In 2010, the United Nations declared access to safe, clean drinking water and sanitation to be a human right. Five years later, UN Member States reaffirmed their commitment to this human right in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and through the targets of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 — “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”.
As we approach the two-year mark of the SDGs, it might seem too early to expect substantial progress. However, with the latest SDG report UN Secretary-General António Guterres stressed that “implementation has begun, but the clock is ticking”. There is already a sense that the pace of progress is too slow to meet targets by 2030.
But much of this early anxiety is rooted in limited country baseline data and underdeveloped statistical capacity. Compounding the challenges of initial SDG assessments is that, while indicators have been determined for all SDGs, clear methods of measuring indicators have not. Without a standardised and confident way to determine progress, ongoing implementation becomes clouded. Water — specifically SDG 6 — is a perfect example of this dilemma.
Each of the 169 SDG targets will be measured through one or two indicators, and for SDG 6 nine core indicators have been agreed on and accepted. The next step is to agree on how to measure these nine indicators. So far, methods have been established to measure four, but the practicality of measuring these four indicators to build reliable baseline data has been difficult for many countries. As a result, official country progress reports have been rudimentary so far.
A fundamental reason for this is because most countries, from both high- and low-income brackets, are still working to realign their political, institutional and planning mechanisms to deal with expectations of the SDGs. In 2017, 43 countries voluntarily reported on progress against a small number of SDGs. Among the range of challenges and advances each country reported, the action group ‘Together 2030’ concluded that the weakest area was in reporting concrete actions taken for SDG implementation.
Why is this finding so crucial in the context of water and SDG 6? Because the SDGs are inherently interlinked, and water flows through them all. For example, SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) is interdependent with SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), and both support SDG 15 (life on land).
But SDG 6 is unique. Water is the foundation of life, livelihoods, ecosystems, and economies, making access to safe water a vital thread of achieving all sustainable development progress.
Although there have been analyses, discussions, and tools produced to help national governments avoid water-related quandaries as they implement the SDGs, it is uncertain how each nation will decide their water priorities and paths.
While it is easy to understand why water is important in our daily lives, it is harder to grasp the impending impacts of water scarcity. By 2030 there will be a 40% gap between global water demand and water supply. By 2050, water demands are expected to increase by 400% for manufacturing, and by 130% for household use. Yet this resource will need to support a projected population of 9.7 billion, 40% of which will live in severely water-stressed river basins.
We also face deteriorating water quality. The proportion of wastewater that undergoes treatment before being discharged is woeful, ranging from 70% in the wealthiest countries to only 8% in low-income countries. This is even more alarming given that two million tons of human waste are disposed of in water courses every day.
Even with focused effort to slow these trends, trade-offs will still have to be made between different SDG targets. For example, achieving SDG 2 (zero hunger) may require agriculture to be intensified to produce more food, which will require more water for crops, leading to less fresh water for drinking and ecosystems.
Although there have been analyses, discussions, and tools produced to help national governments avoid these quandaries as they implement the SDGs, it is uncertain how each nation will decide their water priorities and paths. So far, there is only one universal agreement: ‘business as usual’ will mean we all fail.
However, changing the ‘business as usual’ approach will require evidence-based decision making — and evidence in the water sector is hard to come by. The sector is characterised by multiple stakeholders; conflict between environmental, social and economic agendas; and complex science, with a level of uncertainty under changing environmental conditions. National water agendas are difficult to manage even by experts, which leads to difficulties in using data to develop policy that can lead to ambitious action under SDG 6.
The SDG Policy Support System has been designed to encourage one agreed, and therefore authoritative, evidence base for policy use.
To overcome this, UN agencies, non-government organisations and governments around the world are working to improve evidence building and then linking that to a better understanding of water management solutions. One strong example is the SDG Policy Support System (SDG PSS) developed by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. The system enables national governments to leverage existing and emerging national and international data, to automatically build robust and dynamic evidence that is fit for policymaking and planning around SDG 6.
The SDG PSS has been designed to encourage one agreed, and therefore authoritative, evidence base for policy use. It is designed to draw water-related data from current international and national tools covering six policy-critical components:
As data are collated into the SDG PSS, the system automatically synthesises and evaluates the data against SDG 6 targets and indicators. In this way, users can view strengths, gaps and needs for SDG indicators in one summary.
The SDG PSS is currently being trialled in five countries, but it is freely available for trial use and review by policymakers, international organisations and water experts. The goal is to offer a completed version globally by mid-2018.
The ambition of the SDG 6 targets reflects the urgency and scale of the global water crisis. However, the scale of challenges we need to face and solve are daunting. Initiatives like the SDG PSS provide a simple starting point — a way for national governments to effectively formulate implementation plans and policies from a reliable baseline of evidence that can guide us to real SDG progress.