2020 has not been the year we hoped for. The COVID-19 health crisis has hit when action to tackle the climate crisis, and hence, water security, was at a critical point: we either went all out to achieve the 2030 Agenda, or we left it at a half-hearted effort. Now we have no choice but to look ahead again and decide how we want to face the future.
Opening a tap is simple; having running water is not so simple. While you and me, as we go about our daily routine, can see the water running through our fingers, transparent, clean and almost invisible, thousands of people face huge difficulties every day to access water and sanitation services which, together with hygiene, are a fundamental right. Today, more so than ever.
2020 was the start of the Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, a crucial ten-year period
2020: a turning point
2020 was the start of the Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, a crucial ten-year period to give one last push to the joint vision for the future that the SDGs aim for: a turning point for our common vision to rescue the planet and do away with inequality at all levels. Even though there has been advancement in many places since the UN member states adopted the 17 Goals in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the measures in place to achieve them ─ which were not moving forward at the desired speed ─ have been thwarted by a virus that is challenging the whole world.
2020 also marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, a celebration that comes at a time when the world is enduring an unprecedented global health crisis with severe economic and social repercussions, which is putting livelihoods at risk. We may highlight the threat to access to water and sanitation, embodied in SDG 6, which focuses on ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
The irruption of COVID-19 in our lives has revealed and exacerbated the inequalities which were already present in this area, where something as simple as opening the tap and washing your hands with soap and water ─ a cheap and effective way to prevent infection by this virus (and to prevent many other diseases) ─ is not something within everybody’s reach. According to the 2020 Sustainable Development Goals Report, in 2017 about 3 billion people worldwide lacked basic handwashing facilities at home. Water, sanitation and hygiene services are not only missing in the family environment, but also in those places which are crucial for social development: health care facilities and schools. According to the report, in 2016 one in four health care facilities around the world lacked basic water supplies, one in five had no sanitation services, and two in five had no soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub, at points of care. Moreover, 47% of schools worldwide lacked hand-washing facilities with soap and water.
With the climate crisis upon us and the lack of commitment to reverse it, the perspectives for the coming ten years are not positive
These data have become even worse as a result of the pandemic. “It is essential”, notes the UN, to “solve the differences in access to water, sanitation and hygiene, to contain the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases”. But, unfortunately, SARS-CoV-2 is not the only problem that threatens achieving SDG 6 by 2030.
The same problems in a different context
Although they are now behind the scenes because of the health crisis, other problems that threaten water security have not disappeared. Because of the uneven distribution of freshwater, the overexploitation of water resources, and the increase in droughts and desertification as a result of climate change, more and more countries are experiencing high water stress. This is “the biggest crisis no one is talking about”, noted Dr Andrew Steer, President and CEO of the World Resources Institute, at the time of the launch of the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas in 2019, warning that a quarter of the world’s population face extremely high water stress. Water is the medium through which societies will perceive the most severe impacts of climate change, and, with the climate crisis upon us ─ 2019 was the second warmest year on record and the end of the warmest decade (2010-2019) ─ and the lack of commitment to reverse it, the perspectives for the coming ten years are not positive.
The Global Risks Report 2020 by the World Economic Forum provides a broad perspective of the main threats to global prosperity in the next decade. In the report, for the first time, environmental threats are the top five global risks in terms of likelihood (extreme weather events, failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change, natural disasters, biodiversity loss and environmental disasters caused by humans). The eighth-place is for water crises, classified as a societal threat instead of an environmental threat, which also occupies the fifth place in terms of impact in the next ten years, after climate action failure, weapons of mass destruction, biodiversity loss and extreme weather events.
SDG 6 is at the centre of the Sustainable Development Goals, as it is closely correlated with the remaining sixteen goals
This highlights once again the importance of integrating water and sanitation into the policies and plans of other sectors, and places SDG 6 at the centre of the Sustainable Development Goals, as it is closely correlated with the remaining sixteen goals. Water ─ as the UN points out ─ “is essential not only for health but also for poverty reduction, food security, peace and human rights, ecosystems and education”. In other words, water poses some of the most pressing social, political and economic challenges for the world.
An uncertain future for a clear-cut problem
COVID-19 has shaken up each and every one of the advances achieved up to now in terms of the SDGs, slowing down sustainable solutions to address the top world challenges. It has also made us ask ourselves whether we will come out stronger and better able to work together, in cooperation, as needed to attain the Sustainable Development Objectives.
Making a difference regarding water management is in our hands. “Addressing the issue of water is not a task to be taken lightly”, says Audry Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, in the foreword of the United Nations World Water Development Report 2020: water and climate change, and she is right. Freshwater is key for development: we must have the capacity to address the challenges using an integrated approach that considers social, economic and environmental aspects. And for that, we must understand that we are all in this fight together, and ours is a common future.