The SDGs Make it an Exciting Time to Work in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

It’s an exciting time be working in water, sanitation and hygiene. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have just been adopted and not only do we have a stand alone Goal, #6, but the overarching implications of these issues are reflected in mentions in Goals related to health, consumption, cities and the environment.

More than that, the SDGs build on what we have learned in implementing and monitoring their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals, and introduce a welcome change in approach. Previously, the focus was “only” on reaching 50% of the world’s population, now it’s on universality and the progressive elimination of inequalities. As former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it almost 80 years ago, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”

To put it practically, as of the moment the UN General Assembly passed the 17 new Goals, all countries became off-track, not just the so-called “developing countries”. For instance, all countries have parts of their population that still don’t have access to water, sanitation and hygiene services, such as informal settlements or the homeless.

Further, the SDGs recognise that it is impossible to achieve social and economic development without also taking into account concerns around sustainability and protecting our planet. So the current thinking around water, sanitation and hygiene is placing greater emphasis on the importance of maintaining systems and recognises that sanitation and hygiene are not possible without securing the availability of water.

The SDG’s new approach didn’t happened by chance. It started in the actual process of developing them, which this time around was much more participatory and inclusive. While the MDGs were generally set by the developed countries in the North for the developing countries in the South, the SDGs are a development agenda that’s crafted by all for all. The negotiations around the Goals left the diplomats’ meetings rooms and emerged in the public sphere, where citizens (empowered by the Internet) increasingly demanded openness, information, and participation in decision-making.

I’m convinced that it’s because of this participatory principle that we now have a dedicated sanitation, water and hygiene Goal. When the UN organised the My World survey, the 8,433,921 participants felt that “access to clean water and sanitation” was the 7th most important issue for humanity.

Now that the SDGs are approved, maintaining an interest around the Goals will empower civil society to make their governments accountable for their promises. One example is the campaign recently launched by Global CitizenProject Everyone, and the Social Progress Imperative called People’s Report Card. It’s exactly what the name indicates: a report card produced by the general public to track how the world as a whole performs in reaching the SDGs.

Ultimately, developing and implementing the SDGs in the digital age reinforced a whole new relationship between citizens and duty-bearers with accountability at its centre. Governments are recognising the need to involve a wider variety of partners in their decision-making. This is where a platform such as the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) partnership enters the SDGs equation. We encourage governments to make commitments every two years that identify stepping-stones along the way to achieving goals of universal access. It’s a way for them to divide the water, sanitation and hygiene related targets into more manageable pieces. SWA partners meet regularly to report on progress and exchange best practices.

Meanwhile, organisations working in countries on water, sanitation and hygiene (civil society, academia, international organisations) are invited to join the government not only in deciding what the commitments should be, but also on what the country will report back to the world every year. This way, governments lead the process, but mutual accountability with other partners ensures a focus on what the wider water, sanitation and hygiene community considers the priorities.

The SDGs are a “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity” and the most ambitious challenge humanity has faced to date. The overall vision might almost be considered utopic, but one thing is certain: it puts us on the right track. It tells us clearly that there can be no progress unless we have it for all, always and everywhere.

There is no low-hanging fruit and no simple solutions in the Sustainable Development Goals and for me that makes them not utopic, but realistic.


Amanda Marlin will be speaking at the IWA Water and Development Congress (Dead Sea, Jordan, 18-22 October) in the Plenary Session:


Citizens, Consumers, and Customers: the changing relationship with service providers driven by demand for openness and information

Date: Wednesday 21 October, 08.30 – 09.30

The networked society and sharing economy is influencing the relationship and interaction between customer and service provider. Digital technology enables citizens to connect, to share and to participate in an unprecedented way. This session will explore the interaction of citizens, as individuals and as part of social movements and the potential implications for the water sector.