Wastewater finally made it onto the global agenda at the recent Earth Summit. AquaFed’s Jack Moss reports from Rio de Janeiro.
Eighteen months ago, there was a genuine fear that water would be excluded from Rio+20 altogether. At the end of a complex set of negotiations that involved many formal and informal meetings, however, an agreement was reached in Rio in late June.
Given the complexity of the issues, the weight of a worldwide economic crisis, a rising trend of protectionism, and general mistrust in both politics and economics, this is significant. Just hours before a conclusion was reached, many observers were predicting a failure of the Rio negotiations similar to that which took place in Copenhagen back in 2009.
The final result was much more positive. The outcome document “The Future We Want” contains a section titled “Water and Sanitation”, which deals with the subject on the same level as food security and energy.
A chapter with few verses
The chapter on water and sanitation is a simple section of six concise paragraphs. It touches on all the main challenges without giving priority to any single one.
It stresses the importance of water in sustainable development, which places it as a strong contender to be covered by a future Sustainable Development Goal (SDG).
It reiterates the urgency of improving access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a tool for poverty eradication, which underlines the need to continue the efforts towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It also calls on states to support the water sector with resources, capacity-building and technology transfer.
It confirms all states’ recognition of the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Agreeing this paragraph presented difficult challenges, and its inclusion is a significant breakthrough. Nevertheless, the issues of water basin management and cross-border cooperation fell victim to these negotiations, meaning the document is ultimately silent on these two important issues.
Of particular importance is the fact that the UN stresses the need to manage and treat wastewater, and to improve pollution protection. This is new on the global agenda, and creates an opportunity to redress the current absence of any global vision on wastewater management.
Water, water everywhere
Apart from the specific section on water and sanitation, water issues are also addressed elsewhere in the text. This includes mentions in chapters on food security and nutrition, sustainable agriculture, sustainable cities and human settlements, health and population, biodiversity, desertification, land degradation and drought, and mountains. This is helpful in raising the profile of water as a crucial component of sustainable development. Strangely, water is not mentioned in the section on energy, and the “water-energy-food nexus” is not alluded to either.
Towards Sustainable Goals
We were hoping that the specific section of seven paragraphs dedicated to “Sustainable Development Goals” would include a list of objectives, and that water would be among them.
Drawing up a list was one of the blocking points in the negotiations, which is why there is none. Nevertheless, the document does lay out a process whereby the UN, sovereign states, stakeholders and experts can set specific goals, together with practical targets and indicators. It also recognises the need to build on and maintain the impetus of the MDGs. Given the strong support for water in the Rio+20 outcome document, water is well placed to become the subject of an appropriate SDG.
The outcome of Rio+20 may not in itself be as strong or as operationally orientated as many people wanted. It has, however, done a great deal to recognise the importance of water issues, to open paths, and remove barriers to accelerating efforts to improve water and sanitation coverage, and to raise the profile of water management.