In 2015, United Nations Member States adopted an unprecedented global agenda for sustainable development. This agenda, which was set to be achieved by all countries by 2030, introduced several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address many interrelated development priorities, such as ending poverty and hunger, improving access to education and healthcare, promoting equal work opportunities for all, and achieving a long overdue milestone – universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation. In the same year, countries agreed to take urgent action to mitigate climate change by adopting Paris Agreement targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming. At the time, these global commitments provided countries with a language to translate their renewed development pledges and the hope for a sustainable future.
However, a few years later, the global context of sustainable development could not be more challenging. The multiple global crises faced by countries, including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, environmental deterioration, armed conflicts, and forced human displacement, have threatened the viability of advancing sustainable development. According to the latest assessment of SDGs, for instance, progress against poverty has been wiped out by the effects of the pandemic, with significant implications for health, education, and gender equality goals, while the number of people suffering from hunger has been on the rise after many years of decline. Progress in water-related SDGs has also been staggeringly slow. In 2020, about 2 billion people were still relying on unsafe drinking water services while 2.8 billion people were living without safely managed sanitation services and 2.3 billion people lacked basic handwashing facilities. Access to drinking water and sanitation in hospitals and schools is also lagging in many developing countries, with 288 million children simply lacking access to drinking water at their schools and 1.7 billion people without access to drinking water at their healthcare facilities in 2021. Furthermore, climate change is already altering hydrological regimes, with potential impacts on the integrity of freshwater ecosystems that support biodiversity, economies, and livelihoods.
The conditions for achieving the SDGs have also deteriorated worldwide. With the pandemic pushing public spending and budgetary amendments to address eminent health risks and introduce social protection measures, many developing countries were left with limited fiscal space to support sustainable development in addition to reduced economic activities to carry investments in critical infrastructure. Even with a relative rebound in global foreign direct investment and development assistance in the last year, funds from development agencies and donor countries are still insufficient to tackle global sustainable development challenges. As a result of these compounding effects, the financing gap to achieve SDGs in developing countries reached USD 3.9 trillion in 2020, according to OECD estimates.
Despite a bleak outlook, ambitious progress toward achieving the SDGs is still possible. This is particularly true for water-related SDGs
In this context, sustainable development in the water and sanitation sectors has also been significantly impacted. Although overall development assistance to developing countries has increased over the last few years in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, assistance for drinking water and sanitation has decreased. This trend likely contributed to delays and disruptions in the execution of projects, including large drinking water and sanitation infrastructure projects and critical improvements in local services to vulnerable communities. Ruptures in supply chains and increases in the prices of water and sanitation infrastructure, as well as reduced operational capacity due to health concerns, also impacted drinking water and sanitation providers globally, potentially leading to a decline in the quantity and quality of services. While well-intentioned, free-water initiatives introduced at the beginning of the pandemic to ease some of the financial burdens also led to decreasing funding streams. Some assessments even indicate that these initiatives may have deepened inequalities, as many urban slums and rural communities in developing countries did not benefit from free drinking water services due to institutional and infrastructure barriers. Growing poverty and job losses also contributed to a deterioration of funding streams for the water and sanitation sectors, further exacerbating the need for more funds. In addition, floods and droughts with the potential to disrupt water and sanitation systems and drastically impact freshwater ecosystems, such as the extreme rainfall and flooding in Pakistan, Germany, and Canada, and severe droughts in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya in the last few years, have become a global reality.
Despite this bleak outlook, ambitious progress toward achieving the SDGs is still possible. This is particularly true for water-related SDGs due to their critical reinforcement effect among other SDGs – after all, access to freshwater resources is a key component of poverty eradication, healthful livelihoods, food production, gender equality, and economic growth. To harness this potential, countries can explore two development approaches.
The post-pandemic period is a critical time to shape the direction of progress toward the achievement of water-related SDGs
First, countries must support policy coherence to address multiple development priorities simultaneously. One strategy for achieving policy coherence is to focus on the reinforcement potential of strongly interlinked SDGs. This is particularly important for countries where insufficient financial resources and inadequate institutional capacity are solicited to address a wide range of sustainable development and climate change issues. Examples of this potential are observed in many cases – for instance, Colombia and Chile showed that post-pandemic economic growth plans can support sustainable development with investments in climate-resilient water and sanitation systems. Ethiopia has also innovated with its ONEWASH National Programme to bring many national agencies, development banks, and international donors together under the same budget to address policy and resource fragmentation and accelerate progress in the water and sanitation sectors. The programme includes climate-related risk management through water resource planning and has contributed to one of Africa’s fastest improvements in access to drinking water.
Second, countries must reshape their focus by prioritizing the most vulnerable in the post-pandemic context with actions that support equitable outcomes. As the SDGs seek to leave no one behind, this development pledge can only be achieved if countries focus on bringing sustainable access to drinking water and sanitation to the most vulnerable communities and sectors, including women and girls, migrants and refugees, schools, and hospitals. However, leaving no one behind will also require overcoming the lack of mechanisms to identify and target the needs of vulnerable communities. These barriers can obstruct the effective capacity of sustainable development policies to address inequalities, as evidenced by the failure of some free-water initiatives to reach the most vulnerable populations during the pandemic.
Ultimately, these two approaches reinforce the need for coordinated social, economic, and environmental action. Countries must not abandon their commitments to sustainable development in the context of climate change and uncharted economic and geopolitical territories. In fact, the post-pandemic period is a critical time to shape the direction of progress toward the achievement of water-related SDGs. To this end, a combination of policy coherence and focus on the most vulnerable is essential to accelerate progress. Put simply, building a more sustainable future is still possible in this seemingly dire global context.