How will the UN measure and monitor the Sustainable Development Goal 6 for Water & Sanitation?

*First interview in Aqua-Statisticians: A five part series

To answer that question, The Source turned to the people behind the numbers at FAO-AQUASTAT, which for two decades has been collecting, analyzing and disseminating 180+ variables on water resources, water uses and agricultural management for 200+ countries. In the first of five segments, Marisha Wojciechowska-Shibuya interviews programme manager Karen Frenken about the challenges surrounding global data collection, and how to monitor of the SDGs:

Marisha Wojciechowska-Shibuya

Marisha Wojciechowska-Shibuya: What key insights and lessons have emerged through the AQUASTAT programme over 20 years?

Karen Frenken: Through AQUASTAT, we know that globally water withdrawal increased more than 7 times over the last century.

Graph 1

We know that it increased 1.7 times faster than population.

Graph 2

And we know through AQUASTAT that currently the agricultural sector accounts for about 70% of the world’s water withdrawals for agricultural, industrial and municipal purposes, mostly to grow the food we need.

Graph 3

Data is a vital input to water management and investment in water-related infrastructure and projects. The lack of quality and reliability of physical data in a country makes water-related investment decisions inherently more complex, investments more risky for investors, and the investment less effective if it is not suitably targeted.

As pressure grows on water resources, how can a national government decide how much water to allocate to agriculture, industrial and domestic purposes if it does not have data on both the water resources available and the water used by each?

Karen Frenken

Harmonised national-level data lets a country compare its situation and achievements with other countries. At international level, the data provide the basis for studying the evolution of water resources development, relative levels of water scarcity, potentials and trends.

Many nations lack quantitative datasets on water for assessments and analysis. While information may be collected through questionnaires and surveys by various data collection entities worldwide, all too often it is not quantitative, refers only to a small sub-national area or project, ignores competition between sectors, or allows one data-point to mask large in-country differences, making practical analysis difficult.

Water data is especially important where regions or  countries must share water from within the same river basin. But that information can be also hard to obtain, and often water is double-counted since the different countries within the same river basin count the water flowing from one to another as being part of “their” domestic water availability.

The AQUASTAT website constantly accounts for at least 60 percent of the web traffic of the entire FAO Water website, where it is located. Visits have more than doubled over the last 5 years. These data points indicate there is clearly a constant need for data; moreover, periods of droughts, floods or important international water events usually result in higher rates of traffic.

Karen Frenken is an irrigation engineer who worked for 20 years in different countries in South Asia, the Near East and Sub-Saharan Africa, dealing with fragile ecosystems and the role of women. As Senior Water Resources Management Officer at the Land and Water Division of UN FAO, Frenken manages the AQUASTAT Programme.
Marisha Wojciechowska-Shibuya is an Asia-Pacific-based international consultant who specialises in water resources management and policy. A former new editor and coordinator for the UN-Water Country Briefs project, Marisha has written numerous articles, books and interviews on water and sustainable development.