Solving our complex water problems with holistic solutions

Solving our complex water problems with holistic solutions

World Water Day, on 22 March every year, is about focusing attention on the importance of water. The theme for World Water Day 2018 is ‘Nature for Water’ – exploring nature-based solutions to the water challenges we face in the 21st century. In this blog, Dr Wade Hadwen, Lecturer and Researcher at the Griffith University Australian Rivers Institute and Griffith Climate Change Response Program, and International WaterCentre reflects on achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6.

Water is the basis of all life on the planet. Despite this, we are in the midst of a growing global water crisis, with 2.1 billion people living without safe drinking water at home (UN Water). This has significant health and well-being implications, but also has important consequences for natural ecosystems, which themselves are imperilled by pollution, water extraction and impoundments and climate change (UN Water). The United Nations have declared that in the next seven years, climate change will further exacerbate water scarcity and imperil the lives of 1.8 billion people (UN Water).

With such incredible water challenges facing us, the time is right for us to adopt more holistic approaches to understanding water in order to achieve balance between human and environmental water needs. This means doing things differently, conceptualising the challenges in a different light, accepting change and embracing opportunities for sustainable practices.

The need for a change is particularly relevant right now as Cape Town, in South Africa, approaches Day Zero – the day where the city effectively runs out of water – Cape Town Day Zero. The question we need to ask is has our heavy reliance on a single source of water increased our exposure and vulnerability to extreme drought? And, following on from that, what can we do to build resilience in our water management systems?

The response to droughts in the developed world does already show signs of a switch towards recognising the need for more holistic thinking and a move towards utilisation of more than one source of water. In south-east Queensland, Australia, severe droughts over the past decade have driven significant investments in water use education as well as the infrastructure needed to join multiple sources of water to the piped water grid – SEQ Water. This has included desalination plants near the coast, recycled and wastewater treatment schemes and the expansion of the gridded network of pipes – such that water can be transferred between all major reservoirs in the region.

Ultimately, the key to water security lies not just in a piped network and treatment facilities, but through recognition of the various sources of water available and their inherent qualities like volume, recharge rates, water quality and accessibility. Multiple water sources hold the key to resilience in rural communities in many parts of the world, but as the climate changes and extreme droughts become the norm, they will likely be needed to support those of us living in developed cities as well.

Despite the magnitude of the challenge, there is some good news – the freshwater-focused SDG targets, referred to as SDG6, are a massive step in the right direction. Indeed, they represent a substantial change to the way that we approach our management, use and disposal of water and waste. If we take a look at the targets within SDG6 – UN SDG 6 – there are six with outcome focused objectives (6.1-6.6) and two with process and implementation objectives (6.a and 6.b), as follows:

6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all

6.2 By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations

6.3 By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally

6.4 By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity

6.5 By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate

6.6 By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes

6.a By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies

6.b Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management

Clearly, these are ambitious and wonderfully aspirational targets for us to work towards.

However, achieving all of these targets represents a problem and may require us to start thinking about trade-offs, because it is clear that at least in some parts of the world, especially those already experiencing water scarcity, it will be very difficult to achieve progress on 6.1 and 6.2 – providing access to safe and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene – without potentially eroding our chances of achieving 6.3, 6.5 and 6.6 – which focus on protecting and/or improving the condition of aquatic ecosystems and their water quality.

The key to achieving the water-based SDGs lies in the holistic approach embedded in objective 6.5, which highlights the need to adopt an integrated water resource management approach and consider the water system in a more all-encompassing and highly connected way. This systems thinking view means that we can no longer focus solely on end-of-pipe engineering solutions. Instead, we need to understand the water cycle and all of the systems in a catchment to ensure that the achievement of some parts of SDG6 does not compromise our chances of achieving other goals – including those beyond SDG6.

Integrated water resource management will also be important as we seek to address climate change (which is itself a SDG goal – SDG 13), because the connectedness of resource use and development goals will require a very holistic and integrated approach. We recently wrote about this in the context of sustainable development in the Pacific (Hadwen et al. 2015 – Journal of Water Sanitation and Hygiene for Development), but this really is something all countries are going to have consider, especially as the global water crisis deepens.

Ultimately, the development of the SDGs, especially those around water, gives us with a unique opportunity – to think and adopt holistic and environmentally relevant approaches to develop resilient and sustainable investments around water between now and 2030.

More information

Hadwen, W. L., Powell, P., MacDonald, M. C., Elliott, M., Chan, T., Gernjak, W. and Aalbersberg, W. G. L. (2015), Putting WASH in the water cycle: Climate change, water resources and the future of water, sanitation and hygiene challenges in Pacific Island Countries. Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development 5(2), 183-191.

Author: Dr Wade Hadwen (Lecturer and Researcher, Griffith University Australian Rivers Institute and Griffith Climate Change Response Program, and International WaterCentre Lecturer).

For further information or to request a copy of the above research paper please contact Dr Wade Hadwen,

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