UN reiterates centrality of water to post-2015 agenda

During its 6th Session, which took place last week at the UN headquarters in New York, the  Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals reaffirmed the worldwide necessity and commitment to define a global goal on water.

Amidst talk of harnessing a global partnership to achieve a sustainable future and securing the means to implement the newly-defined Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the 6th Session of the Open Working Group on SDGs (OWG-SDG) last week, one side event stood out: entitled ‘Towards a global goal on water: targets, indicators and data requirements’, it emphasized the role water plays in development and identified the need for a water-related SDG. The importance of water was also referred to in the concluding remarks of the session and in a number of technical briefs.

Although on the sidelines of the work by the Open Working Group, the side event on water was no less important. It has long been acknowledged that water is fundamental to development and that the looming water crisis, which threatens to deprive close to 3 billion of access to clean water and sanitation, according to the World Health Organization, may have consequential effects on the abilities of low-income countries to achieve development objectives. At the Budapest Water Summit earlier in the year, Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the UN, had acknowledged that “water holds the key to development” and that, as such, advocacy for a dedicated water goal was crucial.

The report submitted by members of OWG-SDG participating in the UN-Water-sponsored event  underscored the importance of ensuring water security in water-scarce countries and of the need to ensure universal access to water to improve the standard of living of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Proposals for a water-specific SDG were presented during the event and, although a final version has not as of yet been agreed to, substantial progress was made on the matter. The finalized list of SDGs, which must be presented to and approved by the UN General Assembly, will be decided by the OWG-SDG.

SDGs are a series of objectives to be achieved for the post-2015 world, and are to replace the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). Under the slogan ‘The Future We Want’, SDGs, when defined, will be targets that every country will commit to hit by a certain date. Similarly to the MDGs, the SDGs are a component of the worldwide drive to build a world in which every individual has achieved a landmark standard of living. The process of defining SDGs was started during the 2012 Rio+20 Conference, which set the process as a priority for the UN policy agenda.

The definition of SDGs, which has been identified as an urgent priority for the international community, will set a framework for the next 15 years from 2015-2030 in moving towards a more just, fair and sustainable world.

The proposed water-specific SDG identifies lessons learned from both the successes and failures of the MDGs. Among the items to be included in a dedicated global water-related objective are: guarantee universal access to clean water and sanitation; putting an end to open-air latrines; emphasizing the water-food nexus and highlighting the link between water and development; including provisions on climate change adaptation; and having clear, realistic, achievable and technical goals.

No water security without cooperation

The UN-Water side event also acknowledged the importance of international water cooperation in achieving these aims, and that water security involved state collaboration over shared water resources and watercourses.

This has also been the position of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). At a recent workshop dedicated to defining a sustainable development goal relating to water, Sven Alkalaj, UNECE executive secretary, declared the benefit of having an SDG focused on water, one that “involves simple, clear targets [...] which address all issues related to water scarcity and quality”.

But, Mr. Alkalaj continued, “it will not be possible to reach an SDG on water without [...] cooperative management of transboudary waters”. He went on to urge states to accede to global treaties regulating the use of shared watercourses, such as the UNECE Water Convention (Helsinki Convention) and the UN Watercourses Convention (New York Convention), share information and cooperate closely over the management of international water sources

The statement by the head of the UNECE is significant because it links international cooperation over watercourses and securing universal access to water. y doing so, it acknowledges the importance of cooperation between states in achieving human rights, and that policies should not be conducted domestically and in isolation, but through collaboration and exchange with other states and relevant actors.

The other implication of Mr. Alkalaj’s remarks is that treaties relating to the management of international watercourses not only changes the relations between states regarding shares watercourses , but can have wider consequences that can affect the well-being of their populations.


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