Water and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In 2015, the United Nations new development goals, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), were brought into effect (http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html).

The SDGs seek to achieve substantial country-level improvements across 17 broad development goals. The aim is that by 2030, all countries will need to measure and report on their progress towards achieving 169 separate sustainable development targets.

A detailed list of the SDG objectives and targets is available at the UN’s SDG website – https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs


The freshwater-focused SDG targets, referred to as SDG6, represent a massive change to the way that we approach our management, use and disposal of water and waste. Previous development goals, the Millenium Development Goals (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/news.shtml) focused on providing clean water and improved sanitation and hygiene facilities in developing countries.

Now if we take a look at the targets within SDG6 – https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg6 – there are six with outcome focused objectives (6.1-6.6) and two with process and implementation objectives (6.a and 6.b), as follows:

6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all

6.2 By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations

6.3 By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally

6.4 By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity

6.5 By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate

6.6 By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes

6.a By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies

6.b Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management

A first glance at these objectives should make a few things clear.

First, these are ambitious and wonderfully aspirational targets for us to work towards.

Second, we might immediately start thinking about trade-offs, because it is clear that at least in some parts of the world, it will be very difficult to achieve progress on 6.1 and 6.2 – providing access to safe and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene – without potentially eroding our chances of achieving 6.3, 6.5 and 6.6 – which focus on protecting and/or improving the condition of aquatic ecosystems and their water quality.

Perhaps the key to achieving the water-based SDGs lies in objective 6.5, which highlights the need to adopt an integrated water resource management approach and consider the water system in an holistic, highly connected way. This systems thinking view means that we can no longer focus on end-of-pipe engineering solutions. Instead, there is growing push for us to focus much more on using our understanding of the water cycle to ensure that the achievement of some parts of SDG6 does not compromise our chances of achieving other goals – including those beyond SDG6.

Integrated water resource management will also be important as we seek to address climate change (which is itself a SDG goal – SDG 13), because the connectedness of resource use and development goals will require a very holistic and integrated approach. We recently wrote about this in the context of sustainable development in the Pacific (Hadwen et al. 2015), but this really is something all countries are going to have consider.

Ultimately, the development of the SDGs, especially those around water, gives us with a unique opportunity – to think and adopt holistic and resilient development and sustainability investments between now and 2030.

All of this is pretty topical right now – in fact I’ll be talking about linking all of the SDG 6 targets and accommodating the challenge of climate change in our research examining the development of rural communities throughout the Pacific in more detail this coming week at the International River Symposium – http://riversymposium.com/.

There will be a strong focus on both integrated water resource management and the SDGs at the International River Symposium – for many of the attendees their work and research seek to get the balance right between providing water for people and leaving some for the natural world too. Finding this balance, such that development can be truly environmentally, economically, socially and culturally sustainable, remains an aspirational target that we should all aim for and the SDGs provide a framework to assist us in both practical and academic terms.


For more information, or a copy of our paper, contact w.hadwen@griffith.edu.au

Hadwen, W. L., Powell, P., MacDonald, M. C., Elliott, M., Chan, T., Gernjak, W. and Aalbersberg, W. G. L. (2015), Putting WASH in the water cycle: Climate change, water resources and the future of water, sanitation and hygiene challenges in Pacific Island Countries. Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development 5(2), 183-191.

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