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Debating the best way to improve water and sanitation post-MDGs

Every day, contractors truck nearly four million litres of water to Za'atari camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan Heba Aly/IRIN
A leading water think tank today issued a call for a post-2015 development target on water aimed at making better use of scarce water supplies, realizing the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and increasing resilience to droughts and floods by 2030.

The appeal, from the Stockholm International Water Institute, came after a week of discussions and consultations with aid agencies, development organizations and water experts on how to build on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which set a 2015 target to improve access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

“The MDGs have provided an incredible focus for the international development agenda and served as a rallying cry at a time when support for international goals was waning,” said Michel Jarraud, chair of UN-Water. “Water-related challenges hit the poor the hardest - this is where we should focus our efforts. We now need to build on what we already have and how to make the next goals even better.”

This issue was one of the key topics of debate World Water Week, an event that winds up today, in Stockholm. The next 12 months are seen as essential to securing a target for water and sanitation that will help guide relief and development efforts for the next 15 years.

Yet despite positive indications from the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, a dedicated water/sanitation target is not guaranteed; water experts fear years of difficulty if the process is botched, and there were signs at last year’s Rio+20 summit that world leaders may be lacking enthusiasm for new water pledges.

“Not having a water goal will only complicate our job of keeping water very high on the public agenda,” said Bart Devos from the World Youth Parliament for Water (WYPW).

Mixed MDG outcomes

Since the MDG target baseline year, 1990, at least two billion people have gained access to a source of improved drinking water. But nearly 800 million are still left out; of them, 40 percent live in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Not having a water goal will only complicate our job of keeping water very high on the public agenda"
“It [the MDG water target] was useful because it made governments think about what they were doing and how well they were doing. But it also went through a couple of hiccups, which were quite educative,” Mike Muller, from the University of Witwatersrand’s School of Public and Development Management, told IRIN.

“When ministers thought that all they had to do was to put pipes in the ground and taps on the end of them, they focused on infrastructure provision, and they were able to say ‘We’ve provided infrastructure for millions of people’. There was just one problem in many cases - the infrastructure didn’t work.”

Indicators were later tweaked to try to make sure only water services that worked were counted.

The global water target was achieved five years early, in 2010, but sanitation has remained a tougher objective; 2.5 billion people still lack access to improved sanitation facilities. Diarrhoea is the second biggest cause of death in many developing countries, and 1.1 billion people are defecating in the open.

The challenge of sanitation is likely to increase as urban populations rise; the World Bank estimates 70 percent of China’s population will be in towns and cities by 2030.

The MDG water and sanitation target helped stimulate action by countries, donors and agencies; it was aspirational and could be measured and communicated.

What they were less strong on was tackling inequality, which campaigners hope will be more strongly emphasized in the post-2015 targets, dubbed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

But that may be a harder challenge, particularly with universal water and sanitation targets that mask regional variations. But Amanda Marlin from the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) says they should not just aim for easy targets.

“The MDGs have helped us, but we want to do better post-2015. We don’t want to just go for the low-hanging fruit, just trying to bring down numbers, and that the hardest to reach are left out again and again.”

What to aim for

Unlike the development of the MDG targets, devising the SDGs has involved a wide-ranging and sometimes bewildering consultation process, which has left room for lobbying and comments from all parts of the sector.

Though all see water and sanitation as basic issues, there are a variety of views about the best strategy to embrace.

Many, including those behind today’s Stockholm Statement, argue for a standalone or dedicated goal aiming at a variety of targets. Popular suggestions include a target to end open defecation and a target for universal access to water and sanitation.

Millennium Development Goals
Target 7a: Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources.
Target 7c: Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation
And there is a desire to move beyond quantity to look at quality - how safe is the water, is it free from pollution, and do the toilets that were built still function? Should there be a target for installed water and sanitation facilities in schools and health centres? Should there be an equality element?

“We need convincing targets, and we need [to see] that they are based on measurable indicators. We are not there yet. A lot of people are proposing too many targets, far too many,” said Gérard Payen, from the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB).

Other suggestions include aiming for fresh water withdrawals to match what is sustainable to supply, and some sort of goals on handwashing and menstrual hygiene.

For each target, there needs to be a way to work out whether the objective was reached, a condition that makes some targets less workable. Measuring the wrong proxy indicator could lead to unintended or even negative results.

“These indicators and goals can really be useful, and can make people concentrate on what they’re trying to achieve. But also we should learn that we have to shape them very carefully or else you might have perverse incentives and people start doing the wrong things,” said Muller.

If the water community does not go into discussions early next year with one voice, Muller worries, they may end up with a result that satisfies no one.

“It’d be much better if we went in with a really well-constructed set of goals. Otherwise, what happens - and that’s what happened with the MDGs - is you go with a huge shopping list, it doesn’t make sense, they all agree that there’s got to be a goal, and somebody kind of cooks it up late at night, and it’s a bad compromise,” said Muller.

Go it alone?

One difficulty the sector faces is that water is clearly related to several other humanitarian and developmental sectors like health and education - linkages that were never captured in the original MDGs.

Some, like Muller, argue that it may be a good idea to put water and sanitation targets in other areas like health, in order to spread obligations and resources.

“We have to be aware that we can’t achieve everything on our own,” said Nina Odenwaelder, from the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ). “We need to have shared responsibilities; inter-linkages need to be more fully discussed.”

But many fear abandoning a standalone goal would split the sector: “If you spread water goals among other goals, it will only foster giant competition for water resources between those sectors,” said Devos.

Regardless, cross-sector partnerships will be a crucial part of improving access to basic water services, experts say.

There is also a strong push to look into waste water management and water resource management, which were not really addressed in the MDG water target. These are “not unfinished business, but business we haven’t yet attended to properly,” said Joakim Harlin, a senior water resources adviser with the UN Development Programme. An estimated 80 percent of waste water is discharged into open water, he says.

But putting waste water into the SDG water targets does not sit comfortably with everyone. Some say the natural environment can often cope with a certain amount of waste water, that waste water infrastructure tends to just benefit elites, and that the big water businesses could be behind the push for a target.

Others worry that it could simply be unhelpful to divide the sector into separate WASH, resource management and waste targets.

“If you now start separating water quality from water quantity, you disintegrate the integration that people have been working at for the past 40 years, so I think it’s a really short-sighted approach,” said Muller.

Data and responsibility

Data is a vital component of any target-based system; measurable goals bring accountability and attract funding.

But there remains a good degree of uncertainty about how much water there is and who is using it. Remote sensing data from satellites can provide some information, but its applicability is limited.

Targets need to reflect things that even developing countries might have or could have capacity to measure, including monitoring over time.

“I’m very sceptical about statistics, even though I believe strongly in knowing what we’re doing,” said Franz Marré, from Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

Some water experts even suggest making a target out of collecting water data.

And even basic definitions await clarification - for instance, is a borehole counted as a safe water point?

“The targets must be appropriate for action. They must give a clear message on what must be done and be clear about ownership. They also need to be attainable, and we need to know if we are on track or off track,” said Odenwaelder.

The question of who will be responsible for achieving the target and paying for it is the final challenge.

“Who is doing the monitoring? Who is paying for it? Where is the home? Who is doing all that work?” said Uschi Eid from the UNSGAB.

“I fear that if water is everybody’s business, then water is nobody’s business.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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