It is as simple as this: Sustainable development cannot be achieved without water security. That is why sound water management needs to be embedded at the heart of national development plans, in order to enable further progress in all domains and achieve the Future We Want with no one left behind.
It is reassuring to see that some countries have understood this and have recently increased their political leadership and investment priorities for improving water and sanitation management and services. For example, on June 1st, the Biden Administration announced plans to focus on global water security as a foreign policy priority, aiming to invest billions globally.
While this is certainly welcome, we also know that the annual High Level Political Forum (HLPF) convened from 5 to 15 July at the UN Headquarters will again warn us that the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals is frighteningly off-track. Last year’s UN Water’s Summary Progress update showed that efforts will need to be quadrupled to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6) on Water and Sanitation for All by the 2030 deadline.
So why aren’t we making more progress? Some of the answers can be found within the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) that countries submit to the HLPF to report on their progress and challenges related Agenda 2030. The Global Water Partnership has been taking a keen interest in these reports and studying them attentively to understand better what countries have already identified as obstacles that need to be overcome.
Nearly all countries have submitted at least one VNR, and over 70% have reported specifically on SDG6. This represents a wealth of information to draw from, where water is emerging as an upward trend and priority. Countries like Israel, Uruguay, and the UK are showing the way, demonstrating through their VNRs how innovation in water management can be a means to sustainable development and climate resilience. Within one decade, for example, Israel, one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, has modernized its water supply systems through the implementation of a National Plan for the Promotion of Water and Energy Technologies and is currently able to re-use 86% of its wastewater. Simultaneously, it has curbed water demand through education and awareness-raising activities.
But, a number of worrying challenges emerge as well:
- Most countries do not have sufficient monitoring systems or data to report on all SDG indicators, and it’s difficult to manage what you don’t measure.
- Most counties report insufficient finance for full implementation of their national strategies.
- Huge disparities persist between services available in urban areas versus rural areas.
- Progress on sanitation, the poor cousin to water management, is severely lagging. According to the World Health Organization, over 1.7 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation services. Nearly 80% of wastewater is released untreated into the environment.
Collaborative action and political leadership is helping to address some of these issues. For example, the Water and Climate Coalition is a multi-stakeholder initiative under the SDG6 Acceleration Framework. Among other things, it aims to generate broad international support to improve water data and information for informed decision-making in the form of an integrated Global Water Information System. Another example is the way African stakeholders are coming together to transform the investment outlook for water security through the African Investment Programme (AIP) and its Heads of State Panel. The AIP’s goal is to leverage US$30 billion for climate resilient water and sanitation investments in Africa by 2030.
But other challenges will require much more intense concerted action and financing to deliver accelerated progress on SDG6. To successfully catalyse transformations for water and sanitation, action at national and sub-national levels are key. Every country’s challenges and opportunities are different. So, practical action that multiplies its impact on the ground needs to be designed within each country’s specific context. Yes, that will be excruciating work, but water is managed locally, and that is also where the solutions will lie.
I am personally a huge believer in the SDG process. The day the framework was ratified by the UN in 2015, I actually had a tear in my eye. But, one of the weaknesses of the SDG Framework is that it sets the same ambitious goals for all countries without providing the appropriate means to actually accomplish them. This assumes that all countries are on a level playing field and have equivalent access to resources to make things happen, which is definitely not the case. Let’s clearly recognize this as a shortcoming so we can address it accordingly.
Yes, the challenges are great, but we will be able to accomplish much more together than we can individually. In this spirit, the UN 2023 Water Conference will be convened in March of next year at the UN Headquarters in New York. It is the first time in 46 years that water will be the focus of a UN conference, proof of the growing attention and momentum for the subject, as suggested by the results of our upcoming VNR study. The conference will emphasize that water cuts across all sectors and is fundamental for the achievement of all SDGs. Accordingly, countries and stakeholders across the world will acknowledge that water needs to be a political priority because all other progress is dependent on it. But, more importantly, the conference truly represents an opportunity to generate greater long-term collaboration and collective action towards 2030 and beyond. Please join us to put water first.