Suppose money was being deposited and withdrawn from your bank account, but you didn’t know how much. And suppose you knew you had bills coming due, but you didn’t know when or what amount would be required to cover them. Worse, what if you discovered that money was being siphoned from your retirement account to cover the shortfall in your checking account? How confident would you feel about your financial stability?
This situation plays out every day when it comes to freshwater. We don’t know how much water we are withdrawing and consuming. In many places, we don’t even know how much groundwater and surface water we have.
But we do know this unequivocally: People, ecosystems, food, energy and cities can’t exist without water. Already, water resources are being strained to the breaking point – in Sao Paulo, northern China, the western United States, northwestern India and many other places. And the world’s water needs are rising inexorably.
The SDGs will replace the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015, and set the international development agenda for the next 15 years. For the first time ever, the goals could offer new transparency and accountability in how the world uses its water resources. Goal 6 of the proposed SDGs has specific targets related to sustainable and efficient water use, water and sanitation, water quality and protection of critical natural infrastructure.
Beyond a dedicated goal on water, the issue is also mainstreamed across the 17 goals – in goal 3 on health, goal 11 on cities, goal 12 on sustainable consumption and production and goal 15 on terrestrial ecosystems. These targets will focus political attention, resources and stakeholders on water management more than ever before.
This fall, the international community will finalize the SDGs and the metrics to measure and track water use at a country level. These targets could help hold countries accountable for better water management. Importantly, the SDGs would apply to both developed and developing countries, forcing all countries to “walk the talk.”
Where Companies Lead, Others Follow
Many companies already understand that the world is on an unsustainable path. They’re experiencing it in their bottom lines, and investors are asking tough questions. The 2015 World Economic Forum listed “water supply crises” as the top global risks affecting businesses.
Industry leaders are taking steps to reduce their risk exposure and making investments to lessen watershed-level stress, devoting resources to urban water efficiency, aquifer recharge and reforestation and other strategies. For example, Heineken committed this year to create source water protection plans for all of its production units located in water-stressed areas, while MillerCoors has a five-part water stewardship strategy in place.
The private sector and civil society will be useful allies in raising awareness in countries facing particularly high competition for water resources. Hopefully this, combined with the SDGs, will motivate governments to take positive action to reduce water stress – from more rational water pricing, to regulating groundwater withdrawal rates to incentivizing efficient irrigation and reducing water intensity in energy extraction and production.
It Starts with Good Data
This first-of-its-kind SDG system will depend on strong metrics and data. A first step will be establishing a baseline to track sustainable water use against the target.
This challenge will require the best efforts of experts on global water data systems. These discussions are already underway across the world’s professional water communities.
WRI's Aqueduct tool is a good place to start. The open-source platform provides the most up-to-date, globally consistent water supply and demand data publicly available today. Many companies, investors, governments and others are already using Aqueduct. Forthcoming water stress projection maps will also provide scenarios for future demand and supply for 2020, 2030 and 2040, helping the private sector and government create forward-looking water management policies.
An Unprecedented Opportunity
We can move from a picture of frightening scarcity, uncertainty and competition to one of abundance. Strategies to reduce water stress and use water more efficiently have been successfully applied by countries on virtually every continent. Awareness drives action, and transparency drives accountability.
The international consensus embedded in the new SDGs could be a game-changer. While challenging to implement, the new SDGs could bring unprecedented action to mitigate the world’s water demand and supply crises. And done well, they will foster growth, reduce poverty and build resilient ecosystems – delivering a more sustainable future.