How the water industry can support the Sustainable Development Goals

6 min read
Rosie holding SDG report

The Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA), the peak body for urban water, launched a paper, Global Goals for Local Communities: Urban water advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, at Parliament House on 7 August 2017. WaterAid Australia Chief Executive Rosie Wheen presented at the launch. Here is an edited transcript of her speech which looks at what the water industry can do globally to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Thank you for the opportunity to join you today and talk about what the water industry can do globally.

I congratulate the water industry and WSAA on this paper and I commend your commitment and leadership on the SDGs.

The SDGs are an ambitious agenda that galvanise action on eradicating extreme poverty by 2030. I find them incredibly exciting.

By way of background, WaterAid is an international non-government organisation. We were formed in the early 1980s by the UK water industry. In 2004 our establishment in Australia was as a partnership between the water industry and the development sector, and this remains the case today.

I won’t speak in detail of WaterAid’s life changing work. What I want to share are three areas where the water industry can enhance its impact in our region.

Firstly, by encouraging and supporting leadership and political will for SDG 6. SDG 6 is the goal for clean water and sanitation.

Secondly, by working with countries to understand their aspirations and context and then working alongside them, sharing our knowledge and experiences to fast track their progress for SDG 6.

And thirdly, by partnering to ensure that no one is left behind.

Let me recap the global context. There are 844 million people without clean water and 2.3 billion people are without decent toilets.

Numbers of this size can become meaningless. I want to give them meaning today with a particular focus on urban issues.

As the High-Level Panel said, “Cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost.” We know how central cities are to driving economic development particularly in developing countries.

Urban populations are forecast to rise to 5 billion by 2030. We are seeing huge increases in the number of people living in slum conditions. Slums should be in the frontline of our agenda.

India, whilst being the third largest economy, is the worst country in the world for the numbers of urban-dwellers without decent toilets and for open defecation. Over 40 million people practice open defecation.

What that means is that in cities across India every year there is a vast amount of untreated human waste – how much you ask – enough to fill the MCG every year. I don’t mean just a scattering across the hallowed turf I mean the MCG brimming to the roof with human faeces every year.

While I let that sink in – I want to reinforce the human impact – a child dies every two minutes from diarrhoeal diseases – which can be prevented with access to the basic human rights of clean water and sanitation and the practice of good hygiene.

I have met people living in slums. In Port Moresby I visited a settlement and met the community members. Their story reflects the one we hear around the world – they live a tenuous existence, outside formal administration, live in vulnerable areas with very poor access to water, high levels of waterborne disease and terrifying safety issues especially for women.

I went to the local school and visited the place that is nominally called their toilet – it left me retching. This particularly impacts girls - how can we imagine that girls will come to school when they don’t have access to toilets to manage their periods, when they can’t access good quality sanitary pads. This is also an issue for indigenous girls in remote parts of Australia.

Though the challenges are huge, we are making progress.

For example, WaterAid globally with your support, has worked alongside partners in some of the poorest and most marginalised communities around the world to reach over 24 million people with clean water and sanitation. We couldn’t have achieved this without your contribution.

We all need to do more.

So how can the water industry increase momentum and contribute to those big changes we need to see?

Firstly, the water industry in Australia can continue and increase its work with leaders in government, utilities and other partners around the region to encourage, enable, inspire this leadership and political will for SDG 6.

We know that achieving universal access will require much more than the money, technical and infrastructure innovations that are needed. It will require consistent political will and leadership, cultural and behaviour change, the right systems, regulation and accountability.

It requires an effective enabling environment where the private sector and civil society can play their part alongside government in effective and sustainable delivery of public services.

And a commitment that the most marginalised have a right to access and to afford reliable services, and where consumers are able to hold local service providers to account.

We need to encourage this sort of leadership and drive in and around the region. Several years ago I met the then Health Minister for Papua New Guinea (PNG) and along with our other partners shared with him the statistics of the impact of lack of water and sanitation were having on the people of PNG and indeed the economy. This triggered a process that has led to the first ever PNG National Rural Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Policy. We need to find this leadership and encourage and support these champions.

Secondly, the Australian water industry is well place to also work alongside these leaders and those delivering services. Through collaboration and partnerships, we need to step up these efforts, working with countries to understand their aspirations and context and then working alongside them to fast track their progress by sharing our technology and experiences. Areas where the Australian water industry is focused on improving, such as gender equality and diversity.

I know this is happening, we just need more of it so that progress to be fast tracked. We also need to share experiences in responding to the challenges faced by all nations such as limited resources and increasing populations.

The third area is to work on the front line, in urban slums, with WaterAid and others to address the growing water and sanitation issues. We are working in urban slums around the world. We have a deep understanding of the challenges and the blockages, we have relationships with government, we work closely with communities in all their diversity, we work closely with local civil society and we want to work with you to build the capacity of utilities and their staff, to find ways to ensure services are delivered to the poorest and most marginalised.

We all know that water is life, and access to water, sanitation and hygiene are key to lifting people out of poverty.

In conclusion, by focusing on these three key areas of fostering leadership and political will, of working alongside utilities across the region and partnering to ensure that no one is left behind in urban slums, the Australian water industry will indeed continue its leadership role and contributions to this worldwide movement to improve life for all both locally and globally through access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene.”

Click here to view the Water Services Association of Australia paper, Global Goals for Local Communities: Urban water advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals.