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Freshwater Resilience and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Fred Boltz — Former Managing Director

This post is part of a series on Advancing the Global Goals.  

Rahul Gandhi Nagar. Child collecting water directly from the RO plant.

Fresh water is life for humankind and for all living creatures.

Water’s fundamental contribution to human well-being and to any prospect of sustainable development is highlighted across the 2030 Agenda, which recognizes water as indispensable to achieving most—and arguably all—of the sustainable development goals.  And while our aspirations for sustainable growth and improved human well-being are boundless, water is a finite resource.  The hard truth is that if we continue to use and manage water like we always have, by the conclusion of our 2030 Agenda, global demand may exceed available water supply by 40 percent.

As demand for water intensifies, how can we meet the aims of the Water Goal (6) and all SDGs reliant upon increased water security?


At The Rockefeller Foundation we’re optimistic that the water challenge can be solved. There is enough water for humanity, but not without a new framing of our water development solutions—not of increasing supply and maximizing efficiency alone, but of building freshwater resilience as water supplies and needs change. Freshwater resilience requires that we shift our water management approach to respect five main qualities of resilient systems:


We know too much today to ignore reality. We have data that provide us with timely information about actual water flows. We can see trends. We need to use this to better manage our river basins and ensure that we do not overdraw water beyond safe levels.


Resilient systems have built in redundancy—a backup when Plan A falters. In freshwater systems, we must maintain the diversity of water sources and stores and optimize their use while protecting reserves.


Traditionally, different sectors have managed water relatively independently, creating siloed systems that don’t respond well to shocks. Moreover, different sources of water—surface and ground water and reuse—are commonly managed distinctly, increasing the vulnerability of dependent communities and industries. We need to manage water as a common good and enable system-level responses to natural water variability and increasing stress.


Elements in a system must interact in a way that allows them to function even in times of stress. Water management should enable self-regulation by users through transparent exchange of water shares within safe limits of total water use that preserve ecological productivity and resilience.


As water availability, seasonality and flow regimes change, we must preserve the ability of natural freshwater ecosystems to adapt to new norms and for human uses to change and even transform to novel conditions of a changing water world.


These qualities of resilience are on display in efforts from California to China, where The Rockefeller Foundation has supported local and international partners to improve water data, decisions, regulation and transparent exchange. As we continue to work towards the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, The Rockefeller Foundation is committed to supporting creative, effective, and scalable ways to meet the growing needs for water while maintaining the freshwater ecosystems, on which we all depend.

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