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The reality check of the Sustainable Development Goal 6 after the hit of COVID-19

We’ve all heard about the grand plan for a better world; AKA UN SDGs. These goals have aimed for the world to come together and move forward by leaving no one behind. The aspiration is novel. However, the recent hit of COVID-19 has uncovered the flaws in our systems and the magnitude of works required.

There are eight indicators under the goal number six that aims to “Ensure availability and sustainability management of water and sanitation for all”. The understanding of the current water situation would be the foundation before implementing any solution in solving the water problem.

The Goal

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 the 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 programs, 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

The Reality Check

Water covers about 71 per cent of the surface of the earth. However, only 2.5 per cent of the water is fit for drinking, and only around 0.5% of drinkable waters are accessible. While 68.9 per cent is locked and 30.8 per cent is underground.

The gap between the amount of water supply and demand has been one of the most severe problems many countries are facing. Under the situation of continuing economic and population growth, McKinsey has forecasted that by 2030 water supplies will satisfy only 60 per cent of global demand. However, the supply forecast would drop to below 50 per cent in countries that are already facing water stress; such as China, India, and South Africa. In Asia, a study from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis' (IIASA) Water Program has claimed that water scarcity in the region will increase to 86 per cent from 74 per cent. In consequentially by 2050, 40 per cent of the continent's population will face severe water scarcity.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the world is chanting "Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. However, each time we wash our hands, we may waste about a quarter of a gallon (0.2 - 0.3 gallons on average). Continuing this practice for a year, we could waste around 20 bathtubs a year, while scrubbing. Solutions to close the gap by increasing supply through several innovations; desalination, drilling deep wells, or transporting surface water—have proven to be either or both difficult and expensive than controlling the amount of water consumption.

Access to water is still, a privilege.

Professor Asit Biswas, water expert and president of the Third World Center for Water Management, says: "lack of money, scarcity and so on -- they're all excuses. The problem everywhere is bad management."He argued that the amount of freshwater in the region is enough to meet the current and even future consumption demands. The inefficiency, the inequality, and the lack of coordination in water management and distribution were the main reasons for the water scarcity in Asia. Data from ASEAN statistical leaflet 2019, has shown that around 100 million people in ASEAN; out of the total ASAN population of 649 million, are living without access to safe water.

Table 1: Key socio-demography indicators

Source: ASEAN Statistical Leaflet 2019

Considering the above statistic, ASEAN is doing well at improving access to drinking water, compared to South Asia or Sub-Sahara. To achieve 100 per cent, one can learn from a success implication, such as the "Closed Loop" approach in Singapore. The system collects water from the rain and sends it to the purification cycle, then flows through consumption pipeline and circulates back for treatment after being used.

Knowing the risk, we cannot avoid

Climate matter, current landscape, land use, stakeholder conflict, and government policy are factors that influence the availability, quality, and accessibility of the water we use. There are 3 terms that are related to water challenges; “water scarcity”, “water stress”, and “water risk”. According to the discussion between representatives from the CEO Water Mandate, Alliance for Water Stewardship, CDP, Ceres, The Nature Conservancy, Pacific Institute, Water Footprint Network, World Resources Institute, and WWF; has identified the definition and the relationship between these terms in below illustration.

Water Scarcity

"Water scarcity" means the lack of fresh water supply. "Scarcity" happens when the volume of water resource does not match the amount of water required. Under this definition, the area of very little water but zero habitats does not fit the term "scarce". Instead, it would consider being "dry". Water scarcity reflects only the physical abundance of freshwater, not the quality.

Water Stress

"Water stress" means the lack of ability to meet human and ecological demand for freshwater. The term covers a more inclusive and expansive context, as it considers physical aspects of availability, quality, and accessibility of water resources. The level of water stress generally depends on the coverage of infrastructure and affordable pricing of water supply. Although natural disaster, such as flooding or drought may impact water thresholds, they are not accountable for water stress of the freshwater ecosystem in the area.

Water Risk

"Water risk" means an experience of water-related challenge in any kind (for example, water scarcity, water stress, flooding, drought, infrastructure insufficiency). Water-related challenges create a different degree of risks, felt variously by different sectors and organizations. The severity of the impact depends on the intensity of the problem and the vulnerability of stakeholders.

Way Forward

Between 2000 and 2015, the number of people without access to safe drinking waterfall from 17.8% to 6.3%. Despite the improvement, water contamination has remained one of the most pressing issues in ensuring water and sanitation for all. However, the discussion to date has revealed the understanding of disparity between participating organizations. For future analysis, brainstorming questions should encourage a better understanding of terminology interpretation, appropriate selection of communicating tools, and critical factors to achieve the partnership of water stewardship, as following examples:

  • What is your definition of "water security", "water scarcity", "water stress", and "water risk" in your area and what is your view of the relationship between those three terms?

  • How do environmental problems impact the intensity of "water scarcity" and "water stress" in your operating area?

  • What is the approach of each location-specific look like, in case the generalized approach is not applicable?

  • What is the "economic efficiency" model presented in the project?

  • Is access to water in your operating area a privilege or a human right? How does social equality fit with the notion of allocation and accessibility in your area?

  • And what should we STOP – START – ACCELERATE


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