It’s Time to Hit the Accelerator on SDG 6, and Hard

By Dawn McGregor 22 March, 2023

We are woefully off-course from SDG 6. We have driver-less cars & ChatGPT but not drinking water & sanitation for all... CWR's McGregor reflects on this World Water Day calling for accelerating change

Sitrep on SDG 6 progress shows just how bad it still is - 2bn people no safe water, 6bn no managed sanitation & it goes on; clearly need accelerate change, this year's theme
Current rates need to increase 4x; that's not considering climate change or that in developed countries that have 'solved' this unsafe waters are on the rise - like US & UK
Kicker is we can achieve SDG 6 - have $ & solutions (don't need expensive tech) but do need more from global 'top', to have the political will - will UN 2023 Water Conf deliver?

Happy World Water Day and get ready to hit the accelerator on SDG 6, and hard! Afterall, accelerating change is the theme for World Water Day 2023, “Accelerating change to solve the water and sanitation crisis” – and WOW do all of us need to ASAP!

We are “woefully off-course” from SDG 6

First, a sitrep on progress to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 – Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030:

  •  2 billion people or 26% of the world’s population still lacked safely managed drinking water services in 2020 (pretty much the same as when we wrote on World Water Day in 2019);
  • 6 billion people or 46% of the world’s population lacked safely managed sanitation services, and 494 million people practised open defecation in 2020;
  • Globally 44% of household wastewater was not safely treated in 2020;
  • Water quality data for over 3 billion people is still lacking;
  • 3 billion people live in water-stressed countries of which 733 million live in high and critically water-stressed countries. Northern Africa and Western Asia had a critical level of water stress, at 84.1%, an increase of 13% since 2015;
  • 107 countries are not on track to have sustainability managed water resources by 2030; and
  • 1/5 of the world’s river basins are experiencing rapid changes in the area covered by surface water.

It’s disappointing, saddening and worrying to read the above stats but they make it clear why we need accelerated change. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted, “The world is woefully off-course to achieve our goal of water & sanitation for all by 2030.”

Clearly, accelerated change – this year’s WWD theme – is needed…

…we have self-driving cars & ChatGPT but not safe drinking water & sanitation for all…?

How can things be so bad still? How have we not solved safe drinking water – a must for human life – and sanitation – something I’m pretty sure we are all in favour of? We’ve got self-driving cars, space tourism and ChatGPT but not safe drinking water and not sanitation. Maybe we should see what ChatGPT says we need to do to achieve SDG 6 but for a while still, it’s up to us to achieve SDG 6.

Current rates of progress need to quadruple in order to reach the global target of universal access by 2030. At current rates, in 2040, 1.6 billion will still lack safely managed drinking water. And this isn’t even taking into account how the climate crisis will only make these issues worse and achieving SDG 6 harder. The IPCC just a couple days ago released its Synthesis Report of the AR6 assessment cycle, “Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report”. Talking about the report, Gutteres said, The climate timebomb is ticking. But today’s report is a how-to guide to defuse the climate timebomb. It is a survival guide for humanity.” – so, some more life-threatening news but also some positive news.

And not to pile on even more but actually in some developed countries where we think we’ve solved SDG 6, we haven’t really. Aging infrastructure is contaminating drinking water – in 2022 in the US arsenic & bacteria were found and don’t forget the Flint water crises – and then there’s inadequate wastewater treatment facilities leading to the release of untreated sewage – like in England when Thames Water dumped raw sewage into rivers 5,028 times in 2021.

The kicker is we could be achieving SDG 6…

…it’s not about expensive tech as Cambodia shows

The kicker of all of this is that we could be achieving SDG 6. Yes, there’s a cost but as we’ve pointed out before, the cost of delivering universal clean water is USD150 billion per year, which is 0.65% of the US’ GDP in 2021.

Progress and solutions are being made – China delivered safe drinking water to hundreds of millions of people in the last decade,  Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority was bankrupt in 1993 and by 2017, it was outperforming utilities in LA or London & is set to meet SDG 6 early and regulatory efforts to restrict or ban PFAS  (a.k.a. toxic forever chemicals that get into our waters) are tightening worldwide, to list some.

We need more of these actions and solutions and at an accelerated speed. To do this however, a big part is needing more from the top – need more political will. There’s lots happening and innovations being deployed on-ground but the projects and the people doing the work need more policy support, more money and more resources. It’s not about fancy or expensive technology as Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority has shown, a lot is about effective solutions with governance support. So, where is the global ‘top’ on SDG 6?

Need more from the global ‘top’ to support on-ground work; will the UN 2023 Water Conference deliver?

Today is the start of the second ever UN Water Conference that will run March 22-24 in New York. The Conference will conduct a comprehensive review of the implementation of the International Decade for Action, “Water for Sustainable Development”, 2018–2028’, as well as try to ramp up action on SDG 6 with the Water Action Agenda that is being launched today. The Agenda is for everyone so as a company or as an individual you can register a commitment.  We all need to channel the humming bird – the motivation for this World Water Day’s campaign, “Be the change” – see below.

We do have some hope that meaningful actions will come from the Conference given increased global awareness on the clear, growing, and interlinked water risks – can’t ignore them anymore, there in headline news across the world. And there is momentum in this space with the IPCC Sixth Assessment reports with cold hard climate facts and the recently agreed High Seas Treaty.

Not everyone is hopeful the Conference will bring change…

…let’s see & let’s hope it’s not another 50 years until the next one!

However, global water gurus Professor Biswas and Dr Tortajada aren’t so hopeful about the upcoming Conference. As they point out in a recent article, the lack of follow-up from the first and only UN Water Conference in 1977 (almost 50 years ago!) clearly indicates a neglect of water in the international political agenda and they don’t expect that to change in New York – don’t disagree with them. Read more on why they think this here.

So, let’s see what happens this week at the second Water Conference and let’s hope it’s not another 50 years until the next one! Be sure to check our newsletter next month to catch the highlights from the Conference.

Further readings – Previous World Water Days

  • Groundwater – Making the Invisible Visible – Happy World Water Day! This year we highlight 5 reasons why groundwater may be out of sight but can never be out of mind. CWR’s Tan, McGregor & Lam expand
  • Valuing Water – Looking At It Differently – Happy World Water Day! With this year’s theme of valuing water, China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor & Debra Tan look at 3 different ways to value water
  • Water: Leave No One Behind – Happy World Water Day! This year the theme is ‘Leaving no one behind’ so why do we still not have ‘water for all’? Climate change will only make it more difficult – let’s get our act together & start with this update from China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor
  • Nature For Water In China & HK – Happy World Water Day! Given this year’s “Nature for Water” theme, we sat down with experts on nature-based solutions in China & Hong Kong from sponge cities to rivers and wetlands
  • Wastewater: Good To The Last Drop – Happy World Water Day! In the year of wastewater, we look at China’s management of the ‘waste’. Plus, what does the 13FYP hold? Action; given rising wastewater discharge & low re-use rates
  • CWR report, “Together We Can: 8 Habit changes for below 2ºC” that shows how we as individuals and we as a group can help cut carbon emissions with only small changes to our lifestyles.

More on latest 

Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
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