Water and sanitation at the core of sustainable development

Water is life

Water and sanitation are at the very core of sustainable development. Safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and hygiene are pillars of human health and well-being. In addition to domestic purposes, water is needed for food, energy and industrial production – uses that are highly interconnected and potentially conflicting. These various uses generate wastewater, which may cause pollution if not properly managed. Water is also needed to ensure healthy ecosystems, which, in turn, can improve the quantity and quality of freshwater, as well as overall resilience to human-induced and environmentally induced changes. The effects of climate change are often reflected in shifts in water availability, for example, increasing water scarcity in some regions and flooding in others. Consequently, water is a key factor in managing risks related to famine, disease epidemics, migration, inequalities within and among countries, political instability and natural disasters.

Breaking the silos – water is used across all sectors of society and to ensure resource sustainability, it is important to develop and manage the resource in an integrated manner (Photo credit: Etienne Poulin, Creative Commons Attribution)

Breaking the silos – water is used across all sectors of society and to ensure resource sustainability, it is important to develop and manage the resource in an integrated manner (Photo credit: Etienne Poulin, Creative Commons Attribution)

To ensure sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, it is essential to look at the water cycle in its entirety, including all uses and users (Photo credit: Jojo Nicdao, Creative Commons Attribution)

To ensure sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, it is essential to look at the water cycle in its entirety, including all uses and users (Photo credit: Jojo Nicdao, Creative Commons Attribution)

Cross-cutting and fragmented

Cutting across all these sectors, water can be instrumental in the implementation of integrated solutions. However, water resources are commonly developed and managed by different parts of governments and within different sectors, with little coordination among them and without an overall picture of the state of the resource. Inherent to this sectoral approach is the problem of coherence, where policies and decision-making in one sector could contradict or duplicate policies and decision-making in another sector. Furthermore, water resources are naturally confined to water basins, the scale of which, from physical and ecological points of view, is the most appropriate one for management. Nevertheless, water resources are often managed according to administrative units, which commonly cut across the water basins, resulting in further fragmentation, especially in the case of transboundary water basins.

SDG 6

To ensure sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, it is essential to look at the water cycle in its entirety, including all uses and users. Countries need to move away from sectoral development and management of water resources, in favour of a more integrated approach that can balance different needs in a just manner. This is exactly what SDG 6 seeks to do: by expanding the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) focus on drinking water and basic sanitation to include water, wastewater and ecosystem resources, and together with target SDG 11.5 on water-related disasters, it covers all the main aspects related to freshwater in the context of sustainable development. Bringing these aspects together under one goal is a first step towards addressing sector fragmentation and enabling coherent and sustainable management, thus making SDG 6 a major step forward towards a sustainable water future.