Investing in SDG 6: A vital confluence of natural, human, and financial resources

IWA Executive Director Kala Vairavamoorthy at the IWA World Water Congress, Tokyo, 2018 (Credit: IWA / Nuno Augusto)

By Kala Vairavamoorthy


At any given moment, day and night, a quarter of a million people are aloft, jetting at 800 km/h at an altitude of eleven kilometres, where temperatures are extremely low and the atmosphere is rarified, with insufficient oxygen to sustain life. Yet astonishingly, each member of this 8-mile high community enjoys ready access to clean drinking water, safe sanitation, and effective waste disposal.

This is even more astonishing when one considers that at that same moment, between 2 and 4 billion people on the ground lack these basic necessities.

This is not for lack of trying to tackle this deprivation. The 1980s International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade sought universal coverage in ten years, an aspirational goal we fell short of achieving. Then came the Millennium Development Goals, seeking incremental improvements over the period 2000-2015. With a limited number of goals (eight), they focused on a number of key development issues: poverty, education, health and environment. Access to improved sources of drinking water and improved sanitation were mere targets under Goal 7 on environmental sustainability. While we globally achieved the drinking water target, albeit on the basis of debatable indicators, we very clearly missed the sanitation target. And even for drinking water, the disparities between countries and within countries remained great.

Now the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is well underway, with 17 aspirational goals, 169 targets and 232 indicators seeking nothing less than global transformation within the next dozen years. There is a dedicated water and sanitation goal, which takes a holistic view going beyond access to water and sanitation services to wastewater management, environmental water quality, water efficiency, integrated water resources management and protecting the integrity of aquatic ecosystems are the key targets.

The SDGs make up a comprehensive framework, one that demands a systematic approach with robust capabilities, yet one that holds out the potential for an immeasurable return on investment. However, our efforts to translate lofty words into enduring structural change makes us ask, once again: Where do we focus? Who does the work? And how do we pay for it?

The first question emphasises the reality on the ground: what are the drivers, what are the stress fractures, and how do we deal with the overlay of global climate change? The other two questions highlight fundamental resource questions: the limits of our human resource base (well-trained and qualified labour) and financial constraints. The fates of these three perspectives are inextricably linked. Yet devoting our experience to just one goal–SDG 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all–may help us reach answers that unlock a powerful new confluence of natural, human and financial currents.


Resilient natural systems

The upside of past failures is that we can incorporate lessons learned. The problems may be old; what’s new is our understanding of the scale of the problem, the contextuality of the interplay of various drivers and the potential solutions at our disposal.

The former narrow focus on expanding access to improved sources of drinking water and improved sanitation has given way to the aforementioned broader scope of SDG 6. Even for targets 6.1 and 6.2, the indicators have been refined: it is no longer just about access to improved sources or facilities, but safe, reliable and affordable services or outcomes. The holistic approach is exemplified by the new paradigm for sanitation, which is no longer simply about providing access to safe sanitation installations, but the entire chain that follows: wastewater management, resource recovery, and preventing chemical pollution and microbial contamination of our aquatic ecosystems.

Above all, we no longer see resources as being static and isolated, but rather as dynamic forces in constant interaction. At one level, we have our local water supply system, our waste management system, and our stormwater systems. Each component is inextricably linked within a larger urban system. And that itself is part of a complex basin in which competing demands for finite water come from many diverse sectors–food, industry, health, energy, transport, and the environment.

How do we sustain what is, in reality, a system of systems of systems? SDG 6 suggests we consider the whole process through systems thinking.

Consider waste. Today, 80 percent of effluent flows back to nature untreated with serious public health and environmental implications. Even in the European Union, only 40 percent of rivers, lakes and estuaries meet minimum ecological standards for habitat degradation and pollution. Globally, the picture is a lot worse. We can lament this as an ongoing failure of the world to adopt the West’s favoured treatment systems. Or we can see an opportunity to value local context, work back from the problem, incorporate new technologies (such as granular sludge, thermal hydrolysis and anammox processes), and over the next 20 years usher in a golden era for wastewater and sanitation provision–an era of systems with a smaller footprint, improved energy, and lower costs.

Rather than foist one approach everywhere on all, SDG 6 promotes the entire sanitation service chain, and offers both sewered and non-sewered solutions or hybrids. The service chain can be overlaid by a value chain, indicating which are the economically most viable pathways. SDG target 6.2 defines adequate sanitation as “a system for the collection, transport, treatment and disposal or reuse of human excreta and associated hygiene”. Rather than view faecal matter as a liability to treat, systems thinking unlocks a perspective of beneficiation, from which to extract and recover valuable assets through opportunistic feedback loops. In this way, cost sinks become profit centres.

Resilient systems recognise that watersheds can be both a source – as an input factor in economic production of food, paper, metal, energy – and/ or a sink with negative by-products of economic activity including pollution of surface and groundwater bodies.


Revitalised human capacity

A systems approach, integrating service provision and robust infrastructure, does not materialise on its own. SDG 6 targets require highly capable people who can build and maintain secure access to basic necessities and complex resources. That is why the shortage of appropriately skilled labour in the water sector should concern us all.

Public and private water institutions struggle to maintain basic service levels. Water utility staff are stretched beyond capacity. Skilled graduates flock to more lucrative jobs in other sectors. Positions vacated by (predominantly male) retirees go unfilled, as women remain grossly underrepresented from educational and vocational tributaries.

Between 2010 and 2014, IWA carried out a study in fifteen low- and middle-income countries to inventory the dimensions of the sector’s human resources gap. Too often, there simply were no data. You can’t manage what you can’t measure, and most nations don’t track current let alone future shortages in any detail. Without reliable evidence of who needs what human resources when and where, our sector can’t write a business plan and make a persuasive case to attract sufficient investment.

Where we do find data, the picture looks bleak. The operation and maintenance of water and (especially) sanitation systems were chronically neglected, with human resources under-allocated and often inadequately skilled. Rural areas over-depend on volunteers and semi-skilled workers. Education and skills development requirements are not appropriately assessed, while institutions suffer low levels of access to tertiary education courses. The sector is also undermined by gross gender imbalance.

The very elements of our profound and universal human resource crisis also hold seeds of opportunity. It is an avoidable crisis.

If information gaps have scared off investment, robust collection of quality data will provide compelling evidence for investment in recruitment, education and skill development in the sector. If as the Chinese proverb says “women hold up half the sky”, then it surely makes sense that females should be trained and employed to support half of the water sector. Indeed, when parsing the data from a recent survey by the AWWA, women were reported to have a greater average concern than men about every water issue, especially water loss, climate change, conservation, and affordability.

If the future challenges facing water and sanitation go beyond the narrow needs of technical know-how, then the sector will grow resilient through diverse recruitment strategies that attract a broad range of people from non-traditional areas such as economics, sociology, urban planning, architecture, business management and information technology. Finally, if chronic underfunding of human resources in the water and sanitation sector has negatively eroded cross-cutting socioeconomic issues, then it follows that boosting investment in water should generate ripple effects and multiple benefits across other sectors including health, education, food security, economic and social development.

An outcomes-driven era–rooted in hard evidence, a tight focus, linked benefits, diverse skills and gender equity–sets the foundation of meaningful ‘bankable opportunities’ that can vastly expand human capacity within SDG 6.


Robust financial efficiency

Each opportunity must be supported by innovative financing mechanisms, anchored to cross-sectoral collaboration and mobilised by substantial increases in public and private sector spending. This brings us to the other part of the resource question: how do we pay for global transformation?

We have a good idea of the price tag. One year ago at the IWA Water and Development Congress in Buenos Aires, Mr Guangzhe Chen, Senior Director, Water Global Practice at the World Bank presented an estimate of the cost of achieving SDG targets 6.1 and 6.2 alone: US$114 billion per year.

Less obvious is where those funds will come from. More than 80 percent of countries report insufficient financing to meet their SDG targets, despite average increases of 5 percent in national WASH budgets. Moreover, the maximum level of Official Development Assistance for drinking water supply and sanitation reached US$18 billion in 2014, suggesting that aid commitments fall too short to cover investment needs.

So we must not only identify and mobilise more funds but also design innovative mechanisms that will channel those additional financial resources to where they are most needed. Creditworthiness doesn’t just happen. It hinges on the ability of utilities to maximise technical and financial efficiency, built by strong political leadership that improves governance and scales technical and administrative capacity.

In the past, with good intentions, governments have subsidised water and sanitation services to ensure affordability. That can’t continue. Doing so frames the sector as a public charity, a financial drain. By contrast, smartly designed, “Leave No-one Behind” cost-recovery tariff structures can alleviate pressures on scarce public funds, incentivise pro-poor policies, reduce risks, and fund critical public functions. This also will give us a handle on how to reconcile cost-recovery and affordability requirements, complying with the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation.

Indeed, through SDG 6 our water sector can thrive through a more diversified approach that blends public funds, concessional revenues, and private commercial investments that support water-related infrastructure. This blended finance approach– further supported by credit enhancements in the form of guarantees or revenue intercepts that allow risk sharing– will reduce real or perceived risk levels of investment for the private sector and accommodate the affordability constraints of commercial finance.

Commercial financing is not always viable, due to perceived risks or market failures. There, our focus should be on strengthening country and sector policies, institutions and regulation to address these market failures and develop an enabling environment for the private sector. Where risks remain high and raise the cost of commercial capital, we can explore options to lower financing cost through risk-sharing instruments.

Resilient systems. Reinvigorated capacity. Diversified and amplified funding sources. These are the foundations that will ensure strategic investments in SDG 6 yield a healthy return, and unlock a confluence of natural, human, and financial currents that transform our sector from a dependent resource sink into an overflowing fountain of strength.


Dr Kala Vairavamoorthy is Executive Director of the International Water Association