Water science and sustainability

Keith Hayward

We talk of water having a role to play in all of the SDGs. That role may not be so strong in all cases, but it is certainly the case that water has a fundamental place in securing progress on the goals beyond just the water-focused SDG 6.

We also speak of water being the medium through which the effects of climate change are felt. This does not cover all effects. But it is clear water is central in what are huge impacts on humanity given that, between 1970 and 2021, there were almost 12,000 reported disasters attributed to weather, climate and water extremes. These caused more than two million deaths and $4.3 trillion in economic losses.

Completing this water, climate and SDG triangle is the link between climate and the SDGs. This connection is the focus of a recent report, United in Science, compiled by the World Meteorological Organization under the direction of the UN Secretary-General. It brought together the input of the leading agencies and organisations with a focus on weather-, climate- and water-related sciences and services. It highlighted the statistics above on disasters. Extreme events, ultimately, undermine sustainable development, so much so that the report states: “The impacts of extreme weather and climate change are undermining progress towards achieving all of the SDGs.”

The message of the report is not so much that climate undermines all of the SDGs; it is that, as a result, weather-, climate- and water-related sciences can contribute to progress on all of the SDGs.

This potential is explored for SDGs where the climate connection is greatest, including hunger (SDG 2), cities (SDG 11), climate action (SDG 13), and partnerships (SDG 16), as well as SDG 6.

As an example, changes in extreme events are disrupting food security. The suite of weather-, climate- and water-related sciences can significantly strengthen adaptive capacity and increase resilience in the agricultural sector. Gaps to address include ensuring local communities have understandable, affordable, applicable and real-time weather, climate and water information.

Similarly, for cities, these sciences have a huge role to play, especially in terms of improving cities’ resilience and supporting climate responsive design and planning.

The relevance of these sciences to SDG 6 is clear, especially as the report notes that more than 60% of countries are facing inadequate or declining hydrological monitoring capabilities.

The report highlights that there are barriers preventing the full, effective and equitable use of weather-, climate- and water-related sciences for sustainable development. Looking beyond those barriers, there are huge opportunities, especially for digital technologies.

This edition includes two features with a digital theme. One highlights the growing impact of artificial intelligence. The other showcases the success of the PrimeWater Earth Observation project, in which IWA has been a partner. The latter, in particular, shows the potential to contribute across the water, climate and SDG triangle.

The United in Science report notes that, in August, the UN adopted a resolution designating 2024-2033 the International Decade of Sciences for Sustainable Development. Its message: now is the time to mobilise the scientific community to supercharge the SDG implementation. It is a signal of the contribution that water science can make on sustainability.

Keith Hayward, Editor