Finally, a New Political Vision of Water and Sanitation

It may be a familiar refrain, but 2015 is truly an historic year for water. Solving global water challenges is now recognised as one of the top priorities for humankind. The recently adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with their 169 measurable targets, have potential to be a game changer for water, wastewater and sanitation.

Water professionals often complain about political will that, it’s said, is insufficient to address the serious water challenges facing the world. This is changing. At the global level, water has never been so visible. That it is listed as one of the 17 top priorities for humanity is a significant moment. It presents an opportunity for a breakthrough. Not just to accelerate the unfinished task of universal access to safe water and sanitation; but to transform the water sector to become sustainable, resilient and a driver of the circular economy.

This new vision of water encompasses all water challenges. This is also new. In the past there were partial global policies for access to drinking water and toilets (the Millennium Development Goals); for Integrated Water Resources Management (the 2003 Johannesburg Programme of Implementation); and for ecosystems protection (the Convention on Biodiversity). Now, for the first time in History, all countries share a common vision of all major water challenges, adopting targets on wastewater management, overexploitation of aquifers and efficiency of water uses.

The Sustainable Development Goals are likely to initiate a revolution in the water sector. Water challenges now have the capacity to be far more visible in political and public arenas, including the media. They never had such a status in the past. Even though they are not legally binding, every government will be obliged to report on its national achievements. This will be a strong incentive to act towards the targets.

The Goal dedicated to water and sanitation, SDG 6, includes six ‘operational’ targets plus two targets related to water governance. Several other Goals include freshwater-related targets or targets with a water component. This is the case of the Goals on cities, poverty reduction, protection of oceans and ecosystems.

These targets relate to all the most critical water-related challenges: universal access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, pollution prevention and wastewater management, water scarcity, sustainable withdrawals of water resources to satisfy all needs, protection of ecosystems, adequate governance, resilience to water-related disasters.

The Goals are very ambitious. Many public policies will have to be strengthened. For example, one intention is to secure universal access to drinking water that is really safe. This does not mean access to water that is not used by animals (the MDG target), but access to water that is not contaminated and is available on a regular basis. Another target is to halve by 2030 untreated wastewater. It is estimated that over 80% of the world’s wastewater is currently untreated; meaning infrastructure to remove pollution from 40% of all existing wastewater must be built.

Are governments, industry, public bodies and financing mechanisms up to the task? Will water professionals be able to seize this historic opportunity to improve water management? The adoption of global targets with indicators that will be monitored regularly is a fantastic opportunity to do just that, all over the planet.

The impact and the efficiency of the water SDG depends upon the monitoring indicators that will be selected to track progress. The indicators are under review by the UN Statistical Commission, which will select the official list in March 2016. Ten water indicators are currently proposed. This is the minimum number to be able to monitor all quantified components of the water SDG. The risk is that for methodological, or political, reasons some of these Indicators are rejected. If this happens, the ambition of the water SDG would be undermined.

Water professionals, the people who translate policies into action, have important responsibilities to implement the SDGs. This requires a better understand of the new context and opportunities, and to explain these new ambitions to political decision-makers. Water professionals must help governments to adapt water policies, track progress and find the most appropriate technical and managerial tools.

Perhaps most importantly, we must avoid the trap of pessimism that plagues initiatives like the SDGs. The road ahead is challenging, but the water community knows it is achievable.


To learn more on practical ways to accelerate solutions for the delivery of the sustainable development goals, don’t miss out the discussions now taking place at the 4th Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development, 2-4 November 2015, Singapore

Inge Wallage, IWA Communications and Engagement Director will participate in one of the panels  to discuss which actions are needed to transition towards a world in which water is wisely managed to satisfy the needs of human activities and ecosystems in an equitable and sustainable way.

Delivering the Sustainable Development Goals for a Better Future – Planet

Date: Wednesday, 4 November 2015, 11: 30 – 12:15

Venue: Flower Fields Hall, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore


Panel followed by audience Q&A:

  1. Ensuring availability of water for all societies
  2. Promoting sustainable consumption and production patterns
  3. Taking immediate action to combat climate change
  4. Conservation and sustainable use of marine resources
  5. Protecting our forests and terrestrial ecosystems

Chair: Johan Kuylenstierna, Policy Director, Stockholm Environment Institute

Inge Wallage, Communications and Engagement Director, International Water Association

Agus Purnomo, Managing Director, Sustainability and Strategic Stakeholder Engagement, Golden Agri Resources

Fredrik Henriksson, Head of Sustainability and Communications, INDISKA