In my last blog post I promised to further stimulate the discussion with some initial ideas on how to respond to the five questions; based on my own thoughts, feedback received through the blog and direct contact with business and stakeholder colleagues. Here is the first question:

1. Were the original MDG targets helpful in focusing the minds of government, business and civil society on the water crisis and its importance within overall social and economic development?

Firstly, let me list the three water-related goals that will be discussed:

• 7C a: Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water (compared to base year 1990)

• 7C b: Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to basic sanitation (compared to base year 1990)

• 7.5: Proportion of total water resources used (water resources management)

Concerning safe water, sanitation and hygiene, the MDGs were indeed helpful in several respects.

Statistics on access to safe water and sanitation have been in existence for many years, but the MDGs put the issue of access firmly on the agenda. It is about making sure that we were not just taking stock of a situation but are looking to take focused and comprehensive action in demand-driven and results-oriented national programmes.

To illustrate, I would like to refer to a few particularly important elements, strengths and achievements that need to be preserved for post-2015:

One is the MDG Acceleration Framework Toolkit developed by UNDP. It provides the framework for a truly comprehensive approach. In Belize, for instance, the plan to improve access to safe water based on this toolkit not only includes expansion of water services, but also repair services (including repair of rudimentary water systems) and the improvement of water quality. And in the case of sanitation, the plan includes the expansion of piped sewerage, the construction of other improved sanitation systems, education on good sanitation and hygiene practices (notably the education of children as agents of behavior change) and the enhancement of regulatory capacity.

The MDGs on water also helped to align national priority-setting processes against global targets on water supply and sanitation, in terms of policy reforms, institutional change and resource allocation, and to link these country-based efforts to existing supportive regional frameworks.

It further stimulated collaborative inputs, for example by the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW), the African Development Bank, the European Union Water Initiative, the United Nations Development Programme, the Water and Sanitation Program-Africa, and the World Bank.

Last but not least, it helped ensure coordination/alignment between goals, for instance within the water-food-energy-environment nexus. Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), often discussed, was implemented. For example, the work by UNEP in urban areas of DR Congo – with microfinance at one end of the spectrum and utility tariffs on the other.

Without the MDGs on access to safe water and sanitation, we would most definitely not be where we are today.

Comparing the goals set with the actual improvements observed, particularly improvements in the period before 1990, however adds some nuances to this overall positive picture.

Safe water: annual average of the number of extra people who have access to safe water

Actual 1975-1991 123 million/year

MDG (goal) 1990-2015 95 million/year

Actual 1990-2010 105 million/year

<b>SOURCE:</b> WHO/Unicef, 2010. Click to enlarge the image (80.22 kb)

Both MDG and the actual results between 1990-2010 (also from 2000-2010) clearly fall behind what was achieved from 1975-1991 on an annual average. It is possible that the goal was not ambitious enough. And the light blue section of the chart below: namely other improved drinking water sources, including public taps, standpipes, tube wells, boreholes and dug wells, is not at the level we want to be.


Actual 1986-1991 111 million/year

MDG (goal) 1990-2015 115 million/year

Actual 1990-2010 87 million/year

The goals set for sanitation were in line with what was achieved 1985-1991, i.e., in my view not overly ambitious; but actual results nevertheless fall clearly behind these targets.

In water resource management, it appears to be more difficult to set comparable goals. And the actual situation has been rapidly deteriorating. According to work carried out by the 2030 Water Resources Group, analysing the 154 main watersheds/river basins of the world, we are already withdrawing close to 10% more water for human use than what is sustainably available (natural renewal minus environmental flows). In 2010, some 15-20% of cereal and tuber production was on land where reliable and sustainable water supply is below 50% of actual withdrawals (McKinsey and 2030 Water Resources Group; Charting Our Water Future. A new economic framework for decision-making; Washington November 2009). Food production shortfalls due to drought in 2012 are a stark reminder that natural buffers (lakes, underground aquifers) have been systematically and increasingly overused in the past decades.

In my view, this area was not a sufficient focus of the MDGs, and the goal formulated for water resource management was not sufficiently operational to have an impact.

You may also be interested in my answers to the other questions about "Water in the post-2015 MDG strategy":

2. What still remains to be done before 2015 to complete the job started in 2000?

3. On the assumption that we would like the post-2015 goals to still include a target on water, how should we frame it? What would be the key measures of progress and success?

4. What role and responsibility should the private sector play in delivering these goals?

5. What would you want governments to do?