4 item(s) found.

Freshwater: a pivotal resource in achieving the interlinked SDGs

Freshwater: a pivotal resource in achieving the interlinked SDGs

Joep Schyns

Freshwater is a renewable, yet finite resource. The amount of precipitation that falls on EU territory each year is limited. Although water that is used in one place will eventually come down as precipitation in another place, we cannot use more water than is available within a certain period of time. We can put the available water to use in several ways: to produce drinking water, food, or energy, or let it flow through the landscape to support ecosystems that depend on freshwater flows as well (Schyns et al., 2019; Mekonnen & Hoekstra, 2016). The increasing competition between alternative uses of limited freshwater resources leads to water scarcity. In Europe, water scarcity affects 10% of the population and 17% of the territory (European Commission, 2007). Water scarcity particularly manifests itself in semi-arid areas like Southern Europe, although it also affects the generally wetter parts of the EU in dry months of the year.

The UN Sustainable Development Agenda contains a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) focused on water (SDG6), which includes targets to reduce the level of water stress and to increase water-use efficiency. Yet, freshwater resources are linked to many other SDGs, including food security (SDG2), energy security (SDG7), life below water (SDG14), and life on land (SDG15) (Figure 1; Vanham et al., 2019b). Assessing the (water-related) interlinkages across the SDG agenda is key to achieving the targets, without impairing progress towards others.


Figure 1. Graphical representation of the Water-Energy-Food-Ecosystem (WEFE) nexus, with representation of different environmental footprints of the footprint family. The green arrows represent resources and ecosystem services (ES) (where certain provisioning ES also relate to resources) required to provide the securities. The red arrows represent pollution and impacts on the ecosystem due to the provision of the securities. Source: Vanham et al. (2019b).


The objective of the EU project “Moving Towards Adaptive Governance in Complexity: Informing Nexus Security” (MAGIC) is to assess the interlinkages in the water-food-energy-ecosystem nexus to better inform policy-making. Several MAGIC contributions have shed light on the role of freshwater in this nexus domain and the interlinked SDGs:

Water, energy and the environment

  • A MAGIC case study on the water footprint of energy from wood sources in the EU (Schyns et al., 2019) has contributed to a comprehensive assessment of the water needs of the EU energy sector (Vanham et al., 2019a), which has led to a clear call to consider water impacts in EU energy planning (European Commission, 2020).
  • A recently published MAGIC report on the environmental footprint of transport by car using renewable energy (Holmatov & Hoekstra, 2020) shows that the choice of which technology to promote in the transition to low-emission transport has trade-offs in terms of pressure on water and land resources.

Water, food and the environment

  • In another recent MAGIC report, water savings in irrigation have been explored through five different narratives on the role of crop production in the EU (Vargas-Farías et al., 2020). The study illustrates a lack of coherence between current EU agriculture and water management policies. The analysis increases the understanding of viable narratives and preferred water-saving innovations with the aim to contribute to more effective EU policies that safeguard both food supply and water resources.
  • MAGIC researchers (Krol, 2019) evaluated the Water Framework Directive (WFD), looking at the links between water, agriculture and the environment. The study concludes that over the first planning period of the WFD, changes in agricultural production practices showed desired tendencies towards lower intensity of water use (case study: Spain) and water pollution (case study: the Netherlands). However, shifts in production between commodities, or volatility in production volume, prevented these tendencies to translate into stable reductions of pressures on water resources.

All these examples illustrate that to achieve SDGs on food, energy and water security within safe environmental boundaries, a coherent inter-sectoral policy framework informed by quantitative assessments is a must.



European Commission (2020), Energy policy must consider water footprint of energy sector, suggests EU study. Science for Environment Policy: European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, edited by SCU, The University of the West of England, Bristol. 

European Commission (2007), Commission staff working document - Accompanying document to the Communication from the Commission to the European parliament and the Council - Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union - Impact Assessment, COM(2007) 414 final, SEC(2007) 996 /* SEC/2007/993 */. Retrieved from https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=SEC%3A2007%3A0993%3AFIN 

Holmatov, B. & Hoekstra, A.Y. (2020), The environmental footprint of transport by car using renewable energy. Earth’s Future, 8(2):e2019EF001428  https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EF001428

Krol, M.S. (2019), Report on the quality check of the robustness of narratives behind the Water Framework Directive. MAGIC (H2020–GA 689669) Project Deliverable 5.3. 

Mekonnen, M.M. & Hoekstra, A.Y. (2016), Four billion people facing severe water scarcity, Science Advances, 2(2): e1500323.

Schyns, J.F. & Vanham, D. (2019), The water footprint of wood for energy consumed in the European Union, Water, 11(2): 206.

Schyns, J.F., Hoekstra, A.Y., Booij, M.J., Hogeboom, R.J. & Mekonnen, M.M. (2019) Limits to the world’s green water resources for food, feed, fiber, timber, and bioenergy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(11): 4893–4898.

Vanham, D., Medarac, H., Schyns, J.F., Hogeboom, R.J. & Magagna, D. (2019a) The consumptive water footprint of the European Union energy sector. Environmental Research Letters, 14(10): 104016.

Vanham, D., Leip, A., Galli, A., Kastner, T., Bruckner, M., Uwizeye, A., van Dijk, K., Ercin, E., Dalin, C., Brandão, M., Bastianoni, S., Fang, K., Leach, A., Chapagain, A., Van der Velde, M., Sala, S., Pant, R., Mancini, L., Monforti-Ferrario, F., Carmona-Garcia, G., Marques, A., Weiss, F. & Hoekstra, A.Y. (2019b) Environmental footprint family to address local to planetary sustainability and deliver on the SDGs, Science of The Total Environment, 693: 133642.

Vargas-Farías, A., Hogeboom, R.J., Schyns, J.F., Verburg, C.C.A, Hoekstra, A.Y. (2020) Saving water in EU agriculture – What are plausible alternative pathways? MAGIC Policy Brief.

Unclear route map for EU SDG journey

Unclear route map for EU SDG journey

Kirsty Blackstock, Alba Juarez-Bourke, Kerry Waylen and Keith Matthews

In a previous issue of the Nexus Times, we asked where was the nexus governed? (Issue V) drawing attention to the distribution of the actors involved in trying to govern the water-energy-food nexus across European Union (EU) institutions. Our conclusion was the space(s) for governing the nexus are ‘everywhere and nowhere’. This seems also to be the case with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Let us elaborate. The signatories to the UN2030 agenda are over 170 nation-states, and the EU is also a signatory. This means the SDGs are objects of shared competence between the EU and its Member States. Member States can, and do, track their own progress on delivery and submit voluntary national reviews to support the UN’s assessment of progress e.g. Greece in 2018, United Kingdom in 2019.

The EU is not a monolith but consists of several institutions including the tripartite governance structure of the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament and the European Commission. Their shared commitment to the SDGs was formalised in “Our World, Our Dignity, Our Future” (2017) although each institution has its own role in governing the SDGs.  The Council has a working party on Agenda 2030 to oversee delivery shared between the EU and Member States.  Various European Parliament committees and associated commissions (e.g. Committee of Regions) have debated delivery of the SDGS. The Commission set up a Multi-Stakeholder Platform on SDGs to support and advise them and all stakeholders involved on the implementation of the SDGs at the EU level.  Within the Commission, the cabinet for the Vice President has responsibility for sustainable development, and the Secretariat General helps to coordinate delivery. An interservice group was convened to develop a Reflection Paper “Towards a sustainable Europe by 2030.” The supporting agency, Eurostat, has repurposed its sustainable development indicators to help track delivery of the SDGs; whilst all policy development processes must consider the SDGs as part of their impact assessment processes.  

Our analysis of the narratives regarding the EU’s role in delivering the SDGs is as follows. In the reflection paper, the EU is presented as a front runner in sustainable development, and hence “exceptionally well-positioned to lead” (European Commission, 2019). Whilst the adoption of the SDGs has highlighted the need for everyone everywhere to contribute to the goals, the focus is still primarily on the ‘external dimension’ such as development aid and trade (European Parliament, 2019).  Finally, the way to deliver the SDGs is presented as ensuring policy coherence between existing EU policies and actions, rather than taking new approaches to address complex and intertwined problems (e.g. economic and social exclusion, state fragility and environmental degradation, all of which are also exacerbated by climate change).  This suggests that the SDGs can best be addressed by incremental refocussing of an existing approach to sustainable development.

However, the Commission has been criticised  for failure to have a clear and coherent strategy about how the SDGs will be delivered (European Economic and Social Committee, 2018, European Parliament, 2019); and a suggestion that the EU will not achieve the goals by 2030 (SDSN and IEEP, 2019).  This is unsurprising given that the previous sustainability goals in the EU Sustainable Development Strategy also remained elusive (CEU, 2009). At the time of writing, there is no visible SDG implementation strategy beyond a list of existing EU policies and actions brigaded under each SDG. We await the imminent adoption of the Green Deal and hope that here it will include a meaningful implementation plan with associated clear lines of accountability to ensure that the SDGs are governed in specific EU spaces by specific EU actors. This may help to ensure that delivery can start to match the EU’s laudable ambition. If not,delivery will remain fragmented and perpetuate the capability-expectations gap that has dogged the EU since its inception.



Council of the European Union (2009), Presidency's report on the 2009 review of the Union's Sustainable Development Strategy.

European Commission, Council of the European Union & European Parliament (2017), The new European consensus on development "Our world, our dignity, our future". Joint statement by the Council and the representatives of the governments of the Member States meeting within the Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission.

European Economic and Social Committee (2018). Indicators better suited to evaluate the SDGs - the civil society contribution (own-initiative opinion). NAT/737-EESC-2018-01470​.

European Parliament (2019), Europe's approach to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals: good practices and the way forward.

Sustainable Development Solutions Network & Institute for European Environmental Policy (2019), 2019 Europe Sustainable Development Report.

The treacherous use of indicators for SDGs

The treacherous use of indicators for SDGs

Mario Giampietro

The experience of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) has shown the difficulty of  trying to achieve international consensus on required action to tackle global challenges such as the problem of climate change. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development on the other hand, rather than looking for an international consensus on specific actions for achieving “peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”, directly opted for a detailed formulation of targets and indicators. In 2015 the UN General Assembly provided no less than 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 169 targets for the 17 goals, each of which has between 1 and 3 indicators to measure progress toward the targets. In total, 232 approved indicators to measure progress. However, as with the case of climate change, when looking at the results both on people (provided by UNHCR) and on the planet (in the latest IPBES report) there is no sign of an imminent wave of peace and prosperity.

The question we need to address here is the following: Is there is a systemic problem with the strategies selected by international bodies and national governments to deal with so-called “wicked” problems such as sustainable development and climate change?  Is the translation of a mission explained in semantic terms as peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”  into a set of 232 pre-approved indicators a wise move? To address this question, I use the approach developed in MAGIC to look at three types of narratives that need to be integrated when discussing complex policy issues.

Justification narratives—To guide specific actions useful for society, it is essential first of all, to identify societal concerns i.e. the perception of a stress to be avoided or the existence of unsatisfied wants. Next step is to prioritise these concerns because valid justification narratives can be in contrast. For example, “aspiration for economic growth” (SDG 1 & 2) and “need to preserve the environment” (SDG 14 & 15). This entails that the priority given to justification narratives always depends on the context. Dealing with contrasting justification narratives is a political problem, not a scientific one.

Normative narratives—In the context of governance and politics, normative narratives identify actions needed to address specific concerns. However, the choice of a specific action depends not only on a previous prioritisation over existing concerns but also on the analysis of the consequences of the action in terms of winners and losers. When dealing with the goal of “zero hunger” (SDG 2) we can make several suggestions: (i) give funding to the ministers of agriculture of countries with malnutrition; (ii) making fertilizers available to poor farmers; (iii) distribute emergency food in refugee camps.  Trade-offs between these solutions will generate different types of winners and losers.  Implementing more effective agricultural policies may improve the situation in the future, but does nothing to help poor farmers now; starving people want food not fertilizers. The perception of the usefulness of the chosen normative narratives always depends on the feelings and values of stakeholders. When “considering the nexus between energy, food, water, land use, ecological services, across different scales and dimensions, the legitimate aspirations of individual countries, the whole planet, present and future generations” [1] it becomes obvious that the choice of a specific action(s) to be taken is a political problem, not a scientific one.

Explanation narratives—In modern society, when implementing policies, “scientific evidence” is commonly cast in quantitative form, and thus indicators become a privileged form of evidence. Indicators allow the analysis of relevant attributes to characterise the performance of proposed solutions with numbers. Fractal geometry [2] flags the problem faced with this solution when dealing with issues requiring a multi-scale analysis. Let’s imagine that we want to use indicators to select a passenger tour around the coast of UK that minimises the consumption of fuels and the number of overnight stops. Detailed maps and reliable information about fuel consumption and the speed of the means of transport will not enable the identification of a solution that can be used by different operators using both boats and buses. By boat (keeping a safe distance from the shore), the UK coastline is approx. 2800 km. By bus, using coastal roads, the distance is 3400 km. Fractal geometry [2] explains that the length of the UK coastline “changes” not because of lack of accuracy in its representation, but because of a different understanding of what can or should be measured. When different perceptions of the external world co-exist because of different concerns and different purposes, the need to adopt different scales and dimensions of analysis makes the use of quantitative indicators and targets treacherous. Indicators for poverty (SDG 1), justice (SDG 10) and biodiversity (SDG 15 & 16) will always be contested.


The identification of policies linked to the SDGs should be based on: (i) definition of priorities over concerns (for which justification narratives should be used on a case by case basis); and (ii) decision of how to deliberate on the existence of “incommensurable trade-offs” across scales and dimensions. Normative narratives should be selected, again, on a case by case basis. When dealing with the implementation of the SDGs, the issue of how to prioritise concerns and who should be involved (and how) in decision-making is a paramount political issue. This explains why, as illustrated by the experience of the climate COP, getting results through globalised political processes is not easy. However, the current solution through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is even worse. Given the unavoidable existence of trade-offs and uncertainty, SDG targets and indicators should only be considered after a political discussion of the proposed normative narratives in a specific context.  In specific situations none of the 232 approved SDGs indicators can be used as evidence of an “improvement” outside of a process of unpleasant political discussions about priorities and losers.

A fuller discussion about the use of scientific evidence for governance in complexity is available here.




[1] Giampietro M. and Funtowicz S.O. (2020), From elite folk science to the policy legend of the circular economy, Environmental Science and Policy 100: 64-72 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2020.04.012

[2] Mandelbrot, B. (1967), How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension, Science 156 (3775): 636–638. doi:10.1126/science.156.3775.636


Depoliticizing and repoliticizing SDGs

Depoliticizing and repoliticizing SDGs

Raúl Velasco-Fernández

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become an important political reference for all kinds of institutions, whether public administration, multinationals or NGOs. However, there are still important debates about the appropriateness, consistency and the underlying interests which led to their definition. Advocates of SDGs indicate that they represent a unique global covenant for development, emphasizing  they are the result of a deliberative and public decision-making process building on expert knowledge and considering a plurality of moral arguments about human dignity. In this view, the SDGs have a discursive consensus with strong universalist legitimacy that, even being a non-binding soft-norm, give them a strong symbolical power (Sanahuja, 2016). SDGs are also seen as a step forward from Millennium Development Goals providing a more extensive, comprehensive and integrated global development strategy. Those sceptical about SDG point out that without identifying the interaction among goals (the unavoidable side effects they have on each other) and a prioritization among them (when considering trade-offs) it is impossible to have an effective implementation (Weitz, Carlsen, Nilsson, & Skånberg, 2018). Moreover, this translates into an excessive discretionality given to the current power structures when choosing among the various policies justified by SDGs. This is a situation that can depoliticize[1] the international agenda.

There are different ways to deflect attention from critical aspects of the current power structure, e.g. declaring global wars against poverty or climate change while disregarding the fact that they are generated by the current status quo. Narratives that become “hero stories” such as the need of growth and technical innovation to “leave no one behind” and achieving “peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future become unquestionable (Weber, 2017). Since the SDGs (the justification of the policy) are clearly identified and the targets are set (the expected results of the policy are already measured by indicators) such a strong framing of these “hero stories” does not leave space for discussing sustainable development using alternative narratives – i.e. noticing that in sustainability, optimal or win-win solutions do not exist.

Depoliticization is still a political action. It is a tactic for eliminating certain issues from public debate, or reducing discussion about them (Schulz & Siriwardane, 2015). This is precisely what Weber (2017, p. 399) points out when indicating that the SDG agenda “is designed to promote and consolidate a highly contested neoliberal variant of capitalist development”, which “may be aimed in part at undermining political struggles that aspire for more socially just and ecologically sustainable approaches to development” by privileging “commercial interests over commitments to provide universal entitlements to address fundamental life-sustaining needs”. Other authors as Ashukem (2020) flag the use of the SDG agenda inside the “green economy” policies promoted by the EU. Ashukem indicates that SDG can be used to promote the practice of land-grabbing in sub-Saharan Africa by foreign governments, companies and multinational financial institutions to produce biofuels crops. These practices will create more pressure on local impoverished populations, while richer countries will sell themselves as greener and more sustainable [the nexus problems of biofuels production and EU policies are discussed in MAGIC]. 

This concern about the risk of greenwashing conventional neoliberal policies is confirmed by the clear power asymmetry in the ability to endorse ‘purpose specific’ narratives. We can easily find many narratives about how to implement SDGs that are proposed by multinationals. It is more difficult to find narratives proposed by social movements fighting hegemonic globalization (e.g. World Social Forum). As Weber (2017) points out, this alternative view over the implementation of SDGs exposes the risk of reinforcing the dynamics that generate poverty and inequality. Even if SDGs are not binding, they provide important symbolic power to the actors that can mobilize and endorse action using them. This point is especially important given that public funds are available for SDGs, but their use by public and private actors is conditioned to the endorsement of the “official” SDG strategies.

To address some of these critical points it is important to repolitcize the discussion over SDGs, going beyond prescriptive interpretations of normativity that unnecessarily polarize the debate, but also avoiding depoliticization through the use of sociotechnical imaginaries often promoted by self-referential institutions (Jasanoff & Kim, 2015). In that sense, MAGIC uses Quantitative Storytelling to challenge the uncritical acceptance of rosy scenarios and simplified political framings.

Summarizing, there are a few issues that should be considered when dealing with the governance of SDGs: (i) the implications of the nexus (side effects and trade-offs) should always be acknowledged when discussing the implementation of SDGs to avoid the silo-governance syndrome, and openly addressing the political dimension of the prioritization among goals (Weitz et al., 2018); (ii) the weaknesses and opportunities given by the process of implementing the SDGs should not be ignored but considered useful inputs for the discussion (Sanahuja, 2016); (iii) power relations (and power asymmetries) exist in any status quo and therefore it is important to explore how they can affect policy choices related to SDGs (Weber, 2017); (iv) the hegemonic conceptions of development and justice based on the narratives selected by existing international institutions should be critically reappraised (Menton et al., 2020); and (v) inconsistencies and problems generated by current applications of the SDG framing should be identified and discussed in the form of case studies (Ashukem, 2020). None of these issues taken in isolation will solve the problem of how to properly implement the 2030 Agenda. However, continuing to ignore the conflictive nature of the process required to achieve a more sustainable development on this planet will not help the cause and will contribute to the growing mistrust in institutions.

[1] Depoliticization is used here as the “deliberate tactics that are deployed by political actors to maintain the status quo of existing power relations and to deflect attention from specific aspects of risks and vulnerability that stand in conflict with their desires, values and interests” (Schulz & Siriwardane, 2015).



Ashukem, J. C. N. (2020). The SDGs and the bio-economy: fostering land-grabbing in Africa. Review of African Political Economy, 0(0), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/03056244.2019.1687086

Daly, H. E. (2005). Economics in a full world. Scientific American, 293(3), 100–107. Retrieved from JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26061149

Jasanoff, S., & Kim, S.-H. (Eds.). (2015). Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power. The University of Chicago Press.

Menton, M., Larrea, C., Latorre, S., Martinez, J., Mika, A., Leah, P., & Mariana, T. (2020). Environmental justice and the SDGs: from synergies to gaps and contradictions. Sustainability Science, (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-020-00789-8

Mills, E. (2015). The Bioeconomy: A Primer. Transnational Institute. Retrieved from http://lup.lub.lu.se/record/8054628

Sanahuja, J. A. (2016). La Agenda 2030 de desarrollo sostenible: de la cooperación Norte-Sur al imperativo universalista del desarrollo global. Gaceta Sindical: Reflexión y Debate, (26), 205–221.

Schulz, K., & Siriwardane, R. (2015). Depoliticised and technocratic? Normativity and the politics of transformative adaptation. Earth System Governance Working Paper No. 33. Lund and Amsterdam: Earth System Governance Project.

Weber, H. (2017). Politics of ‘Leaving No One Behind’: Contesting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals Agenda. Globalizations, 14(3), 399–414. https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2016.1275404

Weitz, N., Carlsen, H., Nilsson, M., & Skånberg, K. (2018). Towards systemic and contextual priority setting for implementing the 2030 agenda. Sustainability Science, 13(2), 531–548. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-017-0470-0