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The SDGs in the wake of the pandemic: getting back on track

  • The SDGs in the wake of the pandemic: getting back on track
  • Every year since 2016, the UN Sustainable Development Goals Report reviews the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This year, the report also looks at the initial impacts of the pandemic.

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Cristina Novo
Technical Editor at Smart Water Magazine.

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Schneider Electric
Idrica

Five years after the adoption of the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 was released last July. Prepared by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, with input from international and regional organizations and the United Nations system of agencies, funds and programmes, as well as other contributors, annual reports are part of a robust follow-up mechanism for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development. A framework of indicators, adopted by the General Assembly in July 2017, is used to monitor progress, inform policy and ensure accountability.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the data show that progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals was not even, and the world was not on track to meet the goals by 2030. Regarding SDG 6, access to safely managed drinking water had improved, but progress was not happening at the necessary speed or scale. But this year the document also looks at the impact of COVID-19.

The unprecedented health and economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 threatens both lives and livelihoods, affecting disproportionately the most vulnerable. The report estimates the livelihood of half the global workforce, who depend on the informal economy, has been severely affected, driving millions of people into extreme poverty: 71 million in 2020, the first rise in global poverty since 1998.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the data show that progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals was not even

But the report is very clear: “far from undermining the case for the SDGs, the root causes and uneven impacts of COVID-19 demonstrate precisely why we need the 2030 Agenda”. This year, as the United Nations commemorates its 75th anniversary, the current pandemic is a stark reminder of the need for cooperation across borders, sectors and generations. Countries face considerable setbacks in the midst of a global economic recession, political tensions and a trend towards reinforcing country borders. The response will decide how the world recovers, whether we can achieve the SDGs, and how we prepare for an even larger crisis: climate change. It’s time to strengthen and combine our efforts to build back better and find the way to transition to a better future.

The UN highlights the importance of timely, quality, open and disaggregated data, as they are critical to understand and manage the effects of the pandemic and to design actions in the short term so that countries can get back on track to achieve the SDGs. It claims that the lack of data in the first five years of SDG implementation since 2015 is holding back the responses to the health crisis; at the same time as the crisis itself disrupts data acquisition, and calls for investment in data innovations, and technical and financial support for national statistical offices.

This year, as the UN commemorates its 75th anniversary, the current pandemic is a stark reminder of the need for cooperation

Health, water, and sustainability

The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 looks in detail at each of the 17 SDGs: the progress made towards meeting the objectives and the impact of the health crisis. And the report is adamant: with current rates of progress, SDG 6 targets will not be met by 2030. The pandemic has underscored the importance of SDG 6: water, sanitation and hygiene services (WASH) are critical to protecting public health. The crisis calls for immediate action to improve access to these services to prevent infection and contain the spread of COVID-19. The document takes a closer look at WASH services in healthcare settings: in 2016, one in four healthcare facilities across the world lacked basic water supplies, and one in five had no sanitation services. Moreover, 40 per cent had no soap and water or alcohol hand sanitizer at points of care. Due to the pandemic international organisations have renewed the focus on WASH services. Also, countries themselves may reallocate their resources to improve access to safe water.

Water is not only essential to health but also to reduce poverty, for food security, peace, ecosystems and education. SDG 6 includes targets on access to water and sanitation, but also on water quality, water-use efficiency and scarcity, integrated water resources management (IWRM), and protection of ecosystems. The world faces mounting challenges in relation to water stress, vulnerability to climate change and water scarcity, implementation of IWRM, and cooperation in transboundary waters.

Quality, open and disaggregated data are critical to understand and manage the effects of the pandemic and to design actions

Looking at the broader water environment, target 6.6 aims to “protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes” by 2020, since ultimately, water-related ecosystems provide water services to society. Population growth, agricultural intensification, urbanization and industrial production degrade water bodies and threaten ecosystems and livelihoods. Human encroaching on natural ecosystems is regarded as one of the reasons for the increase in zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19. But the urge to get economic growth back on track in the wake of the pandemic could bring about greater exploitation of natural resources, furthering ecosystem degradation. It is thus not enough to push for economic growth, sustainability must be part of the equation. The pandemic has emphasised the need for improved water access and supply; together with the need for economic recovery and food security after the pandemic, it can lead to an increase in the water demand. Target 6.5 calls for the implementation of integrated water resource management at all levels, necessary in order to make the best possible use of water resources for the economy, society and ecosystems.

Now is the time to realign priorities to cooperate and accelerate SDG action. As António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, put it in words, “Everything we do during and after this crisis must be with a strong focus on building more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change, and the many other global challenges we face.”

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