COVID-19 and SDG 6 goals: All that we need to learn and do

We need political will and commitment during COVID-19 times. Our world is packed with knowledge and we can achieve SDG6 goals if we remain engaged 

By Mahreen Matto, Sumita Singhal
Published: Friday 22 May 2020

The world is facing an unprecedented global threat due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and its impact on sustainable development prospects are emerging as a matter of concern.

The pandemic has underlined the need for global action to address people’s basic requirements, save our planet and to build a fairer and resilient world. This is what the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the global blueprint to end poverty, protect our planet and ensure prosperity is about.

At the heart of the agenda, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), most of which are interconnected.

Earlier this year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a Decade of Action to deliver the SDGs. However the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fundamental weaknesses in our global systems and highlighted the need to respond with urgency and determination.

In view of the current pandemic, the fate of SDG 6, “Ensure Availability and Sustainable Management of Water and Sanitation for All” becomes more critical. 

The goal is divided into six targets:

SDG 6.1: Achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all. Washing hands is the first line of defense to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to experts, washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, repeatedly throughout the day, is critical. However, in many developing countries, the message ignores an important question: What if you don’t have enough clean water to meet the needs?

It becomes imperative to understand the close nexus between the ongoing pandemic and water woes of many countries. Globally, three billion people do not have access to even basic hand-washing facilities at home. Nearly a billion people experience only partial access or regular shutoffs even when they do have piped water, making frequent hand-washing difficult or impossible.

Lack of access to clean water affects vulnerability to disease and ill health. Handwashing and good hygiene practices unlock the benefits of water and sanitation services.

Proportion of population using a hand-washing facility with soap and water (%). Data source: SDG indicator 6.2.1b.

For this purpose, the UN-Water members and partners are committing to the SDG 6 Global Acceleration Framework, which will unify the international community and deliver rapid results in countries at an increased scale as part of the Decade of Action.

This has led governments and organisations worldwide to believe that strategic and pragmatic plans should be in place to ensure sustainable access to safe water and sanitation. Governments need to take measures not only to increase water access, but create more resilient communities by addressing the root problems of water scarcity.

The onus lies on governments to be the prime driver of strategic planning of water supply, to ensure that adequate water is available to all, including the vulnerable sections of the society.

There is a need for appropriate funding for water and sanitation that not only build more resilient and thriving communities, but also boost local economies. Proper allocation and management of available water supplies to flatten the water deficit curve is also needed.

In countries where a significant proportion of the population lacks basic drinking water service, the initial focus must remain on ensuring access to an improved drinking water source to all and reducing the time spent (primarily by women and girls) in fetching water.

The need of the hour is also to also establish a commonly agreed method for assessing affordability, as payment for services should not be a barrier to accessing services.

In countries where water resources are limited, the governments should work on the existing water paradigm.

Unfortunately, most water supply and sewage treatment projects are approved as infrastructure projects. In addition, a growing built-up area in the name of ‘urbanisation’ leads to increased water run-off and minimal recharge.

A shift from a disposal-based linear system to a recovery-based closed loop system and investment in local rainwater harvesting and wastewater reuse is needed. It is here where the approach of water sensitive urban design and planning (WSUDP) can be useful.

WSUDP, being the integrated design of the urban water cycle, combines water supply, wastewater, storm-water and groundwater management, urban design and environmental protection, contributing towards sustainability and livability, particularly when considered as part of an overall urban strategy.

SDG 6.2: Achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.

It calls for countries to end open defecation, to ensure that everyone has access to a basic toilet and to put in place systems for safe management of excreta. Better sanitation is considered to be one of the key elements in management of COVID-19 spread.  

It stresses on the need to ensure that human waste is collected, transported,treated and disposed of or handled safely in compliance with the WHO’s Guidelines on Sanitation and Health. This is an important precaution for preventing potential transmission of COVID-19.

However, the risk of transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from faeces of an infected person appears to be low. According to the latest guidelines by WHO, current evidence suggests that infectious COVID-19 virus may be excreted in faeces, regardless of diarrhoea or signs of intestinal infection.

However, to date, only one study has cultured the COVID-19 virus from a stool specimen. There have been no reports of faecal-oral transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

More data and analysis are required to validate the findings. Keeping in view that 2.3 billion people still lack basic services, considerable investment will be needed, particularly in rapidly growing urban areas, although solutions will vary depending on the relative importance of sewerage networks and on-site sanitation systems.

Some other measures under SDG 6.2 are as follows:

  • Excreta of a city/country can be analysed through an advocacy tool called Excreta Flow or Shit Flow Diagram. The tool helps to understand if the excreta flow through the sanitation value chain is safely / unsafely managed and also bridges the existing gap in availability of data for monitoring safely managed sanitation and for improved citywide sanitation planning and effective sanitation investments in urban areas.
  • Strengthening the capacity of local and national authorities to manage and regulate sanitation systems will be a high priority, including the development of information management systems, especially in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Need to re-design demand by reducing water usage so that water wastage is reduced. Need to re-design sewage management systems so that we treat wastewater to return manure to the land and clean water to our rivers. A combination of centralised as well as decentralised solution is required to ensure that waste of the entire area / city is being treated.

SDG 6.3: By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimising release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.

With the global lockdown, water bodies are receiving minimal industrial hazardous and solid waste. As a result of this, the quality of water in rivers and lakes has partly improved. However, this is a temporary solution and calls the decision makers to revisit our planning approach of cleaning water bodies.

There is a need to have a combination of approaches, sewage treatment plants (STPs), effluent treatment plants (ETPs) and decentralised wastewater / solidwaste treatment systems which will treat the domestic and industrial waste before entering the water body, thus enduring less pollution.

The process of decentralised wastewater management furnishes the recycle and reuse of wastewater — a process of treating wastewater as a resource rather than a liability. Moreover, increasing political will to tackle pollution at its source and to treat wastewater will protect public health and the environment, mitigate the costly impact of pollution and increase availability of water resources.

Other measures are:

  • Setting up of effective real time water quality monitoring stations for robust data and analysis
  • Adhering to discharge norms by STPs and ETPs
  • Maintain­­­­ the flow of water bodies by keeping a tab on over-extraction and over exploitation of water bodies

SDG 6.4: Substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity.

COVID-19 has brought to the limelight the need to be water prudent and water wise to tackle water scarcity. Awareness and mindset changes are required to use water efficiently.

SDG 6.5: Implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.

Adequate integrated water resource management is one of the most powerful tools to ensure supply of drinking water and wastewater treatment.

Role of integrated urban water management (IUWM), integrating water supply and demand, wastewater management, storm water, etc., has been suggested as a way out to sustainable water management by several researchers.

IUWM is a comprehensive approach to urban water services, viewing water supply, drainage, and sanitation as components of an integrated physical system, and recognises that physical system sits within an organisational framework and a broader natural landscape.

SDG 6.6: By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes.

This looks far to be achieved this year. The effect of climate change on the ecosystem cannot be ignored, instances of frequent floods and droughts is the new normal and to top it all, recent forest fires in USA and Australia are witness to the effects of climate change.

The linkage between ecosystem and climate change has to been deeply analysed and outcome-based solutions are required.

On March 31, 2020, the UN Secretary-General announced the establishment of a COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund. This multi-donor trust fund aims to raise $1 billion this year and one of the aims is to safeguard the SDG programmes from COVID-19-induced setbacks.

It has also called for a $2.5 trillion coronavirus crisis package for developing countries. This is a good start, but there is a lot more to be done to enable the developing countries to achieve their SDGs, particularly in the areas of water and sanitation for all.

According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres:

A recovery from the COVID-19 crisis must not take us back to where we before the pandemic. It is an opportunity to build more sustainable and inclusive societies — a more resilient and prosperous world.

The main challenge to achieve SDG 6, is that the water sector is struggling to improve water resources management and to increase the coverage and quality of water and sanitation services. As the world responds to this pandemic, there is a need to focus on addressing underlying factors through the SDGs especially for developing countries:

  • Need more financial and technical support and increased knowledge to fulfil their SDGs on water and sanitation for all.
  • Enhanced policymaking to take account of social cost-benefit approach when pricing water, strengthening environmental laws and creating ecosystem-centric regimes, and making technology sustainable
  • Every citizen needs to be careful in the use of water, as a society we need to be water wise, every drop of water counts. The current conditions provide an opportunity to promote the idea of maintaining hygiene as it is imperative now and should be encouraged in the future too.

At this point of time what is desperately needed is political will and commitment. Our world is packed with knowledge, innovation and capacity, and if we remain engaged, influential, productive we will be able to achieve the SDG 6 goal.

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