Achieving water security and the SDGs

The Water Show Africa, held in Johannesburg over March 28th and 29th, brought together a series of speakers, both locally and internationally, to help bridge the gap between the opportunities and challenges in the water sector.

It was a privilege to be one of the keynote speakers and panelists at The Water Show Africa.

My keynote speech sought to address the keystones for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): innovation and implementation.

My speech is as follows:



Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be here today to discuss the water sector’s role in achieving the SDGs and the innovations required to achieve water security in the process.

Currently, around 66% of Africa is arid or semi-arid and more than 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live in a water-scarce environment. Meanwhile, over 100 people die in Africa each hour from diseases linked to poor sanitation, poor hygiene and contaminated water. As such, a vast majority of the people across the continent lack water security, which is defined by the United Nations as:

The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being and socio-economic development.

This is all the while ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, as well as preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and stability.


Challenges to water security

In the coming decades, water security will be challenged by a wide array of mega-trends on the continent including:

  • Economic and population growth
  • Rapid urbanization
  • Changing demographics
  • Increased demand for energy and food
  • Climate change

Some of the key trends are:

  • The Sub-Saharan economy is projected to reach four times its current size by 2040
  • Africa’s population will increase from 1.2 billion in 2015 to 2.4 billion in 2050
  • Currently 40 percent of Africa’s population lives in cities and by 2050 this will reach 60%
  • Africa’s youth population is growing faster than any other region in the world
  • By 2040, sub-Sahara Africa will consume more than four times the electricity as it did in 2010. In addition, biofuel energy demand could increase by 40%
  • A business-as-usual approach in food production will see sub-Sahara Africa meet only 25% of its total food demand in 2030
  • Africa is expected to warm up to 1.5 times faster than the global average according to the IPCC, leading to increased frequency of droughts and extreme weather events
Robert C. Brears

Robert C. Brears

Challenges to achieving water security and the SDGs

These mega-trends provide numerous challenges for achieving water security as well as SDG 6, which is to ensure access to water and sanitation for all. Furthermore, due to water’s cross-cutting nature, water insecurity will pose significant challenges for Africa in achieving the other SDGs. For instance:

  • The inefficient use of water for agricultural production will limit the ability of achieving SDG 2 of zero hunger
  • Limited access to water-related services in homes and villages will mean girls will be confined to fetching water as part of their domestic chores, rather than being in the classroom receiving education. This will jeopardize SDG 5 of gender equality
  • Variable water supplies will place stress on meeting energy demand, hampering SDG 7, which is to ensure affordable and clean energy


The Water Show Africa developing partnerships to achieve the SDGs

The Water Show Africa developing partnerships to achieve the SDGs


Responsibility to act: Engaging in innovative partnerships to implement SDGs framework

To achieve water security and meet all the SDGs, all water managers across the continent, irrespective of whether they are in the public or private sectors, need to manage water in such a way that recognizes the complexity and interconnected challenges of achieving sustainable development and human well-being.

However, many factors that contribute to water security, including infrastructural, institutional, political, social and financial, lie outside the realm of traditional water management.

As such, to achieve water security and the SDGs, there needs to be innovative, interdisciplinary, collaborative partnerships across sectors, communities and political borders. Specifically, partnerships need to be formed across the tri-sectors of business, government and society to develop cross-cutting solutions to water security challenges. For instance, partnerships need to be formed to:

  • Incorporate water security in the protection of biodiversity and ecosystem health
  • Ensure water security goes together with achieving food and nutritional strategies
  • Ensure water security does not come at the expense of social equality
  • Ensure water security does not limit access to energy for the poor

A variety of partnership models can be developed that enhance water security. For instance, public-private partnerships can be formed to develop water-related infrastructure that enhances resiliency to climate change. Public-private partnerships can be expanded to include partnerships on water-related education, for example in South Africa a municipality hosted, with a large multinational company, a workshop to help other businesses in the area save water. Another partnership model involves government agencies challenging the private sector to conserve water resources, in exchange for advice and technical support. Governments can also encourage the development of water-related technology clusters to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and collaboration on water security solutions.


Redefining the roles of science, technology and innovation policies to foster the implementation of SDGs

To achieve water security and the SDGs, the roles of science, technology and innovation policies needs redefining. Governments at all levels, from the urban level right up to the national level, need to ensure water management decisions are based on sound knowledge and data that reflect the true status of water resources.

Moving forwards, governments need to ensure there is substantial scientific capacity of its workforce to manage water in a way that achieves water security for all. This can be safeguarded by tapping into Africa’s enormous youth bulge with governments, as well as the water sector, encouraging students, both female and male, to take up STEM education.

Technology will need to be developed that enhances water efficiency of all users, both domestic and non-domestic. Water managers will also need to consider technologies that reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in both the providing of water and wastewater-related services.

Nonetheless, both the advancement of scientific knowledge and development of water-related technologies requires innovative policies that support the mainstreaming of ground-breaking research and technologies.

To foster the development of water security-related technology, governments will need to use innovative tools that encourage R&D including tax incentives and various grants. Governments will also need to be innovative in the support that they provide small-to-medium enterprises developing innovative technologies.

Businesses have a role in redefining the roles of science, technology and policy. For instance, businesses can use their knowledge and expertise to guide government in ensuring policies are ‘smart’ to avoid decisions impacting other sectors reliant on water. Water companies can develop internship programs for high school and university students to gain invaluable knowledge on water management and related technologies. In addition, large companies can play a role by forming innovative partnerships with SMEs to develop new technologies.

Lastly, societal organizations including non-profits and NGOs can work with government and businesses to increase participation of disadvantaged members of society in developing new innovations that one day could be commercialized. Non-profits can also work with governments and businesses to enhance awareness and knowledge of water at all levels of society, from young children to adults, as water security requires a change in our attitudes and behavior towards this precious resource.


Mainstreaming the 2030 agenda for sustainable development

To mainstream the 2030 agenda for sustainable development there needs to be a transition towards the green economy, a model which ensures economic growth does not come at the cost of environmental degradation and social inequality.

In the context of water security, the green economy will be powered by the water sector’s innovative, technological solutions that enhance resource efficiency, reduce pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions, all the while preventing the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Meanwhile, green growth will be powered by smart government policies that facilitate the development of Africa as a hydro-hub that exports water-related technologies around the world. Nonetheless, the transition to the green economy that achieves water security and the SDGs requires a fundamental change in how we view water.

First, we need to move away from traditional water management practices where water managers, facing increased demand and variable levels of supply, rely on large-scale, supply-side infrastructural projects such as dams and reservoirs to meet increased demand for water (supply-side management). These projects are costly environmentally, economically and politically. Environmental costs include disruptions of waterways that support aquatic ecosystems. Economic costs stem from a reliance on more distant water supplies, often of inferior quality, which not only increases the costs of transportation but also the cost of treatment. In addition, since the vast majority of water resources are transboundary, supply-side projects can create political tensions because they rely on water crossing both intra- and inter-state administrative and political boundaries.

As such, rather than increasing supply to meet rising demand for water, we need to move towards demand-side management, where current water resources are used as efficiently as possible before plans are made to increase supply where demand management involves:

  • Reducing loss and misuse in various water sectors
  • Optimizing water use by ensuring reasonable allocation between various users, while considering the supply needs of downstream ecosystems and other water users and uses
  • Facilitating major financial and infrastructural savings by minimizing the need to meet increasing demand with new water supplies
  • Reducing the stress on water resources by reducing or halting unsustainable exploitation of water resources.

Second, we need to recognize the water sector’s role in reducing water-energy-food nexus pressures. We need to manage water efficiently and reduce the amount of water requiring treatment, all of which reduces demand for energy. At the same time, we need to develop dialogue with the energy and food sectors on helping them ensure their practices do not harm water security. For instance, encouraging the uptake of energy efficient appliances that in return reduce water usage in the generation of electricity, as well as working with farmers to become as efficient as possible, in other words ‘more crop per drop’, while at the same time encouraging sustainable agricultural processes that reduce nutrient runoff and prevent waterway degradation.

The overall aim of this dialogue is to coordinate management decisions that create synergies between the nexus sectors, instead of trade-offs.


Galvanizing partners to action: what needs to be done differently and how do we do it?

To make this leap to a green economy that ensures water security for all and achieves the SDGs, business, government and society need to come together under an integrated framework that manages water and water-related resources. It is only through the Integrated Water Resources Management framework can all water users – both human and natural – ensure water security.

One of the most important aspects of the framework is that it recognizes the need for cross-boundary water cooperation to reduce competition and potential conflict for scarce water in the future. This means the traditional silos that form between government departments as well as between economic sectors need to be dismantled, for example water managers need to be in constant dialogue with partners in the energy and food-related industries on how to reduce these nexus pressures.

The framework also embraces the use of demand management tools including pricing of water and the use of subsidies and rebates to encourage the uptake of water efficient technologies in the domestic as well as commercial and industrial sectors. Demand management tools also involve the use of communication and information tools to modify the attitudes and behavior of all water users, ensuring they value water and protect this precious resource.

Businesses also have a role in implementing demand management strategies to reduce water consumption in their direct operations and supply chains. Even water-related technology companies need to reduce their water footprints as every industrial process involves water use directly or indirectly via energy consumption.

The framework also enables the incorporation of green infrastructure in our water networks where green infrastructure is the use of natural or semi-natural systems that utilize nature’s ecosystem services in the management of water resources and associated risks. Green infrastructure can enhance the resilience of our water networks to climate change, for example, green infrastructure can be used to increase water infiltration and storage capacity of wetlands and soils during times of heavy rainfall, meanwhile in times of drought green infrastructure can release water from natural storage features for human and natural use. In contrast to gray infrastructure that depreciates over time and degrades water quality, green infrastructure can appreciate in value over time with the regeneration of nature and its associated ecosystem services.

Green infrastructure is ideal for achieving water security as well as the SDGs as it supports multiple policy goals. For example, green infrastructure can be implemented to:

  • Protect various types of infrastructure from local flooding risks, reducing disruptions to the local economy
  • Ensure water supplies remain contaminant-free during flooding and channel water away to avoid risks of water-borne diseases
  • Increase human security by mitigating the impacts of climate extremes, which in themselves have the potential to displace people and increase poverty levels and create economic shocks
  • Reduce water-energy-food nexus pressures as it can be used to purify water, reducing the need for costly, energy-intensive treatment processes, as well as support agricultural production
  • Provide green job opportunities for Africa’s youthful population



Africa’s water security is challenged my multiple mega-trends. To achieve water security and the SDGs, we need to create interdisciplinary, collaborative partnerships across the sectors of business, government and society. It is through these partnerships that we can create a green economy that is driven by innovative water-related technologies and practices that balance rising demand for water with limited supplies while reducing water-energy-food nexus pressures. To guide this path, the Integrated Water Resources Management framework provides an invaluable framework for cooperative water management. This framework not only facilitates the implementation of demand management tools but also enables the incorporation of green infrastructure in our water networks with multiple economic, environmental and social benefits too. Ladies and Gentlemen, let us spend the next two days developing these partnerships that encourage innovation all the while recognizing the water’s sectors key role in achieving the SDGs.

The take-out

Innovative cross-sector partnerships are required to achieve water security and the SDGs.

*Robert C. Brears is the author of Urban Water Security (Wiley) and founder of Mitidaption, which consults on climate change risks to business, governance and society.

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