This post originally appeared here

World Water Week drew to a close earlier this month with a charge to the United Nations to consider aspecial emphasis on water as part of a post-2015 development agenda. As the UN deliberates Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), indicators are critical components as they track progress toward universal targets.

To understand and potentially inform the SDG process, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) and CIESIN at Columbia University, our long-time collaborator on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), hosted a workshop on the ‘next generation’ of water indicators. The immediate aim of the meeting was to collect feedback on potential indicators for the water-ecosystem effects category of the 2014 EPI. A longer-term goal is to develop guidelines for what data, measurement systems, and indicators countries may need as the SDG process considers goals for water.

IMG_7204-300x200The workshop, hosted at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, included representatives from UNEP-DHIKassel University in Germany, and the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP). EPI team members presented their research of wastewater treatment datasets. Wastewater treatment, or sewage treatment, helps remove as much suspended pollutants before effluent is released back into the environment. If discharged untreated, pollutants that are byproducts of human waste can have negative environmental consequences for both humans and animals.

The workshop took place as policymakers are discussing what SDGs might take the place of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which have a target end date in 2015.  Indicators that demonstrate a country’s progress toward achieving a SDG were a major component of the Outcome Document from the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June 2012. However, what, exactly, the SDGs will look like and what targets will be established for countries are still under debate, particularly as they must be universally applicable. MDGs, by contrast, were primarily targeted at developing countries, so designing SDGs to be ambitious enough for developed countries to strive toward is a major consideration.

Amid general agreement that work remains on MDG-7’s sub-goal to halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, current discussions in the UN Open Working Group on the SDGs propose the possibility of an SDG on water. One stream of an SDG for water would continue the work on access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation, while another would potentially focus on improved water quality and wastewater treatment.

However, whether or not data exists to track countries’ performance on water quality and wastewater treatment is a pressing concern. The EPI team spent the summer evaluating existing datasets for wastewater treatment, including the FAO’s Aquastat database and the World Bank’s International Benchmarking Network for Water and Sanitation Utilities (IBNET), and determined that these sources represent too few countries to construct a global picture of wastewater treatment. While MDG-7 has most countries reporting data on access to clean drinking water and sanitation through the World Health Organization/UNICEF’s Joint Monitoring Program, these numbers fail to assess treatment levels for sewage connections.

A 2014 EPI indicator on wastewater treatment might serve as a first effort to assess national performance on this important indicator for the purpose of guiding further discussions on an SDG for water quality and wastewater treatment. The team is constructing a database on country-level wastewater/sewage treatment information and has put out a call for these data. In this year ofInternational Cooperation on Water, we hope you will help us build a better indicator. For more information, or to get in touch about data, please contact Omar Malik at

Dr. Angel Hsu graduated from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 2013 and is now a postdoctoral associate and project manager of the Environmental Performance Index.