Measured mutuality

The SDG indicators for water cooperation.

The SDG indicators for water cooperation

Can we measure how well countries are cooperating over water? The idea may sound faintly absurd, but if the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to become a meaningful reality, it will be necessary to set targets and assess progress. One of the goals for water is that countries will cooperate more around shared resources – so called transboundary cooperation. It is important, then, that credible indicators are set for this objective so that governments can be held to account and investments effectively targeted.

Photo credit: Manoj Jayasuriya


But what exactly can be measured? A new IWMI working paper looks at the options for indicators of water cooperation, and makes recommendations about which are the most useful.

The researchers ploughed through literature on water governance and identified more than 30 possible indicators. The indicators were sifted through to ten that were then pilot tested in three countries in Southern Africa – South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. The pilot test confirmed six indicators as the most promising.

According to Davison Saruchera, lead author of the paper and PhD candidate at Wits University in South Africa, the objective of this work is to ‘identify meaningful indicators that can be feasibly assessed within a reasonable timeframe.’ Balancing depth of assessment with time-sensitivity is critical for indicators to be applicable at a frequency suitable for use in the context of SDGs

“What is important is to realize that existing knowledge can provide powerful basis on which to develop indicators to measure progress toward SDG targets,” says Jonathan Lautze, the paper’s co-author. “This is what this paper demonstrated. Timely research that synthesizes what has been done can indeed play a critical role in the formulation of development measures. We believe this paper is one of the first to thoroughly review past work to offer a set of indicators that can respond directly to a target emerging from the SDG process”

<strong>The 6 recommended indicators for water cooperation</strong>

The indicators that are most likely to give and accurate representation of the degree of water cooperation between countries are:

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  • Conclusion of a basin-wide transboundary water agreement
  • Reference to transboundary cooperation in national water legislation
  • Inclusive completion of a basin plan
  • Evidence of regular data exchange
  • Harmonized standards and units of measurement,
  • Riparian financing for transboundary institutional activities


Related working groups and studies often point to the creation of transboundary agreements as a good indicator, said the authors. And while this measure has clear merit, it may be insufficient. A primary limitation of this measure is that it is paper-based, and does not capture the degree to which cooperation is occurring in practice. The authors believe their six indicators provide a fuller picture of cooperation and can be applied to a greater variety of situations.

Three of the indicators proposed could be considered ‘paper-based’ and the other three could be considered ‘practice-based’. All of these indicators can be applied relatively easily, say the authors, and provide a meaningful indication of cooperation in transboundary waters. As such, the SDG process might wish to draw from this work to identify indicators to assess the progress made towards water cooperation.


The current text of the proposed SDG target 6.5 states “by 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.”

The governance focus of SDG 6.5 presents at least two issues that are not necessarily found in other targets. First, there is a particular danger that ‘blueprint’ institutional models will be prescribed. Second, the governance focus implies that achievement of this target is not only an important objective in its own right, but it is also important to foster progress toward broader aspirations (e.g., effective water management).

“The bottom line is that a robust framework for monitoring water cooperation should probably include indicators that measure transboundary relations in both paper and practice,” says Lautze. “This should be considered even if measuring cooperation in practice is a more cumbersome exercise than gauging cooperation on paper.”


Saruchera, D.; Lautze, J. 2015. Measuring transboundary water cooperation: learning from the past to inform the sustainable development goals. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI). 26p. (IWMI Working Paper 168).

Further reading:

van der Bliek, J.; McCornick, M.; Clarke, J. (Eds.). 2014. On target for people and planet: setting and achieving water-related sustainable development goals. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

This work is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Water Land and Ecosystems

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