Water for Sustainable Development: From MDGs to SDGs

By Vositha Wijenayake

One does not need additional explanations to highlight the importance of water for every human’s survival. In addition to being a basis for our survival, it is also at the core of sustainable development. This further indicates water as being critical for social as well as economic development with sectors of health, welfare as well as production all being dependent on it. Given its great importance it is vital that countries understand the impacts of climate change on the water resources of their countries, and set up plans that would address the needs of their people to ensure that there are sufficient water supplies for their survival.

Climate Change and Water Resources

Research data provide that 1.7 billion people across the world live in river basins where water use exceeds natural discharge, a trend that will be seen in two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed countries by 2025.

The fifth assessment report of the IPCC (AR5) provide that water scarcity is expected to be a major challenge for most of the region as a result of increased water demand and lack of good management. Further it points out that water resources are important in Asia because of the massive population, and that the need for it varies among regions and seasons.

The Report provides also that with the increase of population, and the increase of demands arising from higher standards of living could worsen water security in many parts in Asia and affect many people in the future. It highlights the need for integrated water management strategies  which could help adapt to climate change, including developing water-saving technologies, increasing water productivity, and water.

Sustainable Development and Water

Water is a critical element of socio-economic development. Lack of water resources, and lack of equitable distribution of water resources in a country would create additional issues of governance, and peace. In order to achieve economic development there is also a great need for water for production. And on the social level, in order to satisfy the indicators of sustainable development, health of a country’s citizens is important. Lack of portable water will have adverse impacts on a country’s capacity to ensure a healthy life for its citizens.

In addition to this,  the impacts of climate change according to the AR5 of the IPCC is expected to adversely affect the sustainable development capabilities of most Asian developing countries by aggravating pressures on natural resources and the environment.

Water in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

MDGs which were established in 2000 aim to reduce by 50% the proportion of people living without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation between 1990 and 2015. However the United Nations data provide that a total of 748 million people still do not have access to an improved drinking water source and existing indicators do not address the safety and reliability of water supplies. The data also provide that to reach the requirements of the right to access to safe drinking water requires real improvements for several billions of people.

According to reports, MDG target for sanitation is of high importance with the number of people currently lacking access to improved sanitation being at 2.5 billion. The predictions provide that at current rates of progress, the sanitation target will be missed by over half a billion people. The data provided being collective data, they hide the disparities that exist between nations and regions, rich and poor as well as the communities living in rural and urban settings.

Water in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In order to address the concerns that still exist at the time limit for the closing of MDGs in 2015, and to move towards a sustainable future the global community is turning towards an agreement where human rights, equality and sustainability should the basis of the development agenda.

The overarching goal of UN-Water is “Securing Sustainable Water for All”. This includes creating space among other things, for healthy people, increased prosperity, equitable societies, protected ecosystems and resilient communities, through universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene. This also includes the sustainable use of water resources as well as robust and effective water governance systems.

Furthermore in order to achieve sustainable development and have food security, countries need to focus on sustainable use of water resources. Agriculture accounts for 70% of water withdrawals worldwide, with figures varying across countries, while industry and energy account for 20% of water demand. The numbers highlight the disparities among regions with developed countries having a much larger proportion of freshwater withdrawals for industry.

In addition to this World Health Orgnisation’s study conducted on meeting the MDGs provide that 1.5% of gross domestic product of the counties is accounted through the economic loss from the inadequate delivery of water and sanitation.

Access to Water: A Human Right

In 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution, which “recognised the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights”.  In spite of the existing obligation to secure such right to citizens countries are yet to reach this objective. Rather than discuss the dire need to address the issues regarding water for decades to come, it would be productive if steps were taken to address the issues related to water so that countries could move towards sustainable development while preserving the water resources for future generations.

About the author:

vosithaVositha Wijenayake is the Policy and Advocacy Co-ordinator of CANSA and, Regional Facilitator for Asia for the Southern Voices Programme. She is a lawyer by profession and has an LLM from University College London. She specialises in International Environmental Law and Human Rights Law. She has been tracking the UNFCCC negotiations since 2009 with a legal and gender focus.