March 2018, No. 1 Vol. LV 2018, The Quest for Water

Shifting our priorities from economic growth to sustainable development is the political imperative of our time. To do so, leaders must deliver on water security, ensuring that water becomes an enabler, rather than a major barrier to sustainable growth. What is it going to take?

Everyone at the table

The Global Water Partnership (GWP) was created in 1996 to advocate for the application of integrated water resources management (IWRM), and has since produced a substantial body of knowledge in that respect. GWP cheered when a Sustainable Development Goal on water, SDG 6—“ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”—was incorporated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including a specific target (6.5) for the implementation of IWRM. This integrated approach has become a global political commitment.

One of the core tenets of IWRM is “a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policymakers at all levels.” GWP was also pleased when the 2030 Agenda called for an all-of-society engagement and partnership to bring about the large scale transformational change needed to address the world’s challenges through SDG 17, “Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development”. This inclusive approach is essential for solving water problems, most of which stem from the growing demand of competing users. Water is everywhere: in food, health, energy, migration, jobs, poverty, climate change solutions and disaster relief. Business as usual—a fragmented approach with each sector acting unilaterally—means we will eventually need three planets worth of water! A water-secure world will require all users at the table to share water more holistically and understand that unless upstream resources are managed sustainably, the well may dry up for everyone.

The first solution to securing water and sustaining growth is multi-stakeholder inclusion, thereby deploying SDG 17 for SDG 6. The GWP local-national-regional-global network includes stakeholders—governments, civil society, and business—who have the power to solve water problems. Our network on the ground provides the knowledge, capacity and flexibility to respond quickly, so that political will may be exercised for achieving water security in a timely fashion.

As an example, GWP leveraged its stakeholder network in 2017 to advance the SDG 6 reporting process. Together with the United Nations Environment Programme-DHI, the custodian agency of the SDG target 6.5.1 indicator, measuring the degree of IWRM implementation, GWP convened 30 workshops in order to collect individual country data. The results of the workshops will form part of the SDG 6 baseline data to be included in UN-Water’s SDG 6 Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation in the 2030 Agenda,1 which will serve as an input to the high-level political forum on sustainable development in July 2018. The workshops highlighted national priority areas for IWRM, which will be used to design interventions to further advance SDG 6.


“Water crises” are among the top-ranked global risks for the past several years in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report. The 2017 report states that “…changing weather patterns or water crises can trigger or exacerbate geopolitical and societal risks, such as domestic or regional conflict and involuntary migration, particularly in geopolitically fragile areas”.2 Even though the Paris Agreement did not make an explicit connection between climate change and water, the link is evident. Thus, water is the most cited priority sector in Intended Nationally Determined Contributions of countries to the Paris Agreement.

The 2016 New Climate Economy report estimates that to prevent the worst impacts of climate breakdown, a net additional investment of $4 trillion will be needed.3 We realize that not all this money is coming from public funding. Fortunately, CEOs from a range of industries have stepped up their efforts to address climate destruction, making commitments to decrease carbon footprints and engage in sustainable resource management.

The second solution is the need for private-public partnerships to finance water security. The link between water resources and economic growth (SDG 8, “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”) was made evident in the GWP–Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development landmark study Securing Water, Sustaining Growth, released in 2015.4 Water insecurity costs the global economy some $500 billion annually. This figure does not take into account environmental impacts, thus the total burden on the world economy could be 1 per cent or more of global gross domestic product.

Communities most in need of financing will require support in identifying and preparing projects for investment, especially for adaptation. Projects that lead to adaptation and resilience are crucial, yet often not bankable in the traditional sense, unless externalities of climate change-induced potential costs are taken into account. The challenge is to ensure that the notion of bankability is all-encompassing enough to include the poorest of the poor. Through capacity-building for project development, GWP helped secure nearly €20 million since 2014 in climate financing for vulnerable communities in Africa. The implementation of these investment plans has the potential to protect nearly 74 million people from water crises.

Clearly, the global community needs to come to a greater appreciation of the value of water. This is why, at the request of the High-level Panel on Water (HLPW)5—an initiative of the United Nations Secretary-General and the President of the World Bank Group—GWP convened the regional Valuing Water consultations throughout 2017.6 Stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations, indigenous peoples, faith-based groups, governments, women, youth, and commercial organizations, addressed the multiple values of water. Among them are cultural, spiritual and environmental dimensions, as well as the sensitive issue of the economic value of water and its pricing. Participants’ views were incorporated into the Valuing Water document, which informed the actions of the HLPW at the United Nations in September 2017.

More than money

As important as money is, it isn’t everything. At an event on “Financing SDG 6” in Stockholm, Sweden, on 29 August 2017, the Executive Director of the Green Climate Fund, Howard Bamsey, pointed out that the key to unlocking finance for water and adaptation is governance. He noted that the funding needed to achieve water security exists, but warned that the private sector “will not invest until the water governance is right, from policy development to law and regulation, down to local governance arrangements.”

With the many water scarcity risks, the solution is better management and good governance of water. Current water problems are usually issues of management, such as water policies, legal frameworks and institutional capacity. Even if most water problems are specific to their location, the solutions are similar, involving cross-sector cooperation, informed stakeholders, reliable information, competent institutions, transparent decision-making and benefit-sharing.

These governance strategies are called the “enabling environment”, which is the third solution for securing water and sustaining growth. Financing the enabling environment and all that constitutes sound water management is the best insurance policy for speeding up the achievement of a water-secure world.

Strengthening institutions and actors to solve water problems creates an enabling environment for investment, providing a safe space for businesses to sustain their water management strategies and value chains. Investments in water security are uniquely catalytic: a leverage point to alleviate poverty, improve access to clean water and sanitation, protect ecosystems, and enhance climate resilience for fragile communities in a way that is gender and socially inclusive.

When managed well, water enables sustainable growth and serves as a solution to many of the challenges of the 2030 Agenda, from achieving food and energy security to alleviating poverty, creating equitable societies, reducing disaster risk and combating climate change.

The global community now has a dedicated water goal in SDG 6. But many decision makers don’t know enough about it, and therefore it risks being a low priority. This is why GWP intends to launch an “Act on SDG 6” campaign on World Water Day on 22 March 2018. Its purpose is to urge decision makers to prioritize SDG 6 and understand its critical link to other SDGs. The campaign will raise awareness about the need for multi-stakeholder partnerships (SDG 17) which can deliver on-the-ground results for better water management (SDG 6).

The campaign is a natural fit with the United Nations SDG Action Campaign,7 mandated to support the United Nations system-wide and the Member States on advocacy and public engagement in SDG implementation. GWP will be there with the United Nations on behalf of SDG 6 and the water-related goals.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres summed it up well, addressing a high-level Security Council briefing on water security in June 2017: “Without effective management of our water resources, we risk intensified disputes between communities and sectors and even increased tensions among nations.”8 Water is the cornerstone of human health, well-being and economic development. If managed well, it enables development and contributes to prosperity and peace. Let’s leave that legacy to the next generation.    


  1. UN-Water, SDG 6—Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation in the 2030 Agenda (Geneva, Switzerland, forthcoming). Available from
  2. World Economic Forum, The Global Risks Report 2017, 12th ed. (Geneva, Switzerland, 2017), p.16. Available from
  3. New Climate Economy, The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, “The sustainable infrastructure imperative: financing for better growth and development”, The 2016 New Economy Report (Washington, D.C., New Climate Economy, World Resources Institute, 2016), p. 4. Available from
  4. Claudia W. Sadoff and others, Securing Water, Sustaining Growth: Report of the GWP/OECD Task Force on Water Security and Sustainable Growth (Oxford, United Kingdom, University of Oxford, 2015). Available from
  5. For more information, see
  6. For more information, see
  7. For more information about The United Nations Sustainable Development Action Campaign, see
  8. S/PV.7959. Available from