Water in the post 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) strategy were the original MDG targets helpful

By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

16 January 2013 See comments (17)

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

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.

SOURCE: WHO/Unicef, 2010 - expand to full size (jpg, 150Kb).


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?

  1. Carole Henriod Hohlman @ not employed

    18 Jan 2013 - 02:39 (GMT)

    This is a strange but predictable situation. Drought is prevalent in many places in the world, but heavy rains and floods do occur. That water from flooding is not contained for further use and water in rivers and oceans is not drinkable. I don't know the extent of water left available in the sources, but doubt it cannot last without rain and/or snow terribly far into the future. The ability to catch water from rain and snow for purification will have to be considered for conservation for human consumption. Also that is going to make bottled water more expensive. It is frightening that the oceans and rivers are also contaminated. I think about the radio activity that got into the Pacific from the horrible storm that hit Japan last year. Drinking water is a major world problem. Hopefully some of these good sources will last a long time.

  2. Emina Kevin @ Nestlé Nigeria PLC

    19 Jan 2013 - 07:58 (GMT)

    The statistics is staggaring considering the amount of people living on earth, but, its a task that needs to be worked on. Harnessing of rain water seems to be a good option but, that would only be beneficial if the water is collected without cleaned p for further use, also, this water if stored can be pumped using high speed and high powered pumps over long distances to areas with deserts where over time we might win the war against desert encroachment and give rise to access to surface water for our use.

  3. Thian Yew Gan @ University of Alberta

    21 Jan 2013 - 16:37 (GMT)

    Question 1: The original MDG targets are good but I doubt if such targets will help government, business and civil society to consciously address the water crisis faced by many countries, especially countries with semi-arid or arid climate, large population and suffer from environmental abuse. What we see are more of response to crisis attitude, then abiding to a constructive and coordinated effort to achieve a more sustainable water withdrawal and consumption society.

    Question 2: To vigorously promote implementing adaptation strategies in water scare societies where water stress and rationing tend to happen regularly, or during drought years. We expect that in future hydrologic extremes (both droughts and floods) are expected to increase more frequently and in greater severity because of climate change impact, and problems faced by these countries are expected to get worse, compounded by growing population and more rampant pollution problems.

    Question 3: I believe all societies vulnerable to water crisis should reach the grass root level, that individual citizens are made aware of such problems that if not addressed properly, will eventually prove to be very costly. If people begin to be conscious of the environment and respond to conservation measures, we can expect future water crisis problems to be more manageable than otherwise.

  4. Fatmanur Erdogan @ Sustainability

    21 Jan 2013 - 22:23 (GMT)

    MDGs have been a good start but these goals have not been about achieving sustainability, really.

    Billions of dollars have been spent to provide access to safe water to X number of people. We do know that over 50% of all these projects -worldwide- fail. Measurement is done to figure out how many people got access to safe water in a given year. "Number of beneficiaries reached" is a way for us to say "we did something and it looked great on our KPIs, now lets move on and spend money on some other community so we can claim a higher number of beneficiaries and help achieve MDGs."

    The number of beneficiaries-people with access to safe drinking water- is about measuring outputs not impacts. In general, the planning of community engagement strategies fail because the vision ends at the output level. Some projects go beyond and measure outcomes (as outlined in this great blog post). To achieve sustainability, we must be prepared to measure the wellbeing of communities that we serve, and we must be ready to continue to measure our impact (wellbeing) at least for another 5 years once we (corporations/ngos/govts) stop funding projects. This way, we can truly understand and observe whether our investments have enabled societies to not just have a sustainable life but a thriving one. This is the key measure of progress.

    On another note, I applaud Nestle's efforts and the way the company, and in particular, Mr. Herbert has chosen to engage us in a dialogue.

    Best wishes,

  5. Van Ermen @ European Partners for the Environment

    22 Jan 2013 - 11:26 (GMT)

    Covenant 2022 and Summit of Partnerships 2022.

    Despite the fact that the Rio 20 final declaration states that sustainable development "can only be achieved with a broad alliance of people, governments, civil society and private sector, all working together to secure the future we want for present and future generations" (§13), ‘partnerships’ are not addressed by ‘The Future we Want’, which is a gap.

    A multi-stakeholder partnerships ‘Covenant 2022’, should be designed to accelerate the transition and focused on the implementation of MDG's and SDG's. It should build trust. It should link with the major issue of responsibility and accountability of the public and private market actors. The Covenant should have 'baskets' of partnerships. One of these baskets should be water.

    If by 2003, important guidelines principles for partnerships in relation with sustainable development were adopted at CSD11, ‘synergies’ are still missing to accelerate the ecological transition. This is why we need such 'Covenant 2022' leading to a Summit of Partnerships 2022 where water would be one of the themes.

  6. Henk van Schaik @ Water Partner

    22 Jan 2013 - 12:24 (GMT)

    1. MDGs have been a good start. Rio 20 came up with SDGs, Strategic Development Goals. The change from MDGs to SDGs indicates that development is more complicated that just straight forward targets. It implies strtaegic decisions on priorities etc.

    2. The Water, Food and Energy nexus debate illustrates the change from targets to strategies and strategic choices. The OECD 2050 Outlook describes that in a quickly developing world (population and industrialization) the same water resources have to be used to provide drinking water to 2 billion more people than today (with over 50 % living in urban centres), for industries and for the production of 1.5 times the amount of food. The challenge for policy makers is to set the best priorities. The private sector obviously needs to be part of the desicion making processes at global down to local level. Private sector interests can not top the bill.

    3. A coherent view and practical show cases of private sector involvement in the making of these strategic choices is urgently needed. Some cases of private sector initiatives to reduce the water footprint are a step in the right way, but are - in my view - insufficient. The challenge is much taller. The WBCSD has a major role to play to represent the private sector in the global debates, but - even more - to stimulate the private sector at company levels to take up its responsibilities in water management (quality and quantity) and in reasonable water sharing with other stakeholders.

  7. Karil Kochenderfer @ LINKAGES

    23 Jan 2013 - 01:54 (GMT)

    Q1.) The long-term good intentions of governments and of people are repeatedly overshadowed by the urgencies of short-term crises. The MDG goals, therefore, were wisely and firmly planted on the horizon of all national governments and stakeholders to see, shape and incorporate into their thinking as well as act upon in an incremental manner lest they never be acted upon at all. Short-term measures that are being taken to address droughts, water shortages and economic loss will never be sufficient and are now are seen in their proper perspective.

    Q4.) Corporations have much to offer in terms of strategic vision, manpower, focus, expertise, and organizational management as well as financing to local economies in capturing water, building drinking water facilities, installing micro-irrigation operations, etc., Corporations can bring these assets to discussions about global/local development and water management and play an important fortifying role.

    Q5.) Ultimately, however, it is the commitment and leadership of the government accompanied by the collective follow-through of all parties to achieve. It “takes a village” – not a corporation, nor individual citizens nor community groups alone. It is “shared values” rooted and shared within communities. The challenge is to apply the resources of these collective constituencies and those brought in from outside in a thoughtful and sustained manner.

    Any project that is undertaken must be matched by thoughtful water planning and management to prevent short-term crises. And, where it is operationalized and achieved, it should be reinforced with more favorable access to IMF or World Bank funding for future completed and operational projects.

    Aspirational goals serve a useful purpose, but are meaningful where there is no infrastructure, cooperation or, ultimately, commitment to meet them.

  8. Constancio Hishiyukifa Mwandingi @ Solidarity Community Care Organisation

    23 Jan 2013 - 07:46 (GMT)

    We are trying to provide safe water to poor communities but the issue of sustaninability and cost involved are the main challenges.

  9. Constancio Hishiyukifa Mwandingi @ Solidarity Community Care Organisation

    23 Jan 2013 - 07:49 (GMT)

    Cost and sustaniability are the main challeges as we are required to maintain the infrstructure and consumption monlthly.

  10. Joost Notenboom @ KPMG Sustainability

    23 Jan 2013 - 16:55 (GMT)

    Change is frequently slow and often incremental, and the MDG's have been a great tool to galvanize attention and awareness on the crucial issue of connecting people all across the world to a safe, clean, AND sustainable source of water. But with water being a very localized issue, involving many stakeholders, it really is something that has many solutions and many complexities. Water is connected and driven by other issues such as food security, energy, urbanization, climate change, and wealth. I have spent 20 months riding a bamboo bicycle from the Arctic down to the Antarctic trying to learn more about water and these complexities, and raising actionable attention to our shared challenges. During our Cycle for Water, we visited tons of small, and large, water projects, and what we found is resonated in some of Mr. Brabeck's comments. It's by engaging communties, women, and children as agents-of-change, combined with improved regulatory and financing structures, that will lead to a better situation for all, built from the bottom-up. Statistics on amounts of people reached, amounts of people connected to an improved source, and more, only tell part of the story; and the story of water is in the end a very human story that touches on all facets of life. I'm glad to be part of this dialogue and appreciate all who share their thoughts and insights.

  11. Mark Weick @ The Dow Chemical Company

    31 Jan 2013 - 23:57 (GMT)

    Yes, the goals were helpful, but still more focus needs to be made in light of growing populations and increasing per capita demands for fresh water.

  12. Saskia Castelein @ Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council

    06 Feb 2013 - 10:09 (GMT)

    The original MDGs did not include any reference to sanitation. To be able to insert a target during the final discussions in Johannesburg was a real victory. It is hard to imagine how the sector would have made progress without a sanitation target. Sanitation, and for that matter, talking toilets and feces, was 10 years ago still a taboo.

    Sanitation has always been the neglected sister of water (and this is still true today, as a.o. reflected in the post 2015 debates where water is far more dominant). However, many sector specialists are currently referring to sanitation related diseases, instead of water related diseases. Besides the strong link between sanitation and health, research in the past years has also documented an important relationship between poor sanitation and economic loss. The World Bank undertook a series of studies called “economics of sanitation”, which globally estimates billions of dollars in losses from poor sanitation.

    The past decade has witnessed milestones events and processes such as regional sanitation conferences, a United Nations International Year of Sanitation, a Sanitation and Water for All partnership, high-level meetings on sanitation and water, and a Global Sanitation Fund. Also important to underscore is that many national government have set their own sanitation targets, often aiming for full coverage. Yes, still a huge amount of work needs to be done but having a sanitation target was instrumental in having achieved important steps.

  13. Louise Koch @ Grundfos

    15 Feb 2013 - 11:43 (GMT)

    Grundfos fully supports the overall and main objectives of the discussion paper, however, we believe that Water and Sanitation should and must have it’s own target. The world’s population will grow from almost 7 billion now to over 8 billion in 2030. Demand for water, energy and food will increase dramatically. It is predicted that by 2030 the world will need to produce around 50 percent more food and energy, together with 30 per cent more fresh water.

    Although the world is generally ahead-of-schedule in terms of meeting the 2015 drinking water target proposed in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), there are still a great many people who are unable to rely on a secure source of water. Today, almost 840 million people still rely on unimproved water sources and more than 2 billion people have no access to proper sanitation. Against this background we believe that Water and Sanitation must have it’s own target.

  14. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestle

    18 Feb 2013 - 12:58 (GMT)

    There are a large number of points raised in the discussion of the first of the five questions about the success of the MDGs up to now, points that should be integrated into the wider reflection of post-2015 Development Goals.

    We still handle too many of the problems, and in particular water-related issues, in a crisis attitude rather than one looking towards long-term solutions, noted by Thian, or, as Karil said, “the long-term good intentions of governments and of people are repeatedly overshadowed by the urgencies of short-term crises.” To change this, we should combine the idea of MDGs with the concept of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),comments posted by Fatmanur, Henk and Raymond van Ermen; a point also made by Ida Auken, Danish Environment Minister, and Helen Clarke, Administrator UNDP, in personal discussions I had in Davos.

    Still more focus needs to be made in light of growing populations and increasing per capita demands for fresh water, highlighted by Mark, and Louise. And we should stop avoiding discussion on things that may sound unpleasant: talking about toilets and faeces should no longer be a taboo, noted by Saskia. And when talking of sustainability: the cost involved, cost effectiveness, must be part of the picture, a point made by Constancio.

    There is a need to get closer to grass-roots level, said Thian; or, as I would say, go to watersheds and look for solutions together with those directly concerned. Henk underlines the need to overcome piecemeal, plus act based on a coherent view of issues and solutions. Water is something that has many solutions and many complexities, highlighted by Joost.

  15. Tatiana Fedotova @ WBCSD

    18 Feb 2013 - 16:29 (GMT)

    Dear Peter, please find below the consolidated view from the WBCSD Water Leadership companies:

    - MDGs’ target-based approach, based on a goal, target and indicator/monitoring framework has been effective in anchoring water issues firmly on the development agenda.

    - The goals helped business in contextualizing efforts on safe water and improved sanitation and helping link such efforts to country-level/global priorities.

    - Water and sanitation related MDGs as part of Goal 7 were helpful but not ambitious enough, clear and operational:

    o The current MDG for access to water is measured using an indicator that only describes a minimal level of access to water and does not guarantee its safety. Depending on the criteria used to define satisfactory access to safe drinking water, the current need can be assessed to be either less than one billion people (1 person in 8), or almost 4 billion (more than half the world's population). Complete information about drinking water safety is still not available for global monitoring.

    o The human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, recognized in 2010, requires we look at access way beyond the types of facilities used, i.e. drinking water quality, availability of adequate quantity for domestic use, number of service hours available, distance to water source or sanitation facility, time spent on access and use, etc .

    o Regional distribution of access to safe drinking water remains uneven, with Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania strongly lagging behind. The same is true for rural versus urban households as most people without an improved drinking water source live in rural areas.

    o The MDG goal on sanitation will not be reached by 2015 with half the population of developing regions not having access to improved facilities and one billion people still defecating in the open (by current projections it will not be achieved until 2026). Disparities in urban and rural sanitation coverage remain daunting and improvements are bypassing the poorest and most vulnerable people.

    o Global averages mark disparities in the way water and sanitation services are distributed. The equity imperative demands looking far beyond (least developed countries, gender and burden of water collection, wealth quintiles etc.).

    o Having water resource management plans in place is a means to achieve the target, not a target in itself. Moreover these plans tend not to address the water-energy-food nexus in an appropriately integrated manner.

    Best regards,

  16. Lis Martin @ Progressio (International Development NGO)

    19 Feb 2013 - 10:45 (GMT)

    The MDGs' target-based approach has galvanised governments and donors to address one of the aspects of the water crisis which affects poor communities the most, that of access to drinking water and basic sanitation. Whilst progress has been made in some countries in terms of the number of people able to access drinking water, disparities persist both within and between countries. Within countries, women continue to bear the burden of water collection and the most marginalised groups within society are often excluded. LDCs and countries that have been termed 'fragile states' are lagging behind. As has already been identified, the MDG goal on sanitation will be missed.

    Progressio works with some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in the world. For them, access to water is not just vital for drinking and for basic sanitation but for food production and small-scale livelihoods such as agriculture. Their ability to access water resources for these multiple uses is being affected by changing climate, increasing demands and unsustainable management by other local users, lack of infrastructure and weak governance. The MDGs have focused attention on the importance of water for human health but has ignored the significance of affordable and sustainable access to water resources for food and energy security, for small-scale livelihoods, for production and economic growth, and the importance of freshwater ecosystems for other ecosystem services. In order to reduce poverty and ensure sustainable development, the Post 2015 framework must view water holistically and consider the many competing demands on this finite and shared resource and the factors affecting access for the poorest people.

    Our experience concurs that water resource management has not had sufficient focus within the MDGs. Integrated Water Resource Management has dominated as the policy solution to water management and in theory IWRM addresses many of the governance, environmental and competing values challenges discussed above. However, effective implementation is much harder. Water must be actively managed in a coherent way that includes participating with all local water users, from local communities to businesses, to ensure inclusive decision-making in the use and management of local water resources.

  17. Shauna Curry @ CAWST - Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology

    15 Mar 2013 - 17:12 (GMT)

    Yes, the original MDG targets brought focused attention on the need to provide basic water and sanitation services to the poor globally and for better protection and use of water resources world-wide. Evidence of this is that on March 6, 2012, the United Nations announced that the world had reduced by half the number of people without access to safe drinking water. While the target arguably needs to be redefined to accurately represent its defined intention, this milestone was achieved in 2010, well before the 2015 target indicative of the focused attention on water.

    The drive toward achieving specific targets also resulted in much learning about what needs to be measured and how it needs to be measured. The history of UN activity toward achieving the Water MDGs shows a progression over the years to:
    • Use household surveys to collect required data
    • Expand the target from “water” to “water and sanitation”
    • Consider water quality in addition to water quantity
    • Develop the enabling environment in terms of human resources, finances and policy
    • Include equity and sustainability of services as measures of success.

    There is a disconnect, however in the original targets from the statistical evidence demonstrating that improved water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) results in improved public health. This essential link has not been sufficiently emphasised at the highest levels of the United Nations and therefore in focused attention by government, business, and civil society. The current WASH MDGs are listed under the goal of “ensuring environmental sustainability,” rather than “eradicating extreme poverty and hunger,” “reducing child mortality rates,” or any of the other MDGs on which improved WASH has a direct bearing.

    One key result of this disconnect is that, over the past twenty years, international development work has focused on increasing access to water without the corresponding basic sanitation for the same people. This increased access to water results in increased use of and contamination of water, thus further degradation of water resources: 80% of the wastewater in developing countries is being returned to the rivers and streams untreated (World Water Development Report, 2010).

    Households need solutions that address all three WASH components—water, sanitation and hygiene—to achieve lasting improvements in health and wellbeing, yet the crucial link between these three components is not often made.

    The review of the UN MDG 2015 goals and setting of new targets provides an opportunity to strengthen the link between WASH and health, and also to overall social and economic development. A high-level goal on WASH for health would go a long way to provide focus on progressing individuals, households and communities toward full-coverage of WASH. It would provide impetus for sparking collaboration and removing the current siloes between health, water and sanitation (currently treated independently by projects, programs, ministries, funding, and research). Access to safe water would be measured in conjunction with access to sanitation and lead to a higher-level goal of access to all.

    On the word ‘crisis’ so often used to describe our global water issues: while this connotation of urgency is accurate, “crisis” frames the challenge as short-term. People need clean drinking water every, as do our planet’s eco-systems. Water action and vigilance need to be never ending. We must move from solving a ‘crisis’ to developing sustainable ways to provide ourselves with water on a continuing basis.

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