Enhancing the achievability of SDG 6

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Woman wearing blue indian shirt stands in front of large water pit

By Danielle Lindamood, Masters in Sustainability Management student

The United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are centered around the ideas of social and environmental justice. Within each goal, the targets seek to address both human and environmental issues – to strike a balance between the needs of our species and the planet that gives us life. Water, to me, is the ultimate expression of interconnectedness in our human and environmental systems. Water is a basic necessity for all life, human activities affect water quality which in turn affect human health, and many people see value in water through the recreational and spiritual experiences it facilitates.

But water is also inherently complex. It doesn’t fit very well into many of our human-made boxes. Water flows across the borders we draw, water resources are distributed unequally across our planet, and water is not easily captured and stored on the large scales needed to sustain many urban populations.

As the world has transformed in the Anthropocene, an age in which humans are the biggest force shaping the planet’s future, the governance and management of water is becoming increasingly important and needed to make water use more sustainable. Goals aimed at addressing water challenges are not contentious, yet historically, we have not been very good at achieving them. SDG 6, universal access to clean water and sanitation, is a leap forward in the way we conceptualize water challenges because of the way it engages with both human and environmental systems. Additionally, the United Nations (UN) has identified that this goal can be linked to the success of all the other sixteen goals.  For example, we cannot achieve SDG 5 – gender equality – if women and girls disproportionately bear the burdens of fetching clean water. Similarly, SDG 3 – good health and well-being – will remain unachievable if water issues continue to negatively impact human health and human rights. In this way, if we are talking about the success of all the SDGs, we are really qualifying that by saying SDG 6 must be achieved.

Achieving SDG 6, then, is our task over the next thirteen years. This question of achievability fascinates me and is at the center of my research on water governance in India. In order to understand what drives the achievability of water goals, I lived in Bangalore, India capturing experiences around success and failure in water provisioning and management. This included interacting with people in the highest rungs of government as well as people living humbly in rural villages, enabling my data to cover a wide range of contexts and expertise intimately tied with the decision-making and management surrounding water issues. In particular, I spent time in two different villages talking to villagers and local officials to develop embedded case studies, giving a more specific context to the experiences around success and failure with water provisioning in their communities. By understanding both the big picture of water governance in India as well as the specific nuances that arise in context, I hope to identify broader trends that will tangibly enhance the achievability of SDG 6 in policy and practice.

While I am still in the process of writing my results and analysis, my time in India and the grappling I have done with the complexities of SDG 6 make it clear that collaboration will be a fundamental puzzle piece in achieving SDG 6. Whether taken in broad or specific contexts, complexity pervades the world of water because it interacts so deeply with economic, cultural, religious, political, and ecological systems. These varied settings and complex interactions mean there is a clear value in being able to draw from different expertise, experiences, and traditional knowledge in order to create appropriate and sustainable solutions.

As we move forward, I believe the SDGs present a unique opportunity to understand the complex sustainability challenges facing our planet. Through this understanding, I think we can illuminate pathways to the transformative societal change the SDG agenda seeks to create. I hope my research will translate into lighting that path a little more clearly and ultimately enhancing the achievability of SDG 6 for the benefit of people and planet alike.

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Danielle Lindamood is a California native pursuing a Masters in Sustainability Management at the University of Waterloo. She is a member of the Collaborative Water Program and recently contributed a story to the Water Institute, detailing her experience in the Water Innovation Lab - India. 

This story is part of our series on the Sustainable Development Goals and the Faculty of Environment.