How preserving water could help humanity reach sustainability

The UN’s seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have ambitious targets for 2030, from ending hunger to gender equality. While the SDGs are multiple and varied, water preservation is a thread that runs through them all

The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are part of a 15-year plan that aims to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of all people.

SDG 6 calls for clean water and sanitation. Within the goal are several targets for 2030, including (but not limited to) equal access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and hygiene for all, reduction in pollution and elimination of hazardous materials in the water system, and protection of water-related ecosystems.

SDG 6 is vital in a world where 2.2 billion people lack safe drinking water, and where a major effect of climate change is less predictable water cycles. But the goal of improving water access and sanitation is not just important in its own right, it underpins every aspect of all of our lives, from economics to health to education. The other UN SDGs, from achieving gender equality to ending hunger, are all enhanced by improved water management.

Gender inequality and poverty is compounded by poor water access

A lack of access to water access is both a demonstration of, and exacerbator of inequality between genders, the focus of SDG 5. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 25 percent of the population must walk at least 30 minutes to collect water and this task is usually undertaken by women and girls. This burden takes time away from education: around 145 million days at school are lost to girls worldwide, because of water collection. Women are also vulnerable to attack while collecting water, and while relieving themselves in areas without proper toilet facilities. Accessible water and sanitation would eliminate the need for long walks through dangerous areas, and empower more women to take up the opportunity of education – a key step towards global gender equality.

Without good water management, the planet cannot sustain life

Around 8.9 percent of the world’s population is currently going hungry. Among the main causes of food instability is climate shocks, which include drought and flooding. SDG 2 is to end hunger by 2030, while part of the water and sanitation SDG is to ‘protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes’. The link is clear: protecting water systems ensures sustainable access for all who need it.

Managing water systems can slow surface run-off, and help preserve groundwater and surface water storage. All together, these actions can protect humans from sporadic weather events like flooding, and ensure long-term, sustainable sources of water for farming – particularly for the smallholding farmers who produce 30–34% of the world’s food, and who rely on their crops for their own subsistence.

But it’s not just farmers. All people and animals that rely on the planet benefit from good water management. SDG 15, Life on Land, highlights the importance of water to biodiversity, with a target focused on combatting drought and flooding to protect all ecosystems.

A healthy population is only possible through clean water access

It is impossible to imagine a healthy world without water. Clean water stops the spread of waterborne disease, while threats to health come from polluted rivers and lakes, and from poor water infrastructure. In Flint, Michigan, for example, residents spent years drinking, washing and cooking with lead-polluted water because of out-of-date piping. Water pollution is linked to around 1.8 million deaths each year. Clearly, a healthy global population can only exist where there is equitable access to clean water for all. In fact, one target for SDG 3 is that by 2030 there must be a reduction in deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals through water pollution.

Improving water access and sanitation makes good economic sense

This is not just an ethical position, but an economic one. Nations that water their people and their ecosystems thrive. Three out of four jobs within the global workforce depend on water. UNESCO have estimated that investments in small-scale initiatives to deliver safe water and sanitation across Africa could offer financial returns of 5% of the continent’s entire GDP each year, and universal access to basic water and sanitation could result in over $18 billion in economic benefits globally each year from avoided deaths alone.

Water is vital for life, but it’s also crucial for equality, nutrition, health and national economic success. By reaching the 2030 targets for SDG 6, we would not only be improving the way we manage water across the globe, but contributing to the betterment of all aspects of life for everyone.

Related blog posts: