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Opinion: The SDGs for water, IWM, systems-thinking and participation

The renewed global agenda for development, the Sustainable Development Goals, overtly embraces two critical features of Integrated Water Management, system-thinking and local participation, representing a significant step towards water decisions that are holistic and sustainable.
Opinion: The SDGs for water, IWM, systems-thinking and participation

SDGs for water - applying systems-thinking and participation

Integrated Water Management (IWM) is a process that “promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximise the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems” (GWP-TAC 2000).  The aim of IWM is to provide a holistic approach whereby all social, economic and biophysical aspects of decisions are considered. In order to achieve this, two critical approaches are to apply systems-thinking and enable participation.

Systems-thinking and participation

Using systems-thinking allows us to appreciate the connected and dynamic nature of water across different parts of the water cycle, but also between water and connected ecosystems including interactions with people. The intention is to identify and understand these interactions, but not necessary intervene in all of them. Systems-thinking approaches help to identify where (in the water-land-human ecosystems) to intervene. That is, how to efficiently target resources to have the greatest impact. It also assists in identifying specific interventions, to shift away from the trap of applying one-size-fits-all standard interventions to different places, and towards contextualised approaches that are outcomes and process-focused, rather than output-focused. 

Participation has been accepted as a foundation of IWM since the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development in 1992 (the Dublin Principles), which identified that “water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners, and policy makers at all levels”. The obvious benefits of a participatory process are that a more complete picture of complex water problems is developed when more perspectives are considered, and that responsibility and ownership for water actions are shared between stakeholders. These ultimately lead to water actions that are more likely to be appropriate and sustained. 

Sustainable Development Goals: applying systems-thinking and participation

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) embrace both concepts of systems-thinking and participation. Following on from the Millennium Development Goals, in which water-related goals and targets were few and segregated, the systems-thinking behind the water-related SDGs is more overt. In effect there is a network of water-related targets across many SDGs. Apart from SDG6, which explicitly focuses on water, there are nine other SDGs that include water targets (Table 1). This representation of water in many goals recognises the pervasiveness of water systems – that water is a part of many other systems, and making progress in those other systems requires some attention to water.  

SDGs system thinking_1

Table 1


Within SDG6, a systems-thinking approach might prove valuable in understanding the interactions between different targets. Figure 1 below is a high-level representation of applying systems-thinking to SDG6 to describe some of the ways that these targets may interact. For example, local sanitation practices will impact upon water use-efficiency (e.g. water-based sanitation compared with dry sanitation) and upon water quality (unlined pit latrines may impact ground water quality), which in turn may impact upon the quality and quantity of drinking water. Poor water quality can lead to deterioration of local ecosystems, and vice-versa, poor protected ecosystems can reduce water quality (e.g. loss of riparian vegetation can increase surface water sedimentation). 

SDGs system thinking_2

Figure 1

It may be the case that significant progress in one target may drive under-achievement of another; in effect that trade-offs between target achievement might exist. For example, it is possible to imagine a scenario in which the large-scale uptake of handwashing with water (and soap) may in turn lead to shortages of water for drinking. And poor disposal of handwashing water may also lead to contamination of local drinking water resources with soapy water. 

Measuring success and outcomes

The structure of targets within SDG6 provide an excellent opportunity to explore these trade-offs, but this will require monitoring and reporting systems to embrace system-thinking. Identifying meaningful and practicable indicators for each of these targets is proving challenging; understanding how these indicators might interact, so they can be reported in a meaningful systems-based way, seems an even more significant challenge.

For local participation, target SDG6b, to be effective, it really must reflect local social, cultural and governance systems. Such effective participatory processes are achievable especially where programs and investments are driven (and measured) by outcomes rather than specific outputs or activities. However given the need for participation to be based upon local contexts measuring achievements under target SDG6b, will be difficult to do in a meaningful yet practical and scalable way. 


Regina Souter
Manager, Research, Training and Partnerships Program
P: +61 7 3014 0200


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