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The ‘World We Want’ most, and why. How to make the case for natural resources, post-2015

Written by Nathaniel Mason

The process to define sustainable development goals is inching forwards, with Hungary and Kenya appointed as co-facilitators for the UN General Assembly’s Open Working Group. Small mercies in a world accustomed to multi-lateral disappointments, from Copenhagen to Doha. But this is only the beginning for the greatest prize, and the toughest call, in the post-2015 agenda: addressing the inequities in our collective present, without jeopardising a common future.

Last week I participated in a post-2015 consultation on water, organised by the UN under its ‘World We Want’ slogan. Almost 200 participants had made the trip to Geneva – Southern and Northern governments, together with representatives from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), corporations and inter-governmental agencies. 

Yet, despite the enthusiasm and the UN’s urging, we never quite succeeded in saying what we really do want, in specific, prioritised and justified terms. Instead, it felt like we were all adding our pet topics to the mix, generating plenty of ‘nice-to-haves’, but few ‘must-haves’.

The meeting focused on the ‘resource’ end of water: water resources management, wastewater and water quality. Drinking water and sanitation are being dealt with separately for the time being (these are the objects of the current Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target 7c, which, despite falling under the environmental sustainability goal, is usually aligned with human health needs). As such, we were debating just one sub-set of one of the 11 themes framing the World We Want consultation – not to mention the many issues that don’t have their own defined place, such as disasters.

Add in the abundance of potential indicators relating to water, and the first question is in fact not what we want, but what we want most (priority); the second question, is why (justification).

These are not just questions for water resources management. They are confronting all sectors that haven’t spent the last two decades trying to reach globally endorsed targets. When it comes to long-term sustainability, these questions need to be answered for many natural resource management challenges: energy and land as well as water, and the threat posed by climate change.

And answers are urgently needed: the countries that will finance a post-2015 framework need to be able to justify it to their electorate; those for which social and economic development remains the immediate priority need to know that sustainable resource management is not a Northern, growth-limiting agenda.

The existing MDG targets and indicators may help us find the answers. The MDG process was, of course, very different: the priorities were decided by a few, with less of the global discussion (or scramble, depending on your perspective) that is emerging over the post-2015 framework. Justification came after indicators were defined, as advocates of different MDG issues realised the utility of the simple, quantifiable targets in holding governments to account and leveraging greater resources. All the same, there are a few transferable lessons – and in the case of water resources, the first place to look is the drinking water and sanitation MDG targets.

  • Some of the central advocacy tools for drinking water and sanitation are estimates of benefits and costs from the WHO: globally, $1 invested in access to sanitation is estimated to produce $5.5 in return ($2 for drinking water). We still don’t have equivalent high-level numbers for most water resource management investments – from flood protection, to increasing the productivity of irrigated agriculture, to restoring wetlands. As a result, we struggle to say what works, and to advocate for these solutions as the ‘must-haves’ – the post-2015 water priorities. Of course, many resource-management investments are about avoiding the greater costs of inaction, making the estimation and communication of risk equally important. Some ‘environmental’ sectors have progressed further on this than water resources management, providing some pointers.  Developing sciences such as environment-economic accounting and ecosystem service valuation, and continued efforts to define planetary boundaries, will also be critically important.
  • But monetisation of costs and benefits won’t tell the whole story. There is also a role for rights-based arguments in deciding and justifying the place of natural resource management in the post-2015 priorities. The human rights to drinking water and sanitation, also used as advocacy tools by proponents of MDG target 7c, are focused on (undeniably important) basic, health-related needs. Compelling rights-based arguments for water for livelihoods, e.g. smallholder irrigation, and for preserving freshwater ecosystem services on which the poorest people often depend disproportionately, need to be evolved. Fortunately, environmental NGOs are re-emphasising the link between environmental sustainability, especially ecosystem services, and the livelihoods and welfare of poor people.

These are tall orders, and they get us only part of the way. As each sector starts to make a more coherent and compelling case for its priorities, the challenge of integration and focusing down on the most important cross-cutting themes will increase. But at least we might be starting from a shortlist, rather than a wish list.