MDG7: Ensure environmental sustainability - Professor Tony Allan, SOAS and King's College London Tue, 2009-06-30 02:01

This presentation provided some basic definitions of environmental sustainability. It also identified the players that can determine the pace at which sustainability may be achieved. It was shown that there are a number of different ways of ‘knowing’ sustainability and ‘doing something about’ bringing it about. The role of consumption was highlighted, and the challenges of changing behaviour in both the South and the North. This framework contributed to the analysis of MDG 7 and provided an explanation of outcomes and the basis of a critique. The review focused on water – on both water resources and on water supply and sanitation. It was shown that the MDG targets are not being met in many countries in Africa. Problems of getting resources mobilised effectively were exemplified at many administrative and social levels. The importance of deploying international assistance by fully and effectively engaged intermediaries such as WaterAid was also noted.

Read on to read a full report of the presentation.

Millennium Development Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability

Professor Tony Allan, of SOAS and King’s College London, raised the importance of politics and governance at LIDC’s conference on 5 November as he discussed MDG7’s aim of environmental sustainability. He stressed the complexity of understanding society and urged academics to think beyond their own disciplines at the event called No Goals at Half-time: What Next for the Millennium Development Goals?

Allan began by referring to the broad scope of MDG7 and said it should provoke soul-searching in the rich world because it concerns consumption patterns which are far greater in the developed world than the developing world. MDG7’s targets include integrating sustainable development into country policies, reducing biodiversity loss, reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, and achieving significant improvement in lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.

Water usage
Allan highlighted how the water needed for human consumption is “tiny”, but it has to be in the right place, and most countries, including the UK, are short of water. He showed how the requirements for different uses vary enormously. Every year a person needs one cubic metre of water for drinking, 100 cubic metres for washing and 1,000 cubic metres for growing food. Allan emphasised how vegetarians require half as much water as meat-eaters for the production of their food as meat consumers generate a demand that requires large quantities of grain to be fed to livestock. Fodder production – like all crop production – is very water intensive.

He then explained how countries can “import” water to overcome shortages by buying food and products abroad. Such an understanding of the trade in water resources was introduced in 1993 when Allan identified the concept of “virtual water” – the pioneering idea that water is embedded in the production and trade of food and consumer products.

Allan also stressed the impact of Chinese demographic policy, which has reduced the country’s projected population by 300 million. This is the equivalent of the total current population of the Middle East, which will double, or of the population of old Europe. No other water demand management measure can match this controversial Chinese initiative.

Assessing progress towards MDG7
Allan showed how the world, apart from sub-Saharan Africa, is on track to meet the target of halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015. Problems undermining the campaign in sub-Saharan Africa include high population growth rates, low government expenditure, conflict and political instability. The situation is more serious regarding the target of halving the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation. If trends since 1990 continue the world is likely to miss the target by almost 600 million people, and the most severe difficulties are in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The role of governance
Allan continued by showing how politics and governance, which determine water policy, are forged by the interactions of civil society, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), business and government. He said: “Knowing my science, my hydrology originally, doesn’t really matter at all. Understanding what society ‘thinks’ is much more important. The politics are pretty mean and difficult”. His analysis showed how ideas originating within the NGO sector, especially WaterAid, influence policy and how important it is to support such advocacy groups. Allan commented that the day’s analysis and discussion had been “politics lite” and suggested that there appears to be an absence of awareness on the part of those analysing MDG outcomes of the role of politics and social processes in achieving the MDGs.

Professor Tony Allan of SOAS and King’s College London won the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize this year for his ground-breaking invention of the concept of “virtual water”. He introduced the idea in 1993 by showing how water is embedded in the production and trade of food and consumer products. He has advised governments, the World Bank and the European Union about water management and is widely seen as one of the most influential thinkers in the global water sector.