The international response to the growing crisis of water scarcity has been to dedicate one of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to water. Approved by global leaders at a UN summit in 2015, Goal 6 aims to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all (by 2030).”

The SDG6 target most relevant to water scarcity aims to “substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity.” Although the UN’s 2017 SDGs report reminds us that “more than 2 billion people globally are affected by water stress”, there is no SDG indicator monitoring progress of this statistic, which dates from 2012.

Instead, the relevant indicator will monitor “freshwater withdrawal as a proportion of available freshwater resources,” an established measure of water stress (25%) and scarcity (60%) at country, region and global levels. Northern Africa, as well as Western, Central and Southern Asia, already exceed the 60% threshold.

Water Governance

At national level, the task of reconciling the demands of competing users of water to achieve SDG principles of equity and sustainability is often undermined, particularly when responsibilities are fragmented between government departments. A further SDG target addresses this challenge in its call to “implement integrated water resources management at all levels.”

Governments are accordingly encouraged to develop national plans which integrate their policies on poverty reduction, food security, energy security and climate adaptation so that actions necessary for water security are coherent.

Poor water governance standards in many developing countries can nevertheless enable powerful interests to gain disproportionate access to scarce water resources. Lack of enforceable regulation in India lies at the heart of the country’s groundwater crisis.

Another example is the phenomenon known as “land-grabbing”. The acquisition of agricultural land in developing countries is pursued by foreign investors and by wealthy governments seeking to overcome their own food and water insecurity. Displacement of the poor from land on which they have enjoyed customary use too often equates with the loss of water rights.

At international level, water governance has been weak. UN Water is not an implementing agency – its role is to strengthen coordination and coherence among other UN entities dealing with freshwater. There is no UN Convention to tackle water scarcity in parallel with those for climate change, biodiversity and desertification. A 2011 meeting of the InterAction Council, the group of former world leaders, deplored that “international water leadership is virtually non-existent.”

In 2016 the UN announced the formation of The High Level Panel on Water, to be represented by 11 world leaders. However, the Panel’s mandate expired in March 2018 with its Open Letter appealing for a “new agenda for water action.”


more Water Scarcity briefings (updated April 2018)
Water Cycle
Water Energy Food Nexus
Causes of Water Scarcity
Climate Change and Water Scarcity
Solutions to Water Scarcity
Access to Safe Water
Water Wars
Source material and useful links