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“Water is a cross-cutting issue which is crucial for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda”

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  • “Water is cross-cutting issue which is crucial for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda”
    Philippine iWaSH project. Photo: Erwin Lim

About the entity

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
UNDP works in about 170 countries and territories, helping to achieve the eradication of poverty, and the reduction of inequalities and exclusion. We help countries to develop policies, leadership skills, partnering abilities.
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To get a better understanding of the World Water Day, celebrated 22nd March,  and address the reasons why so many people are being left behind, we speak to Dr Marianne Kjellén, Senior Water Advisor at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), on how the organization is working to achieve the water goal (#SDG6) by 2030.  

Question: Firstly, we would like to know briefly your career path and your role within the United Nations Development Programme.

Answer: I work as Senior Water Advisor within UNDP’s Water & Ocean Governance Programme at the Bureau for Policy & Programme Support. In this position I provide advice on UNDP’s position and engagement in global processes related to water policy, and I help support operations on the ground through UNDP country offices and regional hubs.

My academic background is in Human Geography. I work with water governance – the relations and structures that determine who gets water, how much, when, and how – in relation to various contexts, like urban environmental management, water supply and sanitation and inclusive approaches for the reduction of poverty and inequality. My research background involves studies of public-private collaboration as this relates to formal/official and informal/unofficial ways of distributing water.

I have over twenty-five years’ experience of water and development work. Prior to joining the UNDP in 2016, I worked with the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), and before that with the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), and with Stockholm University. Before embarking on my PhD (with case studies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania), I worked for three years as Junior Professional Officer at the UNDP Country Office in Tanzania in the 1990s. Hence, being back at UNDP (headquarters) is like coming full circle.  

It is important that local communities, municipalities and governments be empowered to resolve their most pressing water challenges

Q: What type of activities does the UNDP carry out related to water and sanitation?

A: Water is a cross-cutting issue which is crucial for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. It cuts across the social, environmental and economic pursuits set out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The largest number of UNDP water projects probably involve assisting communities that suffer from the effects of climate change or other challenges to the sustainability of their water systems. This may typically involve an expansion or adaptation of the existing water supply and sanitation system which may need repair, extension or improved management to serve its intended beneficiaries better.

More broadly, the Water & Ocean Governance Programme focuses on reforming ‘governance’ to strategically address freshwater and marine resources challenges and support the achievement of SDGs 6 and 14. This involves the promotion of integrated water resources management (IWRM) approaches and assisting the transboundary application of these, generally with the support of the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

On the knowledge management and capacity development side, we emphasise the interconnectedness and material flows relating to IWRM and coastal management through ‘Source-to-Sea’ and ‘Ridge-to-Reef’ approaches. Climate resilience, along with cross-cutting issues of Human Rights, Gender Equality and Integrity (anti-corruption) are addressed throughout the work. Through Cap-Net UNDP, networks for capacity development in sustainable water management are connected across the globe. Recently finalised or updated packages include training material on Climate Change Adaptation and Integrated Water Resources Management and Indigenous Peoples & Integrated Water Resources Management 

Marianne Kjellén (PhD)
Senior Water Advisor, Water & Ocean Governance Programme (WOGP)

Q: What other organizations do you work with to carry out these projects?

A: Implementation on the ground would typically be with local partners or the local or national government organizations, partly because this is where we have the best contextual knowledge and partly as a way to assure local ownership of the development process. UNDP is committed also to the One-UN and works with and through other UN entities like UN Environment and others, not least in the implementation of many of the transboundary programmes supported by the GEF.

At the global level, collaboration with UN entities is coordinated through the inter-agency coordination mechanism UN-Water. As Senior Water Advisor I am UNDP’s representative in the UN-Water work, and I channel the UNDP contributions e.g. to the annual World Water Development Report produced jointly by the UN-Water partners and members. UN-Water is also a forum for us to discuss issues and joint policy positions regarding global water challenges.

UNDP also works closely with its main international partners w.r.t SDG6: the Stockholm International Water Institute, which implements the UNDP-SIWI Water Governance Facility (WGF), and the Global Water Partnership which is now also implementing the Cap-Net UNDP activities.

The Water & Ocean Governance Programme focuses on reforming ‘governance’ to strategically address freshwater and marine resources challenges and support the achievement of SDGs 6 and 14

Q: Of these activities, which one would you highlight for its social impact?

A: In this context I would like to highlight the iWaSH programme in the Philippines  This is a good example of a long-term collaboration where UNDP has been supporting the efforts of the government to achieve sustainable water and sanitation provision in ‘waterless’ communities.* It also illustrates the model which we often follow; where larger programmes (like the Philippine government’s SALINTUBIG programme) provide infrastructure and UNDP (often in collaboration with UNICEF) can help complement the governance angle to assure transparency, accountability and participation in the implementation and maintenance of the schemes. The iWaSH builds on previous support from Spain through the Millennium Development Goals Achievement Fund (MDG-F) and the following Sustainable Development Goals Achievement Fund (SDG-F), complemented with GoAL WaSH (Governance, Advocacy and Leadership in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) which has been supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

In terms of social impact, above all, the communication between the Local Government Units and the communities in waterless municipalities has improved, e.g. through information drives relating to water quality and alternative water sources. An important part of communication and the building of mutual trust has been the Localized Customer Service Codes (LCSC) that were piloted some years ago. An LCSC is a social contract developed through a consultative process between communities and service providers. It spells out the level of service to be provided, with mutually agreed roles and responsibilities of consumers and providers. The adoption of LCSCs and the greater transparency active consumer involvement in the proper management of services have resulted in increased connection rates, more effective tariff development and collection of payments, and higher efficiency in water use.

Integrated water resources management requires us to understand the role of water in all parts of the economy, environment and social system

Q: Which are the main hurdles the UNDP finds when carrying out these projects?

A: There are many hurdles or challenges to address. The size and interconnectedness of the development challenge is an issue in itself: isolating actionable interventions risks losing sight of the possible synergies or conflicts with other developments. Integrated water resources management requires us to understand the role of water in all parts of the economy, environment and social system. It is easier said than done.

A related hurdle involves the necessary local-level coordination of the whole development effort and ensuring the best use of available (financial, human and natural) resources. UNDP supports this by advocating for and supporting systems to be transparent, accountable and inclusive. Inclusiveness and participatory approaches are critical for ensuring appropriate use of resources.

Another hurdle is the difficulties many local authorities and national governments face in understanding and expressing their own needs. It is important that local communities, municipalities and governments be empowered to resolve their most pressing water challenges. We try to support this under the rubric of ‘water governance’ with interventions typically focusing on individual and institutional capacity development. We also support multi-stakeholder processes for assessing problems, defining priorities and the way forward.

Another challenges that we face is the need to show quick results from processes which take time to mature. Direct investments into physical infrastructure and extensions of services is important and renders rapid and demonstrable results. However, many water systems fail to deliver the services they were built for. This highlights the need to build an institution which is able to invest, maintain, extend and, above all, continue to deliver services by its own force. This requires long-term investment into legal and institutional frameworks, the requisite human capacity to govern the system, including ways to recover costs of operations or transparently and professionally manage subsidies. Institutional capacity is key for development impact. Yet, it is difficult to measure and takes time to materialize.

UNDP-supported projects have highlighted the difficulties in successfully implement water and sanitation projects in indigenous peoples’ areas

Q: What geographical areas does the UNDP consider most challenging in relation to water, sanitation and marginalized groups?

A: The most problematic access to water and sanitation services are found in poor rural areas. Both physical and institutional infrastructure is sparser in rural areas. But this is not only a problem of geographical remoteness or lower income. It is also a problem of less political influence and sometimes discrimination related to ethnic or gender differences. Urban areas can also present stark inequalities with extreme differences in access to services only a few blocks apart. The differences between slum and non-slum areas relate to highly differentiated and often discriminatory ways of being inserted into the institutions of society, including those of water and sanitation services delivery.

UNDP-supported projects have highlighted the difficulties in successfully implement water and sanitation projects in indigenous peoples’ areas. Indigenous peoples are overrepresented among the economically poorest and have substantially lower access to services. To successfully collaborate in indigenous areas, we have found it additionally important to engage in long-term dialogue and to build mutual trust and mutual respect between cultures of different communities, including different cultures and values attached to the management of land, water resources and services. Moreover, indigenous peoples have a critical role in ecosystem and biodiversity work; with their ancestral relation to the land, particular knowledge about ecosystems, and traditionally more environmentally friendly ways of managing (i.e. not ‘commanding’) resources.

The most challenging of all areas are those suffering from armed conflict. In these areas, development work is extremely challenging, and external support becomes forced to focus on the most basic necessities and pressing emergencies. It takes long to recover from armed conflicts, and among the UN and development agencies, we try to join humanitarian and development work to the extent possible, to assist conflict-ridden and post-conflict areas to recover as quickly and sustainably as possible. More generally, ‘resilience’ is being aimed for as a way to find ways to be able to manage and come out of crises and shocks of all kinds.

Philippine iWaSH project. Photo: Eric Merced

Q: With regards to the World Water Day, why do you think it necessary to highlight the marginalized groups’ difficulty in accessing safe water?

A: The indignity of inequality and discrimination is among the greatest challenge of our times. Choosing ‘Leaving No One Behind’ as the UN-Water** theme for the 2019 World Water Day campaign and the annual World Water Development Report highlights the importance of equality and non-discrimination in accessing to water services or water resources, and the devastating effects of armed conflict and plight of forced displacement. The theme is also timely, as ‘Leaving No One Behind’ lies at the heart of the 2030 Agenda to which all countries in the world have committed.

The recognition of the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation*** highlights the responsibility of governments – as duty bearers – in ensuring that water and sanitation services be made available to all in a non-discriminatory manner. In progressively fulfilling these rights, governments are obliged to prioritize those most in need.

The application of inter-cultural approaches can be important means for reaching the most marginalized and most in need. Targeted ‘pro-poor’ measures are also required to correct existing inequalities, including the realization of declared intentions, e.g. by resisting corruption and related diversion of resources or agendas, or poor quality of interventions. Participatory approaches can be important vehicles for reducing corruption and ensuring appropriate targeting of efforts.

The indignity of inequality and discrimination is among the greatest challenge of our times

Q: Is the UNDP carrying out any specific projects to celebrate the World Water Day?

A: UNDP participates in the UN-Water coordinated World Water Day campaign and helps produce the World Water Development Report. This way we indirectly contribute to a range of events around the world. Personally, I will make a presentation of the Report at the premises of our main financial partner (Sida) and our collaborating partner Swedish Water House organizes an event on Water for All focusing on indigenous peoples.   

Q: And lastly, what do you think citizens can do to make the SDG 6 goal possible?

A: Think globally, act locally. We all need to be better aware of water, environment and development challenges across the globe. Local stakeholder involvement in one place can be greatly inspired by smart solutions and ways of collaborating in other areas.

We can also ensure to do our part in protecting water resources and aquatic environments by:

  • avoiding wasteful practices,
  • consuming products which – to the extent to our knowledge and available product certification – have been produced in socially and environmentally sustainable ways, and
  • sorting and disposing of our own wastes in ways that help the broader system of (water quality protection and) responsible waste disposal, recycling or reuse.

Finally, as honest, considerate and engaged citizens, we can ensure to respect one another as individuals and community members, and thus contribute to a social climate that is conducive to the achievement of the broader 2030 Agenda for people and planet, and the fulfilment of the human rights.


*In the Philippines, the municipalities where less than half of the households have to safe water, sanitation and hygiene are referred to as ‘waterless.’ Most of these are located in the poorest provinces of the country.

**UN-Water is the interagency mechanism for coordinating UN entities and partners in relation to water management and sanitation

***Recognized as human rights by the UN General Assembly in 2010, as water and sustainable is indispensable for the fulfilment of the right to a healthy life and livelihood.