Sustainable Development Goal for Water

updated February 2017

The international response to the growing crisis of water scarcity is 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 key target supporting the Sustainable Development Goal for water is to “substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity.” The relevant indicator will monitor “freshwater withdrawal as a proportion of available freshwater resources,” presumably at country level.

Curiously, there is currently no indicator monitoring the absolute “number of people suffering from water scarcity.” The UN’s 2016 Sustainable Development Goals report mentions that “water stress affects more than 2 billion people around the globe, a figure that is projected to rise.” However, this statistic dates from 2012.

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 being 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.”

However, in 2016 the UN announced the formation of The High Level Panel on Water, to be represented by 11 world leaders. The Panel has since issued its first call to action, to further its aim to strengthen financing and implementation of the SDG for water.


Harry Verhoeven of University of Oxford suggests that resistance to integrating water resources management in many developing countries may be attributable to the special interests of political elites
from OCP Policy Center

Water. Food. Climate. Energy. What’s the Solution? – the new Sustainable Development Goals present an opportunity to set targets which recognise that sectors like water, food and energy are dynamically related to each other
from Nexus Conference

more Water Scarcity briefings
Water Cycle
Water Energy Food Nexus
Causes of Water Scarcity
Climate Change and Water Scarcity
Solutions to Water Scarcity
Access to Drinking Water
Water Wars
Source material and useful links

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