Bird. “To deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we have to be smart and inclusive. Water cuts across many of the goals – from poverty, to health, energy and the environment so we must reflect on the interactions and identify locally appropriate solutions to managing water.”

Key challenges include setting realistic targets, carefully considering the local context to address the needs of the poor, and promoting sustainable water resources development in a way that values healthy ecosystems.

Water concerns permeate the SDGs. Goal 6 calls for ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Proposed SDGs on food and energy security also include targets on increasing water efficiency. But the three sectors can’t be viewed in isolation, IWMI researchers said – rather they are interconnected and must be managed in an integrated way, often across borders.

Providing everyone with access to water – whether male, female, wealthy or poor – also is vital to achieving the SDGs on health, livelihood improvement and economic growth, IWMI researchers said. “This is especially important in rural and urban fringe areas,” said Julie van der Bliek, the publication’s lead editor. “People need access to water for domestic use and to generate income from growing crops.”

“To guide meaningful action, SDG targets will need to support the aspirations of poor nations for development,” said Bird. “This means encouragement to use natural resources in smart, efficient and productive ways, while protecting ecosystems. Efficient use of water is at the heart of this balancing act.”

The SDGs follow the UN-led Millennium Development Goals, which focused on reducing extreme poverty. The SDGs focus on sustainable development, taking into account such factors as water scarcity, food insecurity, ecosystem loss, and climate change. At stake is a healthy planet and people.

The 56-page IWMI report, illustrated with case studies and examples, provides critical analyses of how national SDG targets can be defined and met through the most current evidence-based water policies. IWMI, which recently adopted a new strategy to deliver a “water-secure world,” plans to produce a series of annual reports that synthesize thinking on major water issues.

IWMI scientists have developed cutting-edge analytical tools to help policy makers, investors and water professionals assess and monitor ecosystem health and investment options.

For example, one tool uses near real-time satellite data to identify agricultural areas prone to waterlogging, and to map the progression and severity of floods. In Sudan’s Gash Basin, IWMI is testing a flood forecasting tool – the first of its kind in the region – that delivers flood information directly to farmers via cell phone text messaging.

The book offers other examples of IWMI’s work in tackling complex issues:

  • IWMI conducted pilot tests in Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley to “bank” winter water flows released for hydropower into underground aquifers and later extract the stored water for dry-season irrigation. Such strategies may prove to be a pragmatic way to reverse damage caused by groundwater overpumping, and to deal with competing demands for water, energy and food.
  • Despite today’s focus on participatory water-use management, IWMI’s research shows that women, minorities and the poor often are left out of local decision-making. In such situations, women revert to “stealing” the water they need for domestic use and crops.
  • Humans generate millions of tons of solid and liquid waste every day. IWMI and its partners are testing innovative, low-cost human waste-to-fertilizer models in 10 cities across the globe. Implementing such solutions is a key to achieving SDG health and environment goals in low-income countries.

Download a full copy of On Target for People and Planet here.

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