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Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development

The concept of sustainable development was popularized by the World Commission on Environment and Development in its report "Our Common Future" that was published in 1987. The Commission defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This definition is the one most often cited, but the World Commission also made the following observations:

  • Sustainable development requires that overriding priority be given to meeting basic human needs, especially those of the poor, and recognition of the limitations associated with technology and social organizations that impact the capacity of the environment to meet both present and future needs.
  • Sustainable development requires the integration of economic and ecological considerations in decision-making.
  • Governments must make key national, economic, and sector-specific agencies directly responsible for ensuring that their policies and activities support development that is economically and ecologically sustainable.
  • No single blueprint exists for sustainable development, because conditions vary among countries. Each country will have to create its own approach to reflect its needs.
  • No quick-fix solutions exist. The journey towards sustainable development is often as important as the end product.
  • The outcome will not always leave everyone better off. There will be winners and losers, always making achievement of sustainable development difficult.

Key Principles of Sustainable Development

Regarding water management, sustainable development has generated attention on four principles. First, fresh water should be regarded as a finite and vulnerable resource. Effective management links both land and water across the whole of a catchment or groundwater aquifer, and therefore effective management requires a holistic approach in which social and economic development is linked to protection of natural ecosystems.

Second, water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners, and policymakers at all levels. This also means that decisions should be taken at the lowest (most basic) appropriate level via open public consultation with, and involvement of, users.

Third, because women play a central role globally in the provision, management, and safeguarding of water, they should have more opportunity to participate in planning and managing of water resources.

Fourth, water has significant economic value, and thus should be recognized as an economic good. However, it also is essential to recognize the basic right of all humans to have access to safe, drinkable water and sanitation. Pricing water as an economic good will discourage wasteful and environmentally damaging uses of water by encouraging conservation and protection of water.

Yet current policies and practices often do not reflect these four principles of sustainable water management. The basic human needs for drinking water and sanitation are not met for many people in various countries. During the 1990s, one billion people lacked an assured supply of good quality water, and 1.7 billion people had no adequate sanitation. Water-related diseases caused about 8 percent of all illnesses in developing countries, affecting two billion people each year.

Moreover, most countries do not treat water as an economic good. And in many countries, water management is fragmented among many sectors and institutions, making it difficult to manage water holistically. Fragmentation also makes it difficult to integrate environmental, economic, and social considerations, or to link water quality to health, the environment, and economic development. Management often over-relies on centralized administration, with few opportunities for local people to participate in planning, management, and implementation.

The World Water Council, with headquarters in Marseille, France, was established in 1996 to provide global leadership for sustainable water management. The council promotes a holistic and participatory approach, combining development of new sources of water supply with economic incentives, especially pricing, to encourage water conservation and to discourage wasteful water use practices. By 2001, the council had led preparation of global and regional "visions" related to water use, development, and management, as a first step toward ensuring water is managed systematically in the twentyfirst century.

Different Perspectives on Sustainable Development

Given the above observations from the World Commission, it is not surprising that many different interpretations have emerged for sustainable development. In developed countries, the main interest has focused upon integrating environmental and economic considerations into decisions about development. Particular emphasis has been given to intergenerational equity , or how to ensure that decisions taken today do not have unreasonably negative effects on future generations. For developed countries, there has been concern that in striving to avoid environmental degradation, decisions do not jeopardize economic competitiveness at a global scale.

The perspective of developing countries has been different, with priority usually being on how to meet basic needs of present citizens. Thus, the focus has been on intragenerational equity (i.e., fair treatment for the present generation), in the belief that people whose basic needs are not met will not worry about long-term environmental degradation. Furthermore, to ensure meeting basic needs, developing countries often give priority to achieving economic development. These countries are resentful when developed countries argue they should forego the economic benefits, for example, from cutting down rainforests or damming rivers for hydroelectricity. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, these different interpretations led to major disagreements between representatives of developed and developing countries.

Pros and Cons of Sustainable Development

In the debate over water management approaches, some view sustainable development as a vague and ambiguous concept, leading people to define it to suit their own interestseither economic development or environmental protection. Some suggest that its emphasis on achieving balance between economic development and environmental protection overlooks the importance of ensuring sensitivity to the social and cultural attributes of societies. Others argue that sustainable development imposes the values of Western capitalist systems, and therefore reject it on ideological grounds.

Yet supporters of sustainable development argue that ambiguity provides desirable flexibility to customize strategies to reflect the needs and conditions of different countries and societies. Furthermore, its attention to the importance of protecting the environment is viewed as an essential counterbalance to a pattern of decision-making that often gives overriding precedence to economic benefits, regardless of environmental and social costs.

As the World Commission on Environment and Development observed, sustainable development is not a magic formula to guarantee economic prosperity, ecological integrity, and cultural sensitivity. However, it has become a powerful concept, triggering much debate and discussion about the implications of development decisions, related to water and other resources, and has led to much more attention about what is an appropriate balance among economic and environmental considerations.

see also Economic Development; Environmental Movement, Role of Water in the; Integrated Water Resources Management; War and Water.

Bruce Mitchell


Gleick, Peter H. "The Changing Water Paradigm: A Look at Twenty-first CenturyWater Resources Development." Water International. 25 (2000):127138.

Keating, Michael. The Earth Summit's Agenda for Change: A Plain Language Version of Agenda 21 and the Other Rio Agreements. Geneva, Switzerland: The Centre for Our Common Future, 1993.

Loucks, David P., and John S. Gladwell, eds. "Sustainability Criteria for Water Resource Systems." IHP International Hydrology Series Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Serageldin, Ismail. Toward Sustainable Management of Water Resources. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 1995.

World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Young, Gordon J., James C. I. Dooge, and John C. Rodda, eds. Global Water Resources Issues. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.


In 2002, the city of Johannesburg, South Africa hosted a 10-year follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The purpose of this international meeting was to bring together major groups, governments, and the United Nations to take action for sustainable development and to review progress since the 1992 Earth Summit.

Known as the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the 2002 Summit focused on five key areas: water and sanitation, energy, health, agriculture, and biodiversity. At the meeting, negotiators for 191 countries agreed to the 71-page Summit Plan of Action, intended to set the world's environmental agenda for the next 10 years.

The 2002 action plan included goals for reducing by half the proportion of people without access to proper sanitation by 2015, and similarly reducing by half the proportion of people without access to clean drinking water. More information about this Summit is available at <>.


The main publication from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, emphasized that fresh water is essential for a variety of activities: drinking, sanitation, agriculture, inland fisheries, industry, transportation, hydroelectricity generation, urban development, recreation, and other endeavors. The prime goal set in 1992 was to ensure that all humans have access to adequate and good quality water and sanitation. The year 2025 was set as a realistic target date to meet those criteria. Various approaches will be required, including:

  • protection of the integrity of aquatic ecosystems by anticipating, preventing, and attacking causes of environmental degradation;
  • effective water pollution and prevention policies and programs;
  • mandatory environmental assessment of proposed water projects; and
  • full-cost pricing, after ensuring that basic human needs are satisfied.

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Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development

The term sustainable development gained international recognition after the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) released its report Our Common Future in 1983. In this report, sustainable development was defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources had introduced the term earlier in its 1980 publication World Conservation Strategy, stating, "Development and conservation operate in the same global context, and the underlying problems that must be overcome if either is to be successful are identical." It thus recommended a strategy entitled, "Towards Sustainable Development."

Development refers to any systematic progress toward some improved or advanced condition. In the international development field, in which the term sustainable development is most often encountered, development refers to the establishment of the physical and social conditions that make economic progress possible. In the past this has at times involved the transformation of forests, wetlands, soil, and other resources in ways that ultimately undermined the capacity of the natural environment to produce conditions able to sustain future advances in the quality of people's lives. The concept of sustainable development thus suggests an alternative strategy in which economic progress and environmental protection go hand in hand.

The negative environmental impacts of some forms of economic development had been recognized long before the term sustainable development was popularized in the 1980s. The earliest settled communities subjected the harvesting of important food and raw materials to rules, customs, and eventually formal laws and regulations designed to protect renewable resources for the future. In his book Man and Nature published in 1867, George Perkins Marsh drew attention to the environmental changes he had witnessed in both the United States and the Mediterranean region. His alarm was echoed by early American conservationists Gifford Pinchot and John Muir at the beginning of the twentieth century and again by Rachel Carson in her 1962 book Silent Spring. Then in 1972 an environmentally aware group of industrialists known as the Club of Rome issued a report, The Limits to Growth, that warned of inadequate natural resource supplies and disruption to global ecosystems if population and economic growth were to continue on their current path. In 1971 the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) was established in Britain with a mandate to seek ways to achieve economic progress without destroying the environmental resource base.

In June 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) further refined the term by developing an agenda for nations to follow that would move the world toward sustainable development. Agenda 21, as it was called, was a three-hundred-page plan for achieving sustainable development in the twenty-first century. To assist in follow up and monitor the progress of Agenda 21, and to report on the implementation of related agreements, the United Nations created the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), to report to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSO).

Although the concept of sustainable development has received considerable attention in international diplomatic and policy circles, it does have its critics. Many claim sustainable development is an oxymoron. They argue that nothing, least of all economic development, is sustainable forever. For them, the concept of sustainable development is wishful thinking that distracts nations from the necessary transformations of the global economy. Others claim that a determined focus on sustainability is likely to lead to economic stagnation and continued underdevelopment.

The proponents of sustainable development believe that the current mode of economic development is fundamentally destructive and must be radically reformed, and although nothing is absolutely sustainable, the effort to hold development activities accountable for the environmental conditions they produce makes both long-term economic and ethical sense. They argue that this approach, when combined with efforts to reduce population growth rates, reduce consumption among the richest nations of the world, promote the substitution of renewable for nonrenewable natural resources, reduce waste from manufacturing processes, and improve efficiency in the use of materials, is the only approach that offers a positive future outlook for the welfare of the global community.

In the decade since Agenda 21 was accepted as a strategy for sustainable development, progress has been made. International agreements have been promulgated that will have a positive effect on sustainable development. These include, among others, the efforts of the United Nations in formulating a framework convention on climate change, a convention on biological diversity and a global compact that combines concerns for human rights, labor, and the environment. In addition, standards for business activity that consider environmental consequences have been agreed to by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 14000), and the international business community has created the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The World Bank has applied the concept of sustainable development with its reformed lending practices requiring recipients to demonstrate sound environmental criteria. Cities around the world are adopting sustainable criteria for land-use planning and zoning, and individuals are making personal consumption choices with sustainable development in mind. Though the problems of a sustainable future are far from solved, there is much about which to be optimistic.

see also Earth Summit.


Carson, Rachel. (1963). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. (1980). World Conservation Strategy.

Marsh, George Perkins. (1867). Man and Nature. New York: Scribners.

Meadows, Donella H.; Meadows, Dennis L.; Randers, Jorgen; and Behrens, William W. III. (1972). The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.

Pinchot, Gifford. (1947). Breaking New Ground. New York: Hartcourt, Brace, and Co.

World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press.

internet resource

U.S. Department of Energy Center for Excellence for Sustainable Development. Available from

Jack Manno and Ross Whaley

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sustainable development

sustainable development Defined in Our Common Future, the Report of the 1987 World Commission on the Environment and Development (the ‘Brundtland Report’), as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Rather than predicting greater environmental decay and hardship in a world of ever-diminishing resources, the Report foresees ‘the possibility of a new era of economic growth, based on policies that sustain and expand the natural environmental resource base’.

Economic growth and modernization have historically been pursued aggressively by nation-states, as a means not only of satisfying basic material needs, but also of providing the resources necessary to improve quality of life more generally (for example with respect to access to health-care and education). However, most forms of economic growth make demands on the environment, both by using (sometimes finite) natural resources and by generating waste or pollution. This jeopardizes growth for future generations. The philosophy of sustainable development attempts to resolve this dilemma by insisting that decisions taken at every level throughout society should have due regard to their possible environmental consequence. In this way, the right kind of economic growth–based on biodiversity, the control of environmentally damaging activity, and replenishment of renewable resources such as forests–is generated, and this can protect or even enhance the natural environment. Present-day economic development is therefore rendered compatible with investment in environmental resources for the future.

Although it is understandably hard to find authorities who are prepared to argue against the idea of sustainable development (it is in fact widely applauded by almost all governments and their agencies), it is often difficult for governments (which tend to be accountable to electorates over short-term periods such as five years or so) to accept the political consequences of promoting sustainable development, for example by imposing tolls or fines for the use of cars in cities (on the principle that the ‘polluter should pay’). Moreover, the environment is shared and is largely a public good, so that to a considerable extent its protection requires collective action. In practice, therefore, this has proved hard to organize because of the usual free-rider problems.

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Sustainable Development


The term "sustainable development" was popularized in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development. It refers to a systematic approach to achieving human development in a way that sustains planetary resources, based on the recognition that human consumption is occurring at a rate that is beyond Earth's capacity to support it. Population growth and the developmental pressures spawned by an unequal distribution of wealth are two major driving forces that are altering the planet in ways that threaten the long-term health of humans and other species on the planet.

Human health is dependent on the healthy functioning of the earth's ecosystem. These systems would be overwhelmed if all of the earth's inhabitants were to match the consumption patterns of wealthier nations. Sustainable development requires alterations in the lifestyle of the wealthy to live within the carrying capacity of the environment. To achieve sustainability there is a need for holistic responses to global issues such as urbanization and energy overconsumption, and there is a need for better measures of ecological and social sustainability. While sustainable development is a prerequisite for the long-term health of humans, it will not be possible to achieve sustainability in much of the world unless the toll of major health scourges, such as malaria and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection, is significantly reduced.

Bernard D. Goldstein

(see also: Atmosphere; Brownfields; Carson, Rachel; Climate Change and Human Health; Ecosystems; Environmental Justice; Environmental Movement; Equity and Resource Allocation; International Health; Pollution; Urban Health; Urban Sprawl )


McMichael, A. J.; Smith, K. R.; and Corvalan, C. F. (2000). "The Sustainability Transition: A New Challenge." Bulletin of the World Health Organization 78(9):1067.

McMichael, A. J., and Powles, J. W. P. (1999). "Human Numbers, Environment, Sustainability, and Health." British Medical Journal 319:977980.

United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992). Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme.

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sustainable development

sustainable development See sustainability.

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