Chris Dickens

Chris Dickens

Dr. Dickens is an ecologist with 30 years’€™ experience in three main areas: 1.) aquatic ecosystem health, 2.) water resource protection and 3.) water resource management, working presently for the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) based in South Africa. He has carried out a wide range of projects during this time. Most recently he was lead author of the indicator method for the SDG Target 6.6 on water-related ecosystems and has spent many years doing environmental water requirement or E-flow studies on rivers mostly in Africa. He also has drafted National policy for determination of Resource Quality Objectives and e-flows.

Setting Quantitative National-level Targets for the Management of Natural Resources to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

While the main emphasis of SDG monitoring and reporting to date has been on global indicators, these data are of little value for management at the country level.  Management at the country and local level, is where the SDGs will either succeed or fail, something that is recognized in the text of Agenda 2030 which is explicit that countries “set their own national targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances”, using “indicators at the regional and national levels which will be developed by Member States.”

It is at the country and even local scale where managers will strategize how to balance the need to use vs protect natural resources. For example, it is they who will decide how to manage wastewater discharges to a river. It is at this scale where the difference will be made.

The issue is that most of the global targets and indicators (especially for natural resources) do not have quantitative values associated with them, meaning that there are no quantifiable benchmarks against which to measure the success or failure of management of these resources.  At a country level, such benchmarks need to reflect the country’s particular circumstances; one country may, for example, be satisfied with a loss of wetland extent (SDG Indicator 6.6.1) of 50%, while another may require zero loss. The 2030 Agenda does not stipulate any such levels, leaving it up to countries to decide.

This paper will describe this looming issue in the implementation of the SDGs. It will relate the fledgling experience of country examples and will propose possible solutions to allow a country to deliberately interrogate its own situation to set benchmarks that are suitable for their own management.

The SDGs And Environmental Flows

E-flows formally entered the global policy arena when accepted as component of the SDGs.  However global reporting on any statistic is challenging, and with e-flows this has proved no less so especially since e-flow data is not commonly collected by most countries and certainly not beyond perhaps just a few important rivers in each country.  It is the mission of the UN Statistical Commission to gather data from every country, so if such data is not available from countries then there is the alternative approach of using global datasets.  It is, however, part of the description of Agenda 2030 on the SDGs that indicators need contextualisation at the country level, as it is at this scale where the SDGs will affect management of resources.   Countries need to have available e-flow data that is useful for the local management of water resources, while the global models may not provide sufficient resolution in the data for this purpose.  Furthermore, there exist multiple approaches to e-flow assessment, developed in different countries, suiting different scales of application and different levels of resolution.  At a country level, these approaches may serve their purpose, but the different approaches make for a difficult situation when it comes to global reporting.

This paper will present the approach adopted by the FAO for the global collection of data.  The paper will thus also present the opportunities that countries have to gather independent data for submission as part of their Voluntary National Reviews, where their own practices can be used to best effect.  The paper will conclude with what remains a conundrum for the Agenda 2030 on the SDGs, that of how to integrate country-set targets for natural resources with their neighbours and with the global agenda.


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