To make the SDGs grow, add water

Photo: Bruno Locatelli/CIFOR
Photo: Bruno Locatelli/CIFOR
This article was written by a social reporter. It has not been edited by the Forum organisers or partners, and represents the opinion of the individual author only.

Before climate negotiators were huddled around tables debating the final changes to the 2015 Paris agreement, they were busy deliberating another contentious text: the Sustainable Development Goals. September 8, 2015, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) officially replaced the Millennium Development Goals. While only one goal explicitly calls for “Clean Water and Sanitation,” most of them are directly or indirectly connected to the health of river basins and watersheds.

The viability of agriculture, forests, wildlife, energy, and urban settlements are intricately tied to the viability of water resources. On the first day of the 2015 Global Landscapes Forum, held in Paris alongside the UNFCCC COP21 climate negotiations, a group of experts addressed the relationship between integrated water resource management and realizing the SDGs.

Despite scientific evidence that the health of water resources is intricately influenced by land use, water systems have to date not played a significant role in the landscapes approach. Session participants discussed this dissonance as well as river basins and watersheds as nexus points that can further reintegrate fragmented approaches to landscape development.

The SDGs, “provide guidance, but they don’t give answers,” said Christian Dannecker, Director of Sustainable Supply Chains and Land Use for the South Pole Group. Instead, explained the panelists, answers to questions of water systems are best derived when dependent on local context and driven by local governance. The specific nature of these challenges shifts with each level pf governance—regional, national, municipal, and landscape levels—and must be addressed accordingly. If watersheds are to be reconnected with the landscape approach, top-down policy approaches should be complemented with bottom-up collective action.

Multi-sectoral partnerships can play a critical convening role. Evan Girvetz, Senior Scientist with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), pointed towards the Nairobi Water Fund as an example of watershed management helping to meet these goals.

The Fund is a public-private partnership that recognizes the benefit of long-term investment in the Tana River Watershed. The watershed provides 95% of Nairobi’s water supply for its four million citizens, nourishes the country’s main agricultural areas, and supplies 60% of Kenya’s hydropower.

A shift anywhere within the watershed will be felt downstream. For example, when land use is converted from forests to agriculture, it can increase the amount of sedimentation that runs into the river. Added sedimentation has negative implications for drinking-water quality and can harm hydropower dams. To coordinate efforts between businesses, public agencies, and energy utilities, a group of research centers and the UN in Nairobi are governing the Fund.

Working collaboratively at a watershed-scale is complicated and time-intensive, but it serves compound interests and is cost-saving over time. Meeting the SDGs will mean thinking both more broadly within contexts – in terms of land, people, and water.