Setting a goal is just the beginning: Improving measurability of the SDG indicators

By Elizabeth Frödén, Masters Student in Hydrology, Hydrogeology, and Water Resources, Stockholm University. Elizabeth was an intern with GWP from April to June 2018, working with the knowledge management and communications departments.


When the UN first introduced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, they were met with both enthusiasm and scepticism. The 17 ambitious goals aim to be achieved by 2030, but how is their progress being tracked along the way? This topic will be discussed in the context of the UN SDG 6 Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation at the upcoming High-Level Political Forum, which runs from the 9th to the 18th of July in New York.

Although the 17 goals are quite broad, they are broken down into a total of 169 specific targets. Each of these targets are measured with 1-3 indicators, and these are the key to measuring the success of the SDGs as the world moves towards 2030; however, not all indicators are created equal. Some are clearer than others, and to show that, the UN has three tiers for classifying their indicators:

  • Tier I: Indicator is conceptually clear, has an internationally established methodology and standards are available, and data are regularly produced by countries for at least 50 per cent of countries and of the population in every region where the indicator is relevant.
  • Tier II: Indicator is not conceptually clear, has an internationally established methodology and standards are available, but data are not regularly produced by countries.
  • Tier III: No internationally established methodology or standards are yet available for the indicator, but methodology/standards are being (or will be) developed or tested.

Tier III indicators are a point of concern. Without the proper ability to track the status and progress of the targets, it is not possible to see if the world is on track with the SDGs. The indicators are critical in determining where work needs to be done.

There are Tier III indicators amongst all the 17 goals, including in SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation. The water-related Tier III indicators are:

  • 3.2: Proportion of bodies of water with good ambient water quality
  • 6.1: Change in the extent of water-related ecosystems over time

The challenge in assessing 6.3.2 is primarily that nation-wide, regularly tracked water quality data is institutionally and financially challenging for some countries, making the base data required to track water quality limited. One method of improving this is to highlight well-established monitoring systems as examples for countries lack adequate databases, as is noted in the UN synthesis report.

6.6.1 presents a similar challenge, in that it aims to measure a trend over time. With limited historical data, it is difficult to establish a trend for all countries. The next step for improvement, as described in the UN synthesis report, is to improve global data on the extent of water bodies and on certain water quality parameters (turbidity and chlorophyll-a).

Luckily, work is already being done to improve these and other Tier III indicators. With a few exceptions, the Tier III indicators have workplans in place, elaborating the process of moving them up in the tier system and therefore making the status and progress of their associated targets easier to measure.

According to their work plans, efforts to improve indicators 6.3.2 and 6.6.1 are in motion. The main takeaway from indicator 6.3.2’s workplan is that there is a clear methodology for its assessment in place, and that it is expected to be moved to Tier II. For 6.6.1 the emphasis is on efforts to make measurements more universally understood and standardized.

It has already been successfully demonstrated that improving the indicators is possible. Indicator 6.5.2: proportion of transboundary waters with an operational agreement, was originally classified as Tier III and has since been reclassified as Tier II. This improvement is of particular interest to GWP. For example, GWP focused its Technical Background Paper 23, Measuring transboundary water cooperation: options for Sustainable Development Goal Target 6.5, on the methodology of measuring 6.5.2, thereby increasing access to standardized methods. GWP has also incorporated the methodology of 6.5.2 in its Water Governance and International Water Law training in Africa, which takes place annually from 2015-2020 in Uganda, including the 2018 session which was just conducted from the 25th to 27th of June.

The continued improvement of Tier III indicators is critical for moving forward. In the UN report on SDG6, it is emphasized that the world is not on track to reach its water and sanitation targets by 2030. However, there is time to make a change. The work being done to improve the indicators may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but it is with gradual, bottom-up improvements that the world will be able to get back on track and ensure clean water and proper sanitation for everyone.

GWP will be at the High Level Political Forum (#HLPF2018) from 9 to 18 July.

About globalwaterpartnership

The Global Water Partnership's vision is for a water secure world. Our mission is to advance governance and management of water resources for sustainable and equitable development.
This entry was posted in Development, GWP, SDGs, United Nations, Water Cooperation, Water resources management. Bookmark the permalink.

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