A look at proposals of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development and what this means for water, sanitation and hygiene

by Ross Bailey, Campaigns Officer, WaterAid UK


25 Jul 2014

Since 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and targets agreed during the UN Millennium Summit have had a key role in encouraging action on development around the world, and progress has been made in many areas. The MDGs included a commitment to halve the number of people globally without safe water or sanitation, but, as we approach the 2015 deadline, we are living in a world where nearly one in ten people still lacks safe water and one in three lacks basic sanitation. In fact, sanitation is one of the most off-track of all the MDG targets – at the current rate of progress, 2.4 billion people will not have access to a toilet in 2015.

With the curtain soon to fall on the MDGs era, the stage is set for what will follow them ‘post-2015’. Indeed, we’re half way into this three act play already.

To recap, Act One set the scene and was about agreeing the direction. It culminated in last year’s UN General Assembly event where agreement was reached to focus on a single Sustainable Development Goal framework. The story is now developing with Act Two, revealing a draft of that framework and culminating in the UN Secretary General’s report in November 2014. All eyes will then be on Act Three as member states get down to negotiation and meet in a Head of State summit next September. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Act Two has focused on the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development. Born from the Rio+20 conference and encompassing over 70 countries, the group has sat through 13 sessions and discussed a diverse range of issues from water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to sustainable production.

Like any good play, there have been moments of serious reflection, comedy and, towards the end, plenty of drama. Fortunately, as the Open Working Group’s 13th session drew to an end on Saturday morning, we steered clear of farce. Following a mammoth final meeting in which member state representatives sat for 27 hours, agreement was reached and the proposals were given unanimous acclamation by all 70 member states.

The proposal document is an important milestone in the post-2015 process. This is the first time that member states have had to agree on a set of proposals during the process. Getting to agreement now was important if the full negotiations are to be effective. Although several other reports and proposals (such as the 2013 report of the Secretary General’s High-Level Panel or those of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network) will remain influential, these proposals are likely to play a significant part in shaping the direction of next year’s negotiations.

WaterAid's Director of International Programmes, Girish Menon, opened the debate on Water, Sanitation and Sustainable Energy in the Post-2015 Development Agenda at the UN General Assembly in New York in Feburary 2014.

Sanitation and water indivisible

There are a number of areas that I was pleased to see in the proposal. The focus on poverty eradication as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development is crucial – it wasn’t clear this would be explicit and fully integrated at the start of the process. Equally welcome was the reaffirmation of the importance of human rights (including the rights to water and sanitation) and a commitment to ambitious universal targets to ensure no one is left behind.

At the goal and target level, the proposals are a clear statement that ending poverty depends on an indivisible package of interventions to tackle hunger, ill-health and inequality. There’s a lot more to be done if we’re to learn the lessons of the ‘siloed’ MDGs, but there’s plenty for member states to work with over the next year. I won’t comment on the wider framework (these two blogs cover this here and here), but, for those interested in WASH, it’s Goal 6 you will want to focus on. We were delighted to see a dedicated goal on not only water but also sanitation. Throughout this process, WaterAid and many others have advocated for sanitation to be given an equal billing. With 2.5 billion people living without an improved toilet, an MDG framework that didn’t include a target on sanitation until 2002, and the knowledge that it remains one of the most off-track of all the targets, to do anything less would have been a missed opportunity.

Goal 6 is supported by a range of targets, but particular focus should be given to 6.1 and 6.2, which focus on universal access to water and sanitation, and, importantly, hygiene (absent from the MDGs). Focus is given to overcoming open defecation (OD). With more than 1 billion people still defecating in the open every day, recognising that sanitation goes beyond infrastructure and involves changing behaviour is important.

Target 6.2 calls for ‘special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations’. I was extremely pleased to see recognition that we need to target those people hardest to reach if member states are committed to ‘leaving no-one behind’. WaterAid endorses WASH sector proposals that have put a strong focus on ensuring that inequalities in access are progressively eliminated. Inclusion of this wording is a reflection of the work of sector experts who created this proposal, as well as the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation and something that member states can continue to develop and refine over the next year. A consistent language for referring to inequalities in the final document will be an important outcome.

Looking to the other goals and targets, there are a number for which progress on WASH will be vital to their success. Goal 2 on hunger and nutrition, Goal 3 on healthy lives, and Goal 5 on gender all contain targets where progress will be underpinned by reaching universal access to WASH. To give just one example, Target 3.2 focuses on ending preventable newborn and under-five deaths. Given that diarrhoeal diseases are the second most common killer of children under-five globally and that 90% of cases are caused by inadequate access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene, it’s hard to envisage how we could achieve real progress on this target without similar progress in Targets 6.1 and 6.2.

How will this play end?

Member states are due to discuss the proposals in September before the report is passed to the Secretary General. He will then issue a synthesis report by the end of this year, taking us into the final act of the process. After that, it’s fair to say things become a little less clear. We do know that a number of new actors will join the stage, ranging from the incoming President of the 69th General Assembly Mr Sam Kutesa of Uganda to the Permanent Representatives of Papa New Guinea and Denmark who are charged with the modalities of the post-2015 summit in September 2015.

Fundamentally, it will now be the whole General Assembly who must decide on the way forward.

WaterAid, in collaboration with a range of partners, has worked hard to ensure that the case for water and sanitation has been made. We’re delighted to see this outcome but there is a long way to go before we get the final framework. Many questions remain unanswered. Will member states trim down the goals from 17? What will the modalities for the negotiations be and when will they take place? Will indicators for the targets be agreed before or after the summit next year?

For now, we are thankful for the Open Working Group’s hard work. I am hopeful that when we reach the end of Act Three the curtain will close on a critically acclaimed masterpiece, one that can ensure member states are committed to universal access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene for all.

Ross Bailey is a Campaigns Officer based in London and works on the post-2015 process. He tweets at