SDG indicator 6.4.1 “change in water use efficiency over time”: Methodological flaws and suggestions for improvement

Petra Hellegers*, Gerardo van Halsema

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

Sustainable Development Goal indicator 6.4.1 is defined as the change in water use efficiency over time and measured as the change in the ratio of gross economic value added by irrigated agriculture, industry and the services sector to the volume of water withdrawn over time. The rationale behind this indicator is to decouple a country's economic growth from its water use. Yet, this unwittingly results in an economic distortion of the water balance, favouring increased water withdrawal in service of higher water-use efficiency, at the expense of environmental sustainability. This paper discusses three methodological flaws. First, aggregation of only economic values across all sectors ignores social and environmental values and is very sensitive to changes in the relative water use by agriculture versus industry and services. Second, the economic value derived from agriculture and from imports cannot in fact be decoupled from agricultural water use. Third, the indicator completely ignores the effects of diminished return flows to the environment due to increased re-use of water. A novel alternative, disaggregated WUE approach is therefore proposed, which links water consumption to the water balance. It is defined as the economic value of irrigated and rainfed agriculture combined with water consumption (ETa) by rainfed and irrigated agriculture per area based on earth observation data. It is measured as the change in the ratio of gross economic value added by irrigated and rainfed agriculture to the volume of water consumed by rainfed and irrigated agriculture over time. This approach is more consistent and objective, while being methodologically, hydrologically and environmentally sound. It acknowledges the coupling of economic growth and water depletion, and the need to strike a balance between opportunities for economic growth and environmental sustainability. This better serves the full breadth of the water and sanitation goal as defined in SDG 6.

Original languageEnglish
Article number149431
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Volume801
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 20 Dec 2021

Keywords

  • Earth observation data
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Return flows
  • Value of water
  • WUE

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