An Adaptive Approach to Implementing the Integrated SDG Framework in Watersheds
Photo by Ivetta Gerasimchuk | IISD
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IISD's Adaptive Watershed approach draws out key elements involved with planning for ecosystem management, watershed needs and adaptation priorities as separate modules, but layers them to build a more complex understanding of the strategies that resource managers should pursue.

Elements of such an integrated approach are emerging in Uganda, Ethiopia and southern Africa.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted two years ago this month and includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, sets a high bar for domestic and international development efforts during the coming thirteen years. The SDGs include key actions that the sustainable development community has promoted but not yet achieved, such as ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, and protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems and halt biodiversity loss.

While the successful achievement of any one of the 17 SDGs by 2030 represents a significant undertaking, the SDG framework presents the international community with a new and additional challenge: the SDGs should be implemented in an integrated manner. The 2030 Agenda is comprehensive and the linkages and synergies among the 169 targets promise to amplify the benefits of reaching each individual objective. But designing the implementation path for this integrated approach presents national focal points, local level officials, and everyone in between with a complex task.

Decision makers take on a daunting responsibility as they seek to commence SDG implementation: how should they structure the process to incorporate multiple feedback loops? As we enter the third year of SDG implementation, our colleague Mark Halle has suggested that, “We have ‘good enough science’ and ‘good enough knowledge’,” and it is time to start acting. Following this advice, in the case of watersheds, managers would do well to pursue an “Adaptive Watershed” approach.

Like the SDGs themselves, IISD’s Adaptive Watershed approach combines existing concepts and best practices. It draws out key elements involved with planning for ecosystem management, watershed needs and adaptation priorities as separate modules, but layers them to build a more complex understanding of the strategies that resource managers should pursue. Ecosystem management focuses on understanding processes, functions and benefits from natural, ecological units. Watershed management recognizes the need to manage water in the context of watersheds—the natural, hydrologic unit appropriate for assessing, predicting and managing water to achieve goals such as enhanced water quality, sufficient quantity and availability, improved access etc. Both frameworks reinforce the links between physical, ecological, social and economic systems to ensure that environmental and economic needs are met and enhanced for long-term future security both environmental and human. In addition, the Dublin principles for integrated watershed-based management explicitly reinforce the need to include women in decision-making related to land and water. Adaptive management and adaptation brings in concepts related to contextual conditions that introduce vulnerability of ecological and related socio-economic systems to the impacts of climate change, and build resilience into the planning model. With a gender lens applied at each stage, the resulting approach brings together proven best practices for a contextualized ecosystem suffering from climate change.

Also like the SDG framework, the real challenge – and promise for progress – comes from identifying and learning from the interactions and linkages among these approaches. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s graphing1 (reproduced in the chart below) of the intensity of linkages between ecosystem services and human well-being depicts the benefits to be achieved by addressing ecosystem services. The Adaptive Watershed approach considers these interactions along with relationships related to the greater watershed, while incorporating a perspective on changes that will alter existing elements of the ecosystem. By incorporating this knowledge with an understanding of the adaptation priorities that a country has identified in its National Adaptation Plan as well as its national budgeting process, the watershed resource manager will be better equipped to anticipate opportunities and prioritize action. The explicit incorporation of a gender perspective into these three approaches ensures that resulting efforts will be more inclusive and effective. How might values and interventions be assessed differently by men and women? Are there values that certain stakeholders hold that have not been captured as ecosystem services? In order to achieve the SDGs – and truly sustainable outcomes – decision making approaches should ensure that the perspectives of women, indigenous communities and other underrepresented sectors are incorporated into decisions around adaptive and inclusive land and water management.


Figure 1. Linkages between Ecosystem Services and Human Well-Being2

The contribution of this integrated approach to SDG implementation planning is evident in the learning objectives and questions that we seek to answer in the training materials we have developed for the Adaptive Watershed approach. Planners and managers need to understand that ecosystem services depend on the climate, that the climate is changing but uncertainty remains, and that we can develop adaptive strategies to be better prepared for an uncertain future. They also need to ask what the impacts of climate change are on ecosystems and ecosystem services and on land use activities, as well as which stakeholders and social groups are particularly vulnerable to the identified impacts and land use activities. In addition, an understanding of the development of adaptation plans helps resource managers to recognize the role that alignment between national or even bigger basin priorities and local watershed initiatives may play in helping them to leverage greater interest, investment, and impact for their work.

Elements of such an integrated approach are emerging in Uganda, where the national government has identified water as a development priority, initiated decentralized catchment management plans, begun to incorporate climate change considerations into these plans3, and developed a gender mainstreaming strategy in natural resources management4.

In Ethiopia, the Overseas Development Institute5 conducted a diagnostic study in collaboration with the Ethiopian Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy and other local institutions to assess and strengthen the institutional framework for water resources management to ensure that infrastructure development is climate smart and delivers broad-based economic and social benefits to Ethiopians6.

In southern Africa, climate change is being recognised as a particularly important risk for water infrastructure projects. In this context, the UK Government-funded Climate Resilient Infrastructure Development Facility has developed a climate resilient development pathways approach to apply a regionally appropriate process for reconciling development needs in regional watersheds with climate change scenarios7.

The ultimate objective of IISD’s training and affiliated assessment and mentoring processes are to ensure that adaptation needs, ecosystem needs in land and water management in the context of watersheds, and the needs of those who depend on these resources, particularly women, are incorporated into watershed planning policy and practice. In doing so, the impacts will be greater than their individual parts.

More information on IISD’s Adaptive Watershed project can be found here.

1 2Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.

3Ministry of Water and Environment. 2016. Capturing and documenting experiences in implementing catchment based integrated water resources management in Uganda. Government of Uganda.

4 Ministry of Water and Environment. 2016. Environment and Natural Resources Sub-Sector Gender Mainstreaming Strategy 2016-2021. Government of Uganda.

5 Mosello, B. et. al. 2015. Building adaptive water resources management in Ethiopia. ODI.

6 Mosello, B. et. al. 2015. Building adaptive water resources management in Ethiopia. ODI.

7 CRIDF. 2017. Climate Resilient Development Pathways: Final CRDP Guidance. Unpublished.

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