Closing Research Gaps in Water Science in Support of the SDGs

  • 2016/07/22     Dresden, Germany


    Background image: shutterstock/Willyam Bradberry

    Think piece by Tamara Avellán, Research Fellow of the Water Resources Management Unit

    Building on the principle of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the United Nations General Assembly adopted, on 25 September 2015 at its 70th Session, Resolution 70/1 ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ [1]. With this, member countries agreed to achieve 17 goals and 169 targets towards sustainable development by 2030. In contrast to the Millennium Development Goals, a dedicated Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for water was agreed upon, namely SDG 6 [2] (Figure 1).

    Image: UN Water

    UN Water is in charge of monitoring the six targets of SDG Goal 6 as well as Target 11.5 on water-related disasters (Image: UN Water)

    The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development states that its 17 goals and 169 targets are “integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental”. The goals and targets seek to stimulate action over the next fifteen years in areas of critical importance for people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. Between Goal 1 and 16 there are 107 targets related to outcomes [3] and the linkages are extensive and complex [4]. As an example consider the trade-offs between target 2.3 (by 2030 double the agricultural productivity and the incomes of small-scale food producers, particularly women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment) and targets in goal 6 (Figure 2).


    Targets can act synergistically – access to drinking water helps people to be able to enhance agricultural productivity – or antagonistically – doubling agricultural productivity without considering the sustainable use of water for all parties involved can strongly hamper the long-term productivity of all systems

    UNU-FLORES acts at the forefront of research initiatives that promote a Nexus Approach to the sustainable management of water, soil, and waste. As part of the SDG monitoring and evaluation efforts we consider the following three types of research efforts to be crucial:

    1. Data collection and analysis
    2. Computation of indicators
    3. Change management

    For scientists it seems that there can never be enough data. Common datasets for which data is not sufficient range from weather and climate information, to current and past status of water quality of surface waters, all the way to sex-disaggregated data on land tenure. The final report on the MDGs highlighted the insufficient level of disaggregation of data in terms of spatial and temporal resolution and of socioeconomic groups as one of the major issues towards a better representation of the targets and goals [5]. Non-traditional ideas towards gathering data include, for instance, community-led assessments such as the initiative CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network) with which the National Weather Service of the United States of America enhances their weather information [6]. New technologies are also helping. An example includes the use of DNA ‘barcoding’ to determine the biodiversity of macrobenthos species in rivers and streams [7]. With this rapid, and by now very inexpensive method, researchers found that biodiversity is grossly underestimated when only doing taxonomical assessments and that manual classification is often incorrect [8].

    Indicators and indices are based on interdependencies and correlations of underlying data points. The Water Quality Index for Biodiversity, for example, is based on numerous findings that indicate a strong correlation between biological species richness and concentrations or levels of dissolved oxygen, electrical conductivity, pH, temperature, nitrogen, and phosphorus [9]. Although this indicator may be useful in comparing aquatic ecosystem health across geographic areas and maybe throughout time it does not allow making inferences about the sustainability of the current state. Water Sustainability Indices therefore also contain aspects of governance and water use that can provide a much better basis for decision making than solely biological ones [10].

    Ultimately knowing the state of the planet (data) and prioritising areas of concern (indicator and indices) are only vehicles to help us focus our attention. We then still need to implement changes – changes in management, changes in governance, changes in infrastructure, and changes in behaviour. People are the pivotal point for all of these. Hence, working in a participatory manner through stakeholder engagement have been the key approaches to change management of the last decade if not more [11]. Understanding what people want, need, and can do, makes or breaks development aid implementation. Bringing together the ones that have the knowledge of the status of the planet with the ones that implement changes and building successful communication tools across this divide is where much of our attention should be focusing on. We consider the United Nations University with its 12 institutes worldwide to be at the ideal crossroads between science and policy, with research spanning natural science to IT to social aspects. As a boundary organisation we are here to service the member states.

    [1] United Nations. 2016. Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for  Sustainable Development. Available at:

    [2] UN Water. 2016. ‘UN-Water: A Dedicated Water Goal’. Available at:

    [3] Plus 43 targets related to the means of implementation, in addition to the 19 targets under Goal 17 on partnerships and means of implementation

    [4] UN Water. 2015. ‘Means of Implementation: A focus on Sustainable Development Goals 6 and 17’. Available at:

    [5] The Millennium Development Goals Report. 2015. Available at:

    [6] Doesken, Nolan and Henry Reges. 2010. “The Value of the Citizen Weather Observer”. In Weatherwise. Available at:

    [7] Elbrecht V and Leese F. 2015. “Can DNA-based ecosystem assessments quantify species abundance? Testing primer bias and biomass – sequence relationships with an innovative metabarcoding protocol”. In PLOS ONE 10:e0130324.

    [8] Katouzian AR, Sari A, Macher JN, Weiss M, Saboori A, Leese F, and Weigand AM. 2016. “Drastic underestimation of amphipod biodiversity in the endangered Irano-Anatolian and Caucasus biodiversity hotspots”. In Scientific Reports 6: 22507. Doi: 10.1038/srep22507.

    [9] UNEP. 2008. “Water Quality Index for Biodiversity: Technical Development Document”. Available at:

    [10] Chaves, Henrique M. L., and Suzana Alipaz. 2007. ”An Integrated Indicator Based on Basin Hydrology, Environment, Life, and Policy: The Watershed Sustainability Index”. In Water Resources Management 21 (5): 883–95. doi:10.1007/s11269-006-9107-2.

    [11] Catley, A., Burns, J., Abebe, D., Suji, O. 2013. Participatory Impact Assessment: A Design Guide. Somerville: Feinstein International Center, Tufts University.