How the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Aim to Address Emerging Water Challenges

world map made of water drops
By Doug Hatler

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 goals for global development to the year 2030 (Figure 1). They are a non-binding framework that provides countries, organizations and communities with aspirational goals to work toward. The SDGs are not mutually exclusive. They rely on each other and are all dependent on a public-private partnerships that support people, planet, prosperity and peace.

The SDGs were globally negotiated and adopted as part of the 2030 Agenda at the United Nations in New York in September 2015. The 2030 Agenda was adopted by 193 United Nations Member States in 2015 and established a common blueprint to achieve peace and prosperity for all people living on Earth. It is the product of the combination of two international agendas, the momentum initiated by the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) and various sustainable development processes.

UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Figure 1 – The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 2030 Agenda and SDGs acknowledge that to eradicate poverty we as the inhabitants of Earth must improve health and education, reduce inequality and spur economic growth while addressing climate change and preserving freshwater, the oceans and forests.

The SDGs replace the MDGs, which did not accomplish the desired outcomes. Based on the lessons learned from the MDGs and incorporating sustainable development principles and best practices, the SDGs were collectively established and strongly consider the interdependence of social, environmental and economic factors. The SDGs recognize that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

The focus of this article is to introduce SDG 6 Clean Water and Sanitation and its relevance to the U.S. water industry.
Water covers about 71 percent of the earth’s surface. Of that water, 97 percent of it is found in the oceans, which is unusable without extensive, energy inefficient and costly treatment. That leaves us with 3 percent of fresh water. Unfortunately, most of the fresh water is in unusable stores such as glaciers and polar ice caps, the atmosphere and soil. Many available stores of fresh water have been polluted with anthropogenic chemicals or too far below the earth’s surface to be safely and cost effectively extract for use.

SDG 6 Clean Water and Sanitation is directed at the challenges of water quantity and quality. It provides a blueprint for ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation. However, it is important to understand that clean water and sanitation are intricately linked with SDG 2 Zero Hunger, SDG 3 Good Health and Well Being, SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities, SDG 12 Responsible Consumption and Production, SDG 14 Life Below Water and SDG 15 Life on Land in both developed and underdeveloped communities. Figure 2 illustrates this complexity for a developed community.

sustainable development goals
sustainable development goals
Table 1. SDG 6: Targets, Indicators and Tracking

Exacerbating water issues is the change in climate that Earth is undergoing.

Climate change is altering the water cycle in multiple ways over different time scales and geographic areas, presenting unfamiliar risks and opportunities As a key part of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) notes:

“The quality and quantity of water available for use by people and ecosystems across the country are being affected by climate change, increasing risks and costs to agriculture, energy production, industry, recreation and the environment.

Rising air and water temperatures and changes in precipitation are intensifying droughts, increasing heavy downpours, reducing snowpack, and causing declines in surface water quality, with varying impacts across regions. Future warming will add to the stress on water supplies and adversely impact the availability of water in parts of the United States. Changes in the relative amounts and timing of snow and rainfall are leading to mismatches between water availability and needs in some regions, posing threats to, for example, the future reliability of hydropower production in the Southwest and the Northwest. Groundwater depletion is exacerbating drought risk in many parts of the United States, particularly in the Southwest and Southern Great Plains. Dependable and safe water supplies for U.S. Caribbean, Hawaii and U.S.-affiliated Pacific Island communities are threatened by drought, flooding and saltwater contamination due to sea level rise. Most U.S. power plants rely on a steady supply of water for cooling, and operations are expected to be affected by changes in water availability and temperature increases. Aging and deteriorating water infrastructure, typically designed for past environmental conditions, compounds the climate risk faced by society.

Water management strategies that account for changing climate conditions can help reduce present and future risks to water security, but implementation of such practices remains limited.”

Integration of the natural hydrologic cycle
Figure 2 – Integration of the natural hydrologic cycle with human, society and economic influences. Courtesy of Jerald Schnoor. Source: “Thriving On Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space,” 2018.

SDG 6: Ensure Access to Water and Sanitation for All

The UN explains: “Clean water is a basic human need, and one that should be easily accessible to all. There is sufficient fresh water on the planet to achieve this. However, due to poor infrastructure, investment and planning, every year millions of people — most of them children — die from diseases associated with inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene.”

Water and sanitation services are directly addressed by SDG 6 are aligned with the human right to water and sanitation. The United Nations defined eight target and 11 monitoring indicators to provide a point of reference to national, regional and local authorities; utility and service operators; communities; engineering and planning practitioners, etc. The targets and indicators are presented in Table 1 above.

Implementation and Adoption

The United States water industry is fragmented across with more than 50,000 water and 15,000 wastewater utilities excluding industrial, commercial, and individual household systems. Implementing and adopting a standard framework such as SDG 6 could help utility operators, policymakers and communities understand how they independently and interdependently affect the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation. It can also provide a common language for communicating and delivering value for customers and community.

There are benefits to the water industry of advancing the SDGs. The report “Global Goals for Local Communities: Urban Water Advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals” from the Water Services Association of Australia Ltd. (2017), presents “the compelling case for the SDGs.”

In the report, the authors remark that the contribution utilities make across the individual SDGs will vary according to organizational capacity, structure and the communities they serve.

The water challenges facing the water industry are significant. Overcoming these challenges will require more than government and non-government organizations, who suffer from human and financial resource constraints while also being extremely risk averse. Public utilities will need to turn to the private sector for additional resources and risk sharing. Such public-private partnerships (P3s) can help transfer risk from taxpayers to investors, support the implementation of innovative project components, and provide expanded access to capital. SDG 6 provides a rallying cry and a framework for P3s to share goals and objectives and measure performance against a common set of metrics.


Doug Hatler

Doug Hatler is chief revenue officer at 374Water Inc., a Durham, N.C.-based company commercializing an approach to supercritical water oxidation that recovers valuable resources from organic waste while eliminating contaminants such as PFAS, 1,4-Dioxane, microplastics, pharmaceuticals and more. Hatler is also president of the consultancy Environmental Business Ventures, LLC, working with early stage water tech businesses. He is a frequent contributor to WF&M.

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