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Ensuring Access to Water and Sanitation for All: What SDG 6 wants to achieve and why it matters

Many of us take water—the world’s most essential element—for granted.

Sadly, a quick look at how Cape Town is coping with an ever-intensifying water crisis is a stark reminder of how critical this resource is to our daily lives.

Water scarcity affects more than 40 per cent of the world, and that number continues to rise. In fact, a recent report from the UN warns that water shortages could affect 5 billion people by 2050.

Today, almost 2 billion people drink water contaminated by faeces, and even more people lack access to basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines.

Oceans and lakes across the planet are plagued by challenges such as algal blooms, invasive species and pollutants like mercury, selenium and microplastics.

With forces such as climate change, population growth, pollution and competition for resources intensifying, the need to develop solutions to ensure clean and accessible water has never been more urgent.

Water and Sanitation for All

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to address these issues, not only with a focus on water and sanitation in SDG 6 but through related targets in many other goals. SDG 6 encompasses targets that seek to address everything from water quality issues, pollution and the efficiency of water usage to how water is managed, and the role of all players from international governments to local communities.

Woman taking water out of a river in Ethiopia
A recent report from the United Nations warns that water shortages could affect 5 billion people by 2050.

The Millennium Development Goals—the precursor to the SDGs—addressed water and sanitation as a subset of the goal to “ensure environmental sustainability.” The critical importance of clean and accessible water for health, productivity and the environment is demonstrated by the fact that has an SDG goal dedicated solely to its promotion.

The SDGs are also a universal agenda, applying to all countries regardless of income or development status. This means that it is critical for countries like Canada—the country with the greatest access to fresh water in the world—and the United States to consider how they manage and govern their water resources.

Water scarcity affects more than 40 per cent of the world, and that number continues to rise. In fact, a recent report from the UN warns that water shortages could affect 5 billion people by 2050.

Furthermore, SDG 6 calls for both developing and developed countries to consider access to water for their citizens. Notably, Canada, with its vast reserves of fresh water, still maintains boil-water advisories for some 100 Indigenous communities.

For example, Target 6.B calls for countries to “support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management.” Projects like empowering citizen science and working with Indigenous communities  in northern Canada, give communities and individuals an opportunity to understand and protect their water supplies.

Similarly, Target 6.5 aims to “implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.” An example of this is IISD’s work in the Lake Winnipeg basin, which spans provincial, state and international boundaries. We are working to integrate the process of watershed management, while addressing environmental and socioeconomic concerns in the basin through innovative landscape management, policies and programs—throughout the Canadian prairies and northern US states.

Researcher on a boat throwing a net into a lake
Researchers at IISD Experimental Lakes Area have been researching the effect of major pollutants on freshwater systems for the last 50 years.

Positive progress

Achieving the SDGs' water-related goals and targets is within reach. Recent statistics from the United Nations show that over 90 per cent of people worldwide use improved drinking water sources. However, these sources were not always managed safely, and sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania still bear the brunt of that inequality.

Plans for the integrated management of water resources are under way in countries in every region (65 per cent of 130 countries in 2012). Even so, implementation varies across regions, with western Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa still at the earlier stages.

The High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development is the United Nations’ main platform on sustainable development, and regularly assesses and reports on the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals. It also encourages member states to do the same—known as “voluntary national reviews.” It next meets in July, where it will report on the status of several SDGs, including SDG 6.

Find more news and information on SDG6 at the SDG Knowledge Hub. Or learn more about IISD’s work to advance water policy and programming solutions.