Rethink water for SDG 6 and beyond – more urgent than ever

Only if we rethink the paradigms that have guided water policy and investments so far, will we be able to match the ambition of SDG 6. We can transform our water world for the better and support many other SDGs in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we need to take decisive action now.

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by Stefan Uhlenbrook, Edoardo Borgomeo and Claudia Sadoff

The world is not on track to achieve SDG 6 by 2030. Some sobering statistics give a sense of the challenge:

In the past, ‘solving water’ meant providing more people access to drinking water supply and sanitation – no doubt a key element in improving people’s lives and opportunities. However, the bar was rightfully raised for SDG 6. To sustain water access, we also need to ensure that other aspects of water management – such as water governance, wastewater and water-related ecosystems – are improved. Hence, SDG 6 sets ambitious targets to achieve equitable, sustainable and efficient water and wastewater management and governance.

The water system is strongly linked to many other natural systems (e.g., vegetation, fauna, soils, climate) and human systems (e.g., food, energy, many economic sectors). Thus, achieving SDG 6 is essential for making progress in many other SDGs and vice versa. Without advancing on our water goal, it will be extremely difficult to achieve the other noble goals related to poverty, food security, gender equality, energy security, sustainable settlements, inequalities, sustainable production and consumption, climate action etc.

While there has been some progress, particularly related to water supply and sanitation, there is a growing realization that far too little has been achieved to address all targets of the comprehensive SDG 6. Thus, the question arises: Do we need to work harder and do more of the same?

Our comment in Nature Sustainability argues that more of the same is not enough. A rapid change is needed of the water economics, water engineering and water management frameworks that have guided water policy and investments so far. We need more ambitious and decisive actions along new pathways that clearly go beyond traditional approaches.

Without significant change we won’t address contemporary water challenges and, due to the central and interlinked nature of water potentially undermine efforts across the 2030 agenda. The reality is that we can’t resolve the issues of the SDGs one by one, but need to address all of them simultaneously, look at the bigger picture and manage inevitable tradeoffs. New approaches in water management can help us to move in this direction.

The predicted dramatic increases in poverty and food insecurity due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the critical role of water addressing these issues are only two of the reasons that show that we have no time to lose.

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Stefan Uhlenbrook is the Strategic Program Director (Water, Food & Ecosystems) at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and professor IHE Delft. He can be reached at  s.uhlenbrook@cgiar.org.

Edoardo Borgomeo is a water specialist at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

Claudia Sadoff is the Director General of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

Go to the profile of Stefan Uhlenbrook

Stefan Uhlenbrook

Strategic Program Director Water, Food and Ecosystems, International Water Management Institute, IWMI

Expertise: Water resources, hydrological processes, agricultural water management, global change, sustainability, SDGs, nature-based solutions, ecosystems and achieving outcomes for sustainable development, and bridging science, practice and policy.

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