Unsustainable socio-economic practices manifest prominently in water crises and water-related disasters. This turns water managers into prototypical sustainability professionals, and important change agents in a broader societal transformation towards sustainability. Water education is, de facto, sustainability education. By bridging the gap between a pedagogical and a professional view on required sustainability competencies, experiences with water education offer valuable insights in the context of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). The paper reports on recent experiences with increasing the sustainability orientation of water education programmes, and explores key issues that require attention in ESD programmes in general. The experience of three international degree and capacity development programmes at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) reveals lessons on learning environments and capacities essential to the design and implementation of training programmes in, for and about sustainable development. To guide ESD programme development in higher education, it proposes adopting a ‘learning and applying what we teach’ approach, with particular attention to: skill development for meaningful stakeholder engagement; normative and value-based aspects of sustainability education; and necessary organizational capacities and professional skills of educational providers.