The fallacy of the water "sector" in water resources management

Submitted by Nitya Jacob | published 22nd Jun 2022 | last updated 1st Jul 2022
Pipes and power

Pipelines and power lines juxtapose the multiple uses of water


Every year on March 22nd, World Water Day allows us to reflect on a different issue related to what is often referred to as the “water sector”. This year’s theme, Valuing Water, is an intriguing one. Both words are enigmatic, and the interpretation of this theme depends very much on the audience: what are the multiple values that come to mind when one thinks about water – economic, cultural, spiritual, legal, or others? And what first springs to mind when we mention the word water – is it drinking water, water for productive uses, rainfall, rivers, floods, or all of the above? Can such a wide range of topics really fit under one narrow “sector”? Furthermore, I would ask, who is doing the valuing? We water people typically value water already – it’s what we do! But are we managing to convince ‘non-water’ people to also value water appropriately? And if not, why not?

In the context of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on Clean Water and Sanitation, the range of water-related issues that the world has committed to achieve by 2030 includes drinking water and sanitation, hygiene, water quality, wastewater treatment, water use efficiency, water stress, Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), and water-related ecosystems. I would argue that this list constitutes many different sectors, which in turn relate to just about every developmental challenge facing humanity. Indeed, all other SDGs, inter alia on poverty, food systems, health, education, gender, energy, economic growth, industry, inequalities, cities, consumption, climate, oceans, ecosystems, peace and justice and partnerships, affect and in turn are affected by our ability to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Similarly, when talking about climate goals, the link between water and climate change adaptation is well understood, water being the main medium through which climate impacts are felt (be it too much or too little), and building climate resilience through better water management is a key adaptation strategy. However, as highlighted by the 2020 World Water Development Report, water is also key for climate mitigation, and better management of wastewater, reduced water consumption and water use efficiency in particular could reduce energy use in water by up to 15% by 2040.

Finally, water in all of its facets is also an essential element of the post-COVID recovery, from handwashing, as one of the most effective prevention strategies, to sewage, which can serve as a first alert for large-scale COVID outbreaks, to effective sanitation and wastewater, which can prevent unnecessary spread of the disease.

Sadly, the people that are least likely to benefit from progress on the SDGs, that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and most exposed to health pandemics are also those who suffer most from lack of access to good quality water. I would argue that IWRM could and should be a water connector between those different goals. IWRM is an approach that integrates water-related "natural systems" with water-related "governance systems". As such, it is uniquely placed to join the dots on our multiple challenges, in a highly cost-effective way.

Yet when we in the water “community” unfortunately refer to water as a “sector”, I believe we are pigeonholing this most vital of all resources in a way that does it a grand disservice. It camouflages the crosscutting importance of water to many sectors. If mainstreamed in our development, climate and COVID-19 response (note the singular), a more integrated approach would lead to a more resilient, more sustainable, healthier, and more prosperous society.

I have experienced first-hand how water has often been considered just another sector by many delegations of the Climate Change COPs, and how this focus limits the understanding of how #WaterIsClimate. Could we water people agree to refer to ourselves as the water community, working with a crosscutting resource that we need to coordinate in an integrated way with different sectors, for those sectors to value water just as much as we do?

The good news is that the world has a specific SDG target, 6.5, on the implementation of IWRM. The even better news is that there is a coordination mechanism that supports countries in advancing on SDG target 6.5, breaking down the silos, to create value for people, the environment and the economy through IWRM: Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you to the SDG 6 IWRM Support Programme, coordinated by Global Water Partnership (GWP) under the guidance of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and in collaboration with UNEP-DHI Centre and Cap-Net UNDP. The Support Programme is assisting countries to:

1.     Convene relevant stakeholders to agree on the challenges and opportunities related to IWRM, using the monitoring exercise around SDG target 6.5: 70 countries assisted so far!

2.     Turn those challenges and opportunities into specific IWRM Action Plans, essentially a set of attractive investment portfolios; 10 countries assisted so far!

3.     Support implementation of those actions, to move the needle on SDG 6.5 and other targets, in the indivisible spirit of the SDGs; implementation of 10 actions assisted so far!

In this way, the Support Programme assists national governments to articulate their local needs and opportunities with regional priorities, as a contribution to global commitments, in a multi-level coordination mechanism. The Support Programme does this by viewing water as a highly valued crosscutting resource, not as a sector. On this World Water Day 2021, take time to reflect on how you can contribute to better #valuewater, to advance towards your goals.