The Sustainable Development Goals: an opportunity too good to be missed

We are poised at a moment in history. The demand for water and sanitation services is greater than it has ever been. The role of water in improving human lives has never been more important. And all countries have recently agreed that global development will be guided by a set of Sustainable Development Goals that not only has a specific water goal but also recognises water’s importance in achieving many other global goals. So the demand for water services is now matched by a global commitment to act.

As water professionals we have an opportunity to do something, which is more substantive than any other generation. In developed countries we can make our cities much more liveable, productive and sustainable. We can contribute to achieving a net zero carbon world. In developing countries water professionals can help end poverty and hunger and give the next generation of boys and girls opportunities for education, health and jobs that their parents and grandparents would not have dreamed about.

Water is much more than access to water and sanitation – to taps and toilets – as important as that is. It plays a key role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals for food, health, education, gender equality, economic prosperity, sustainable cities, land and the oceans. And water has a key role to play in meeting the challenge of climate change and the transition to a net zero carbon economy.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a unifying, ambitious, hopeful agenda. All countries, developed and developing have a mutual interest in delivering them. And as individuals we have a significant self-interest in their success. Our families and our children are going to be better off if they are achieved – living in a safer, healthier and more prosperous world.

And the water industry and water professionals have significant self-interest in the SDGs. The fact that all countries have signed up to such a broad and ambitious set of goals, including SDG6 on water, should give added impetus and resources to the work that we in the water industry do.

We can use the SDGs to mobilise governments and businesses to act to make sure that the water and broader SDGs are achieved. And to pressure them when they do not.

We can use them to make sure that adequate resources are put into water and that the right policies are developed by governments. And we can use the SDGs to ask for a seat at the table when development is being discussed whether it is in developed cities or in the fast urbanising countries of the global south.

But if we are to really seize this opportunity to make a difference, we in the water industry will need to change some of the things we do. We will need to confront some of the challenges and barriers that have prevented success in the past and find new solutions for the future.

In particular the water industry should set out to achieve multiple goals – not just the goal relating to water. To do this water professionals will need to work in a more interdisciplinary way to achieve broader social, environmental and economic goals.

The water industry will need to engage more closely with the communities we serve and to understand human behavior much better. To understand how and why people behave in the way they do and what we need to do to connect better with them.

And finally if we are to really achieve the Sustainable Development Goals we will need to embrace their underpinning philosophy of “leaving nobody behind.” This represents a substantial challenge and in some cases a change in thinking. The goals require much more than the incremental improvements we have sought in the past. They require access to water and sanitation services for everybody and a much greater focus on reducing inequality in cities and settlements across the world.

Jonh Thwaites is a Keynote Speaker at the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition, Brisbane, Australia (09 – 14 October 2016)

John Thwaites

John Thwaites is a Professorial Fellow, Monash University, and Chair of ClimateWorks Australia and the Monash Sustainability Institute. John is the Chair of Melbourne Water, which is also responsible for Melbourne’s water supply and for the rivers ... Read full biography