With only 13 years left for countries to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the race is on for leaders and members of the High Level Panel (HLPW) on Water, which is in support of the Agenda, in particular SDG6 on water, to take action and join forces in a bid to tackle the water crisis.
SDG Target 6.3 states that: “By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.”
The United Nations (UN) World Water Development Report 2017, entitled "Wastewater: The Untapped Resource”, paints a gloomy picture, calling for a shift in the paradigm of wastewater management from ‘treatment and disposal’ to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle and resource recovery’.
Presented during the World Water Day Summit and Expo held recently in Durban, the report shows that about 500 million people live in areas where water consumption exceeds the locally renewable water resources by a factor of two.
It also notes that while 2.1 billion people gained access to improved sanitation facilities since 1990, about 2.4 billion still do not have access to improved sanitation and nearly one billion people worldwide still practice open defecation.
The report further demonstrates how improved wastewater management generates social, environmental and economic benefits essential for sustainable development. It calls on political leaders to work toward policies which encourage a better way to manage waste water.
“In the face of ever-growing demand, wastewater is gaining momentum as a reliable alternative source of water, shifting the paradigm of wastewater management from ‘treatment and disposal’ to ‘reuse, cycle and resource recovery’.
“Continued failure to address wastewater as a major social and environmental problem would compromise other efforts towards achieving the 2030 Agenda for SDG,” the report notes.
President Jacob Zuma, who launched the report during the summit said the bleak global picture presented in the report requires world leaders to urgently prioritise the improvement of access to essential water and sanitation services.
President Zuma is a Chairperson of the Heads of State Committee on the UNs High Level Panel on Water (HLPW), which seeks to motivate effective action through focusing on public policy dialogue, private sector models and practices, and civil society initiatives towards the water SDG.
147 countries met SDG target
The President noted that 147 countries have met the SDG drinking water target, while 95 countries met the sanitation target and only 77 countries have met both.
“These statistics do not do justice in conveying the development and health challenges faced by so many people, or in contextualising how unevenly these basic services are distributed around the world and within societies,” the President said.
In the context of a circular economy, whereby economic development is balanced with the protection of natural resources and environmental sustainability, the report says that wastewater represents a widely available and valuable resource.
It further notes that extremely low level of wastewater treatment reveals an urgent need for technological upgrades and safe water reuse options to support the achievement of target 6.3 goal, which is critical for achieving the entire Agenda.
Realising water quality improvement goals
In order to realise the goals of water quality improvement and water resources protection, the report recommends that individuals and organizations responsible for various aspects of wastewater management need to comply and act in the collective interest.
“Benefits are only realised once everyone abides by the rules to protect water resources from pollution. Involving citizens in decision-making at all levels promotes engagements and ownership. This includes decisions as to what types of sanitation facilities are desirable and acceptable, and how they can be securely funded and maintained over the long term,” the report advises.
President Zuma said that whilst vividly presenting the distressing situation, the international community currently finds itself in, with regard to water and sanitation, the report and its call for action also sends a message of hope.
“We have the potential to create a new and more positive economic and social developmental pathway through, amongst others, water infrastructure investments, valuing water, catalysing change, building partnerships and international cooperation, as well as creating better human settlements and data.
“We have the United Nations 2030 Agenda to point the way. Here in Africa we have an even longer term and complementary sustainable development strategy in the form of the African Union’s 2063 Agenda,” the President highlighted.
He called upon all leaders to contribute more and to build on what they are already doing in their respective countries, such as by advocating and championing activities and actions in support of the implementation of SDG 6.
Wastewater a valuable resource
UN-Water Vice-Chairperson, Joakim Harlin said that the Agenda 2030 is an excellent policy framework for all people and planet and that the SDG on water and sanitation is part of the agenda 2030. “It cuts across regions, sectors and other goals because, the nature of water is one of the driving forces and also for addressing and ending extreme poverty, which is one of our greatest challenges and a requirement for sustainable development,” Harlin pointed out.
Deputy Director - General of UNESCO, Getachew Engida said: “Basically, we are damaging ourselves by wasting wastewater, wasting the finer resources of valuable minerals and polluting fresh water and the environment. At the same time, we are risking our health and the future of our planet.”
Engida commended South Africa for being among the countries in Africa that illustrate good examples of using waste water by pioneering the entire treatment and recycling of waste water in industries. Professor Patrick Verkooijen, a Special Representative for Climate Change at the World Bank warned that unless action is taken soon, water will become more scarce in regions where it is currently abundant and scarcity will greatly worsen in regions where water is already in short supply.
Verkooijen also warned that water scarcity is a major threat to the economic growth and stability around the world with climate change making the problem worse.
Call for action
The 12 leaders, who make up the HLPW are demonstrating by their engagements the importance of national action and regional and global cooperation for changing the way the world looks at water, and how they manage it.
Their call for action and action plan, sets out a transformative agenda putting water at the centre of the global agenda to deliver urgent change and foster synergies. This change requires increased political will and commitment to tackle water challenges at local, national and international level, under the frame of SDG 6 and related goals.