Preserving Humanity's Most Critical Resource

After 15 years of dedicated work to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the momentum for more ambition is clearly present. The MDGs brought us progress, but they have also shown us the complexity of the trends we are facing now and will be facing in the coming decades. Urbanization, climate change and water crises make the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) not just a list to tick off, but a necessary web of interdependent issues -- difficult to tackle, but full of opportunities!

The best showcase of this combination of chance and challenge for change is the worldwide water issue. The risks posed by floods, droughts, water pollution and the need for fresh water intertwine with the basic need for food, energy and prosperity. Solving the water issue is thus a way to ensure progress in most other SDGs. It will boost food security and the fight to end hunger (SDG 2), ensure energy security (SDG 7), help create a safer environment for work and economic productivity (SDG 8), enforce building resilient infrastructure (SDG 9) and be at the core of safe, sustainable and inclusive cities (SDG 11), combat Climate Change (SDG 13) and strengthen worldwide institutional capacity for sustainable development (SDG 17).

Again, interdependency is the magic word, because water and its dedicated SDG 6 also depend on the progress made in other issues. And the way we reach progress comes from the way we will use these interdependencies as assets and opportunities. What does this mean? It means that solving the water issue calls for an inclusive and comprehensive approach, where water serves as the convening power and the catalyst for innovative and sustainable development of our resilient communities.

How can we do this? I believe we have to start in and with our communities and create better facts on the ground. Facts that showcase water resilience as an inspiration to others, ready to be replicated and scaled up. We can do so through a design-driven process that brings together all stakeholders, decision makers, experts, community leaders, NGOs and investors with the best of science and data, uniting the diverse intersects and different issues into one approach. This is both innovative and inclusive. It may sound terribly vague and ambitious, but luckily there are good examples of how this may work: one from my own country -- a great but small, low-lying river delta -- and one from one of the most dynamic urban regions in the world, that I called home for the last two years.

1) Dutch Delta Approach

Simply put, The Netherlands is a small, densely-populated river delta. One-third lies below sea level and two-thirds is vulnerable to flooding. The Dutch created the Netherlands out of water and have been living and working with water for centuries. Securing our society and our economy against floods -- fighting droughts while preserving fertile soil and fresh water for millions of people -- is a complex issue. This year, the Dutch government delivers its Room for the River program -- more than 30 riverine projects leaning heavily on the concept of "Building with Nature." Last year, the Dutch government approved a new Delta Program, combining flood protection, fresh-water supply and spatial development in one comprehensive approach. Crucial to this way of working is the collaboration of national, regional and local governments, all stakeholders and citizens. The new policy is founded in goals for the year 2050 and is based upon years of research determining risks and vulnerabilities more than 100 years ahead. The Delta Program's implementation is guaranteed through a special Delta Act, which contains a special Delta Fund, ensuring the funding through 2050.

2) Designing Resilience: Rebuild by Design

In the autumn of 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated the New York/New Jersey region. For the Obama administration, it was clear from the outset that just repairing the damage was not the way to go. With the expected increase of hurricanes, all the vulnerabilities of the region needed to be addressed. The best way to do so was by creating resiliency, in an inclusive and collaborative process with all levels of government, stakeholders and residents working together. On these premises Rebuild By Design was developed -- part policy process, part rebuilding program, part design contest. To ignite innovation for a new standard of regional resilience in design and development, in building and rebuilding -- and as a way to answer climate change, sea-level rise and future economic, ecological and cultural demands.

These two examples are no blueprints for worldwide success. But the key ingredients of both will serve vulnerable regions and worldwide sustainable development as a whole. How? Because both examples relied heavily on four critical elements:

  1. Long-term planning coupled with short-term innovative projects, based on solid research to determine the interdependencies and risks-on-the-ground

  • Aimed at building institutional capacity amongst all stakeholders for long-term leadership
  • Inclusive collaboration across all parties: from national, regional and local governments to businesses, experts, NGOs, academics and residents
  • Leveraging private funding with securing government implementation investments.
  • These four pillars are not just the magic wand to end all water woes. Instead, they are four critical means to make sure dealing with water issues will be a worldwide cultural asset: by treating water as the one critical resource for humanity. The SDGs are not about a finite condition but about a process of progress. There's no time to waste, but generations to invest in and work with. Our wellbeing, hopes and opportunities depend on the way we treat water. Thus water can serve as a stepping stone for almost all other SDGs -- if we embrace it as a deeply cultural issue in the first place. And we better start now!

    This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 6.

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