FAO Guidelines to Help Incorporate Environmental Flows into “Water Stress” Indicator 6.4.2
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Indicator 6.4.2 on water stress addresses the environmental pillar, referring to the balance between the amount of water abstracted for the various human uses and the overall quantity of water resources.

To ensure sustainable management of water, it is essential to look at the water cycle in its entirety, including all uses and users.

The information that the Guidelines will help produce will provide crucial input to policy making and water management, and enable decision makers to devise approaches that will ensure the needed input to development while reducing environmental impacts.

At a dedicated event at FAO Headquarters on 29 January 2019, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) launched the new Guidelines for a minimum methodological standard for global reporting on how to incorporate environmental flows into SDG “water stress” indicator 6.4.2.

As their name indicates, the SDGs have the ambition to promote equally development and sustainability, in an effort to provide the next generations with the same potential that we have found on Earth. In particular, Goal 6 (clean water and sanitation) is dedicated to water use and management, and its target 6.4 focuses on the three different aspects of economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Within target 6.4, indicator 6.4.2 on water stress addresses the environmental pillar, referring to the balance between the amount of water abstracted for the various human uses and the overall quantity of water resources. A similar indicator already existed in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) framework, but it did not take into account that human uses cannot subtract all the water that exists in a given ecosystem, as this would severely hamper its capacity to provide those ecosystem services that are the basis of sustaining life, including human life.

During the preparation of the methodology for an indicator of water stress for the SDG, it became clear that in order to provide policymakers with correct and complete picture, the indicator should include some information of the quantity of water that has to be set aside for the functioning of the ecosystem itself. Such quantity of water would have to be subtracted from the total freshwater resources present in the country.

This need was addressed by introducing into the indicator’s formula a specific component, identified with the environmental flows, in order to avoid overlapping, double counting and omissions that were possible under the previous MDG approach.

In the context of SDG indicator 6.4.2, the environmental flows are defined, as “the quantity and timing of freshwater flows and levels necessary to sustain aquatic ecosystems which, in turn, support human cultures, economies, sustainable livelihoods, and well-being.” This definition is an adaptation from the Brisbane Declaration of 2017, which also includes the aspects of water quality that are not considered under SDG target 6.4.

Introducing the environmental component in the computation formula represents an important challenge for countries and for FAO as the custodian agency, but it is also a great opportunity for increasing the knowledge of the hydrologic and ecological systems within countries and to refine the science about them for the scientific and technical community.

Agriculture, particularly crop production and livestock, accounts for about 70% of today’s global freshwater withdrawals. In many developing countries, this proportion is often much higher, as water policies in such countries focus on the expansion of irrigated land as well as intensification of agricultural production. This typically occurs in the foreground of increased competition for water and other resources.

To ensure sustainable management of water, it is essential to look at the water cycle in its entirety, including all uses and users. Countries need to move away from silo-style, sectoral development and management of water resources, in favor of more integrated approaches that can balance different needs in a just and transparent manner.

Assessing the environmental flows will focus the attention of practitioners and decision makers alike on the need to preserve water resources and ensure ecosystem services while planning their use for human benefit. The information that the Guidelines will help produce will provide crucial input to policy making and water management, and enable decision makers to devise approaches that will ensure the needed input to development while reducing environmental impacts.

The Guidelines on how to incorporate environmental flows into the SDG “water stress” indicator 6.4.2 aim at providing users, and in particular country teams that work on assessing SDG 6, with a practical tool for assessing a parameter which is often neglected, and that has not been recorded by most countries’ statistical offices for many years. The Guidelines rely largely of the work done at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) on establishing environmental flows for the main river basins of the world as published on the Global Environmental Flows Information System, available here.

These Guidelines are a starting point, not the final goal. We hope that their publication will help initiate a deeper and wider discussion on how to ensure that the water needs of human societies are met without depleting water resources and increasing water stress.

The Guidelines are the result of a collaboration in the context of the Integrated Monitoring Initiative for SDG 6 (GEMI) between several actors, UN agencies, international research centers, academic institutions, advocacy groups and a large consultation among scientists and practitioners worldwide, supported by generous contributions by the Governments of Switzerland and Germany. We are committed in continuing and expanding this cooperation in order to provide stronger support to our member States.

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This article was written by Riccardo Biancalani, Coordinator of the GEMI project for SDG 6 at FAO.

The SDG Knowledge Hub story on the Guidelines is here.

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