Denmark’s water utility SDG agenda for change

DANVA's grouping of the SDGs most relevant to water (© DANVA)

Water and wastewater utilities in Denmark have taken a lead in the country, working to integrate the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their core business. Miriam Feilberg looks at progress and the active support given by DANVA, the Danish Water and Wastewater Association.

Soon after the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals by the UN in 2015, the first Danish water and wastewater utilities started investigating how the SDGs could be used to improve their performance towards sustainability. For many, a first step was to recognise the universality of the principles. They are to be implemented globally and are not directed towards developing countries only, and so are relevant even for utilities in Denmark.

Danish water and wastewater utilities soon realised that working with the SDGs could guide their activities and contribute to them providing a better service for customers. Some utilities started with their company’s vision, changing it to link to the goals. An example of this is the new vision of Aqua Djurs, a water and wastewater utility in rural Jutland: Clean water in the tap and at sea, which relates directly to goal 6, the core water goal, and goal 14, life below water.

In general, the 17 goals and 169 targets of the SDGs must be seen as a package, where implementation of one target is closely interlinked with other goals and targets. This promotes a more holistic view of the water sector and activities that are not only related to goal 6.

Different approaches to implementation

Some water and wastewater utilities in Denmark use the SDGs as a strong tool for communication. They may put up signs in the city, explaining what they are doing and to which global goals their activities contribute. The SDG icons can clearly communicate that the utility is working on climate change adaptation in a particular location, contributing to goal 11, for example.

The SDGs are also used as an important tool for awareness raising. Schoolchildren learn about saving water and the wastewater cycle, and what not to put into toilets. These activities contribute to goal 14.

Some utilities strive to build their strategies around the SDGs

Some utilities strive to build their strategies around the SDGs and integrate them into daily operations. As the SDGs are interlinked, this approach may imply that they take a broader look at their activities, beyond the water goal and into new areas of operation. For instance, they can use SDG 13 as a basis for developing more energy-efficient solutions in the company’s operations and engage in energy recovery. Implementing goal 12 may call for attention to the total resource consumption in the company, and – if work accidents are a concern – it may be important to prioritise target 8.8 on working environment.

Value and efficient solutions

DANVA, as a utility member association, has followed the SDGs closely and informed members of their potential impact on the Danish water sector on many occasions.

The objective for DANVA has been to inspire water and wastewater utilities to implement the SDGs at all levels of their organisation – for example, in communications, at a strategic level, and in daily operational activities. Each water and wastewater utility needs to find its own way of implementing the goals and targets, depending on its circumstances and ambitions.

A good way to start working with the SDGs is to pay attention to their guiding principles: Do good; Do no harm; Leave no one behind.

These principles are relevant even in a country such as Denmark, with almost universal water and wastewater coverage, as there are still many other issues related to water, climate and environment.

The utility sector has also been inspired by the experience of some of Denmark’s leading companies, such as Grundfos and Novozymes, which realised very early on that having SDGs successfully anchored in the organisation creates value on multiple bottom lines in the long term.

Goal 17, on partnerships, is perhaps the most important goal to ensure that we meet all other goals, and is front of mind in the Danish water sector, with its long tradition of working in partnerships across sectors and in private-public constellations. As a result, the creation of value through local partnerships, R&D projects, and development of solutions in cooperation with stakeholders are very important activities for Danish water and wastewater utilities.

In the experience of the Danish water sector, if the aim is to implement SDGs strategically and in daily operations, it is important for each utility to scrutinise the goals and targets, prioritise the targets most important to the utility, and set objectives for what the organisation wishes to achieve.

To guide this, DANVA developed an overview of the most relevant goals for the water sector. This divided them into core tasks, goals that depend on water sector activities, and other goals that are closely related to this.

The Inspiration Catalogue

DANVA’s approach was to start with the basic SDG principles and to respect that they represent an agenda for change. This is based on the understanding that, if we just continue with usual practice – including in the water sector – we will not be able to meet the SDGs by 2030.

To contribute to this change through SDG implementation in the Danish water sector, DANVA established a working group and developed an Inspiration Catalogue to help water companies develop visions and actions towards the SDGs.

Danish water companies serve varied supply areas and have different company structures – they are big and small, and located in the cities and in the countryside. Given the differences in size, disciplines and SDG experience, it was decided not to provide a cookbook, with step-by-step instructions, but to develop a catalogue for inspiration.

The catalogue has been created by the frontrunners in the field of implementing the SDGs. It contains guidelines and relevant activities for integrating goals in daily operations and for developing company strategies in cooperation with the owners – which, most often, are the municipalities.

The Inspiration Catalogue is divided into nine themes that can be considered as phases in a process or dealt with individually. To some water companies, it will be relevant to address the themes in the order listed, whereas others will benefit from seeking inspiration in just one or a few themes.

In either case, every water utility must start by deciding how they want to work with the SDGs, their vision and their goals. It is a decision that has to be anchored at the top of the organisation, but activities must be implemented at all levels in the utilities.

Miriam Feilberg is Special Adviser at DANVA, Danish Water and Wastewater Association

The DANVA Inspiration Catalogue is available to download as a report in English, The water sector and the sustainable development goals, at:

International focus in Denmark’s third-largest city

VCS Denmark is the utility of Odense. It has a long history of international responsibility, and implementing the SDGs came naturally to VCS.

After screening all goals, it created a long-list of 70 targets, related to the utilit’s daily activities. The targets were prioritised by ranking them from 1–3 depending on their relevance to its activities, distance to fulfilling the target, and importance for VCS’s business. This resulted in five selected goals being aligned with business areas in a new VCS strategy that will be implemented from January 2020. VCS is now in the process of defining long-term objectives and, based on this, specific activities.

For Troels Kærgaard Bjerre, project director responsible for SDG activities at VCS, it is important to see the goals as the agenda for change they are meant to be. This calls for change in the organisation and it is important to pay attention to company culture and to include all employees in the whole organisation.

Global goals in rural Denmark

Lemvig Water and Wastewater (LWW) is located in north-western Denmark. It supplies water to – and treats wastewater from – around 20,000 people. The utility is challenged by rising groundwater levels and coastal flooding, and is located in an area with more low-income families than average in Denmark. In Lemvig, visionary management and owners from the municipality are convinced that working with the SDGs will have a positive impact on service provision and the local area.

In short, LWW has examined the entire 169 targets and aims to work with all of them, but will start by prioritising the most important targets most closely linked to its KPIs. The next step is to translate the targets into activities that can be carried out in Lemvig. For example, target 7.2 on increased use of renewable energy translates into a local target of 100% reuse of sludge for energy production, with an appointed project manager responsible for meeting the target.

Leadership is another important factor in meeting the goals, according to LWW, with greater involvement of employees important for success.

LWW also pays close attention to ‘leaving no one behind’ and works to ensure that all within its area get access to clean water and safe sanitation, even though it is a rural area with difficult geological conditions.

Wastewater treatment and global goals in Copenhagen

BIOFOS treats wastewater from 1.2 million people in the Greater Copenhagen area at three treatment facilities. Since 2017, BIOFOS has worked with the SDGs and has developed an integrated approach to comply with targeted goals.

BIOFOS has examined the UN 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. After workshops with the board and employees, BIOFOS has chosen seven goals and associated targets where it sees it can contribute to the 2030 Agenda. The goals and selected targets will be fully integrated in the company strategy by 2020. An example of this is an increased focus on resource recovery, carbon neutrality and partnerships.

For the utility, it is important that the SDGs are not seen as a silo – as a new set of goals separate from its usual work. SDGs will be aligned with daily activities and the KPIs against which BIOFOS is measured today.

John Buur Christiansen, CEO of BIOFOS, sees Goal 17 as a key goal for a utility. It strengthens activities by including external partners, working jointly to achieve the common goals for water, climate and environment.

A congress that contributes to meeting the SDGs

In Copenhagen, Denmark, on 18-23 October 2020, DANVA and IWA Denmark will host the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition 2020, under the heading ‘Water for smart livable cities’. Five years after the UN adoption of the SDGs, we will take stock of progress and discuss activities to ensure we meet the targets by 2030. The Danish water sector will demonstrate how Danish solutions and competencies contribute to the goals being met in Denmark and the rest of the world every single day.