April 13, 2021 SDGs

How far are we from reaching SDG 6? A target-by-target analysis

In March this year, UN Water, in collaboration with other UN entities responsible for SDG 6 targets, launched a report to summarise the progress towards achieving universal access to water and sanitation globally by 2030. The report was launched to coincide with World Water Day (22 March), of which IWA is a formal supporter.

The key takeaway from the report is that now, more than ever, we need to champion water. The current pandemic has underscored the urgent need to make progress on water, around a wide range of water issues from hygiene and sanitation, to wastewater monitoring, water and public health, and utility management. What is most required to reach SDG 6 is more multilateral cooperation and stronger partnerships to fill the gaps in the implementation of the various targets. Also, more data reporting at country level is needed to better understand the progress. Now, let’s delve into the details of each target falling under SDG 6.

SDG 6.1 Drinking water, sanitation and hygiene

Currently, it is estimated that 29% of the world population lack access to potable water.  Safely managed drinking water is widely available in high income countries. In the rest of the world, while more and more people have recently gained access to safely managed drinking water, this is not enough, partly as a result of population growth. Progress to achieve this target has also been slow; efforts would need to be quadrupled to meet this target by 2030.

SDG 6.2 Sanitation & Hygiene

According to the latest UN data, 55% of people globally lack access to safely managed sanitation services. Furthermore, the current rate of progress would need to be quadrupled in order to meet the target, no region of the world is on track to fully meet this target, and 2 billion people still lack even basic sanitation services (predominantly in rural areas and low-income countries). The good news is that we are on track to end open defecation by 2030.

In respect to hygiene, some 40% of people still do not have access to handwashing facilities, which are more commonly found in urban settings, and are scarcely present in rural areas and Sub-Saharan Africa. The UN reports that there is currently insufficient data to estimate global trends in access to basic handwashing facilities.

SDG 6.3 Wastewater & Water Quality

Globally, less than 50% of wastewater is safely treated. Current data shows that there is an urgent need to focus on wastewater solutions on a wider and truly global scale. At present, only 75 countries in the world monitor and report data on wastewater treatment. Of these, only 24 countries treat wastewater safely. Data is even scarcer if we consider industrial wastewater – available data on this target only reflects 10% of the global population! More cooperation, data reporting and technology transfer are needed to make sure that wastewater is prioritised accordingly.

There are positive signals related to water quality, showing that the majority (60%) of sources of water are in good condition. It is therefore essential that we preserve these precious sources and that we keep in mind that protection is better than restoration. Efforts related to environmental protection and conservation must be scaled up. The big issue in this case is nutrient pollution, which is a major problem affecting water quality and is caused by agriculture and untreated wastewater.

SDG 6.4 Water use and scarcity

There are very good indicators showing that efficiency in water use is growing proportionally with global growth and development. Efficiency has increased by 4%, which means that we are less dependent on water sources, as we find new ways and technology to reduce water consumption. It must be noted that middle- and low-income countries are those struggling the most with water efficiency.

In terms of water stress, 2.3 billion people live in water stressed areas. Evidence shows a ‘stress belt’ exists from North Africa to the Indian Sub-continent, primarily caused by climatic conditions and population growth. Water leakages and losses, and obsolete agricultural and industrial practices all lead to water misuse and overuse, and therefore inefficiency. Water stress and efficiency, however, can be improved through better resource management and Water Safety Plans. This brings us to the next target of water resources management.

SDG 6.5 Water Resources Management

Things are moving in the right direction, with a 5% increase in integrated water resources management implementation. More countries are getting closer to achieving the target of very high implementation, but the current rate needs to be doubled for all countries to reach SDG 6.5.1. Target 6.5.2 is about transboundary waters, which concern 60% of water sources. Transboundary water cooperation is extremely important for food, energy, peace and integration. Data on this target shows encouragingly high levels of engagement, with most countries submitting reports. However, a huge acceleration of progress is needed. Only 24 countries report all transboundary surface water are covered by operational arrangements, with countries in Europe, North America and Sub-Saharan Africa having the highest levels of cooperation. The data available shows that this indicator is not on track. An eightfold increase in the rate of progress, together with a focus on cooperation and political action, are required to meet the objectives by 2030.

SDG 6.6 Freshwater ecosystems

This unique indicator uses satellite Earth Observation (EO). Data shows that 1/5 of river basins are experiencing very rapid change in their available surface waters (orange for drought, light blue for flooding). We are witnessing a significant change in freshwater ecosystems, which require drastic action for environmental protection, especially targeted around ecosystems like wetlands and mangroves which provide a natural defence against climate change and environmental impacts. Mangroves are known to protect from floods and to store high levels of CO2. It is estimated that between 80-90% of inland wetlands and 80% of mangroves have been lost, so there is a very urgent need to accelerate efforts to protect these freshwater ecosystems.

Source: Summary Progress Update 2021 on SDG 6, UN Water

SDG 6.A and B International Cooperation and Local Participation

According to the OECD, overseas development assistance (ODA) commitments for water issues has increased by 11%, but disbursements only by 3%. Prioritisation has been directed primarily towards Sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-East Asia.

Only 14 out of 109 reporting countries have high levels of community participation in decision-making processes related to WASH. A positive aspect to note is that the global regions with clearly defined procedures for community engagement are Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.


Although there has been very good progress especially around water efficiency, water resource management and ending open defecation, most of the targets are not on track and will not be reached by 2030 unless there is a strong and truly global acceleration. Finally, it is very important to highlight the need of data monitoring and reporting – we cannot manage what we cannot measure.

As part of this, IWA is committed to collaborating with international experts and partners on key topics to ensure we meet SDG6 targets. We remain committed to furthering and championing the solutions for a water-wise future, from digitalisation, to technologies for wastewater treatment, citywide inclusive sanitation, and nature-based solutions.

What is needed now is greater action to implement solutions – the right solutions – for our time.  As our Executive Director, Prof. Kala Vairavamoorthy, argues in a recent IWA blog, building water back better has a key role to play in this agenda. Let’s all get together and build water back better.

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Benedetta Sala

Communications & Advocacy Specialist
Benedetta joined IWA in 2021 and is currently supporting the communications team as Communications & Advocacy Specialist (Consultant). She is responsible for the daily management of external relations and communications at IWA, including press, s... Read full biography