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Sustainable Development Goals As Catalyst For Sustainable Water Law

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Otto Spijkers

Utrecht University1

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 7: Global challenges for water governance,


One of the more formidable global challenges of today is to ensure the sustainable management of freshwater resources. In many recent speeches and reports, one reads that urgent action is necessary to prevent a nightmarish world with polluted lakes and rivers, deadly droughts and floods, water scarcity and the resulting water wars.


My aim is to analyze how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) process currently underway might give a boost to the evolution of the existing framework of international water law towards a more sustainable development-friendly legal framework.

Results and Discussion

First, I will make a few general remarks about the SDG process, and the role of "water" in it. The drafting process of the Sustainable Development Goals takes place through two work streams, which will be brought together in 2015, when the UN General Assembly has to adopt the list of SDGs in the form of a resolution. The first is a work stream led by the UN Secretary-General, with lots of reports and consultations feeding into this work stream. And the second is a work stream led by the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals. After the adoption of the SDGs by the General Assembly, the SDG process will be all about implementation, dissemination, monitoring compliance and creating awareness of the SDGs -- a bit like the current status of Millennium Development Goals process.

From the beginning of the SDG drafting process, water has been identified as an important issue. The Future We Want, the outcome document of the Rio+20 Conference held in 2012, which set the SDG drafting process in motion, already put water at the heart of sustainable development. It called on "the development of integrated water resource management and water efficiency plans, ensuring sustainable water use" (para. 120). Since then, those participating in the work streams have struggled to find "water"'s proper place in the SDG process. For example, a proposal for a separate water goal was put forward by the Secretary-General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (consortium of scientists) proposed to include somewhere in the list of goals a commitment that "water resources are managed sustainably and transparently." The UN Global Compact (consortium of responsible businesses) suggested calling upon all States to look critically at overconsumption of water resources, especially in the agricultural sector. And the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (group of experts) proposed to include a separate SDG on water, but focusing on individual entitlements to water and not sustainable transboundary water management. And finally and most importantly, the Outcome Document of the Open Working Group, which will from now on constitute the document around which all subsequent discussions on the SDGs will be organized, included a Sustainable Development Goal on ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water.

All in all, water was -- and still is - on the minds of many people involved in the SDG drafting process, but there exist various and widely diverging ideas on how exactly the reference to water should be phrased. Should water be seen as a human rights issue? As an economic issue? As an environmental concern?

Despite this cacophony of different opinions, there are some themes and ideas relating to water law that emerge from the SDG process and on which it seems possible to get some general agreement. I will look at three such ideas. States could be encouraged to:

1) Unambiguously approach international water law as a legal framework to promote the sustainable development of water resources, and to interpret the bedrock principles of international water law in that "green" context.

2) Stimulate the further development of the ecosystems approach to international water law.

3) Use the legal framework of international water law to facilitate public participation at all levels of water governance.


In short, I will examine how the SDG process could trigger the evolution of international water law, to make it more "green," i.e. more sustainable, and more ecosystem- and public participation-friendly.

2011 IWRA - International Water Resources Association - - Admin