UNSW Global Water Institute - Riversymposium LIT session

PLuS Alliance explores SDG6: Implementing the targets

The 21st International Riversymposium was held in Sydney on 14-18 October and attended by 350 delegates from all over Australia and abroad. The focus of the Symposium was “Embracing Innovation.”

Hosted by the International RiverFoundation, the International Riversymposium was first held in Brisbane in 1998 and provides a platform for river managers, policy developers, scientists, consultants, NGOs and community organisations to share knowledge and innovative ideas on all aspects of river and water management.

The symposium featured three sequential sessions on ‘Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – Implementing the Targets’, The first session coordinated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade focused on ‘Achieving SDG 6 – Targeting Nexus’; The second session coordinated by CSIRO focused on ‘Water and SDGs interactions – Creating a Positive-sum Game’.

The third session was coordinated by the UNSW Global Water Institute (UNSW-GWI) and the PLuS Alliance and focused on “Implementing the SDG 6 Targets.” The session featured PLuS Alliance representatives Greg Leslie and Richard Kingsford (UNSW), Dave White and Michael Hanemann (ASU) and Jane Catford (KCL). The session also included invited speakers Dr. Bill Young of the World Bank, Dr. Emma Carmody of the NSW Environment Defenders Office and UNSW PhD student Sylvia Hay.


Sustainable Development Goal 6 – Implementing the Targets: Session SummaryProf Dave White, Arizona State University, presents at the 21st International Riversymposium

Freshwater ecosystems are in decline in globally, threatening sustainable development. While freshwater withdrawals have continued to rise, there is also increasing evidence of wide scale ecosystem decline, loss of ecosystem services, and enduring social and environmental injustices resulting from degraded river systems. To address these challenges and other challenges, the global community is working to implement the UN sustainable development agenda. The foundation of the agenda is the list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets which were designed to build upon the successes and address the failures of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The SDG framework aims to integrate environmental, social, and economic goals and recognise tradeoffs and synergies between priorities. Freshwater is addressed specifically in SDG 6, which is to “ensure access to water and sanitation for all.” Furthermore, progress on SDG 6 is likely to have positive corollary effects upon ending poverty and hunger (SDG 1 and 2), ensuring health and well-being (SDG 3), promoting economic growth (SDG 8), and sustaining terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity (SDG 15). The eight targets for SDG 6 address access, affordability, quality, sanitation and hygiene, efficiency, cooperation, and participatory decision-making, as well as integrated water resources management.

The SDG 6 session sponsored by PLuS Alliance and UNSW-GWI was complemented by two other conference sessions. One was led by Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), which presented a range of perspectives, global challenges, and opportunities to focus on new global water security initiative. The second was led by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which used an interactive tradeoff simulation exercise for SDG 6 in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) that explored interactions and tradeoffs among water, energy, food and economic development. Our session focused on assessing and implementing SDG indicators and targets at the basin scale considering both opportunities and challenges.

Based on presentations and discussions during our “Learn, Inspire, and Transform” session at the 21st International Riversymposium, we identified the following themes and future directions for linking research and policy to improve monitoring and implementation for SDG 6. Our session focused on assessing and implementing SDG indicators and targets at the basin scale considering both opportunities and challenges. The session organisers and participants included academics, government officials, and NGOs working in 19 different river basins around the world.

Opportunities and Challenges for Monitoring SDG 6 IndicatorsProf Richard Kingsford, UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, presents at the 21st International Riversymposium

Session participants identified limitations and opportunities related to the SDG 6 targets and indicators. While there are meaningful critiques of the targets and indicators, there was broad consensus about the possibility to improve measurement and monitoring and ultimately enhance implementation. Participants noted that the current indicator framework suffers from, among other issues: poor measurement of indicator and target data at the basin scale in general and for transboundary river basins in particular; definitional issues with water scarcity and water stress; lack of spatially-explicit and temporal tracking data; incompleteness of data; poor representation of uncertainty; limited ground truthing of remotely sensed data; insufficient accounting of the full water cycle including groundwater and surface water interactions; and inability of current water accounting measures to properly account for natural ecosystem processes including floodplain dynamics.

To address these challenges, the session participants identified a range of opportunities for scientists, governments, nonprofit organisations and other stakeholders to contribute solutions. A prominent theme in the discussion highlighted the need to increased collaboration, knowledge exchange and synthesis of data and insights from multiple case studies, especially focused on the basin scale and transboundary river basins. Another key opportunity is to leverage data gathered in support of other SDGs including, for instance, SDG 15 (e.g., data on biodiversity loss, proportion of important sites by protected areas, threatened species, etc.). Similarly, SDG 6 indicator and target tracking would benefit from enhanced coordination with related efforts including IUCN Red List of Ecosystems, thus enabling new opportunity for scaling data and creating river ecosystem typologies. Despite the identified shortcomings for remote sensing of indicator data, participants agreed that researchers should focus on remote sensed data especially for tracking ecosystem changes and delineating anthropogenic changes from natural changes where possible.

Resource Management, SDG 6 Targets and ImplementationProf Greg Leslie, UNSW Global Water Institute, presents at the 21st International Riversymposium

The participants also explored opportunities for scientific and stakeholder networks to contribute to solutions for monitoring and implementing the SDG 6 targets via existing on-the-ground sustainable natural resource management and research. The participants identified a range of challenges related to social, cultural, political and institutional processes and especially power imbalances. Institutionally, national governments are largely responsible for SDG 6 monitoring and implementation but rivers are inherently cross-jurisdictional often with distributed or polycentric governance arrangements. Monitoring and implementation varies significantly by country and between high-income and lower-middle-income countries (LMICs). While there was consensus that the process for developing the content of the SDG 6 targets, indicators, sub-indicators and methods is complete and so there is limited opportunity to influence the framework, significant opportunities exist to improve monitoring and implementation. Speakers and participants stressed the need to leverage existing institutional efforts, sustainability assessments procedures and implementation frameworks in support of the SDGs. For example, academics have an opportunity to reconcile and interpret various assessment frameworks (e.g. Water Sensitive Cities Index, Alliance for Water Stewardship) and map the range of indicators to the SDGs. Similarly, there are opportunities to extract information from existing treaties (e.g., Ramsar Convention) and transboundary water sharing arrangements that relate to SDG 6. Furthermore, additional effort is necessary to extract data from existing and modelling and simulation tools available, using globally-available data sets to map onto SDGs. Several speakers and participants stressed the importance of cooperative development of knowledge for SDG 6 through multi-stakeholder processes to generate information and link the global processes to local scales.

Next Steps

Moving forward, the participants have committed to continued research to refine monitoring techniques and to improve strategies for linking research and development to foster adoption of these techniques by low- and middle-income country governments. The organisers have already had the opportunity to comment on the methodology proposed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) for assessing environmental flow requirements as a component of the SDG 6.4 assessment of the sustainable level of water use. Comments included the value in periodic updates to this methodology throughout SDG implementation to take account of new research and to provide greater opportunity for countries to go beyond the proposed minimum standard approach especially in cases where more data exists and more detailed assessments are desired. The team will continue to convene researchers and practitioners to discuss and assess progress on recent innovation.


This Riversymposium LIT session was sponsored by the UNSW Global Water Institute and the PLuS Alliance.

Session Organisers:

Gregory Leslie, Global Water Institute, UNSW Sydney
Bill Young, Global Water Practice, World Bank
Richard Kingsford, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science, University of New South Wales
Jane Catford, Department of Geography, King’s College London
Michael Hanemann, School of Sustainability, Arizona State University
Dave White, School of Community Resources and Development, Arizona State University
Emma Carmody, Environmental Defenders Office New South Wales (EDO NSW)

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