A Daunting Well to Fill: Ensuring Clean Water and Sanitation Worldwide


Written by: Evan Collins, Yale College

This piece was published as part of the YMUN Pegasus Series

One of the most fundamental Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) found within the United Nations resolution for the year 2030 can be found in Goal #6: Clean Water and Sanitation.1Indispensable to all other SDGs, ensuring clean water and sanitation is so foundational that it is often overshadowed by seemingly more complex problems such as global warming and gender equality. A policy debate about climate change or feminism may seem more fruitful in tackling contemporary nuanced problems; and conversing about how to solve a clean water deficit, i.e. a seemingly less provocative, more antiquated problem, assumes a secondary priority. However, as stated clearly at the 2019 United Nations High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development Goals, the global community should place first priority on tackling the water crisis. Clean water is essential for achieving all other SDGs. Not only does Goal #6 underlie almost all other SDGs, ensuring clean water is a very daunting well to fill by itself. As a complex problem with even more complex solutions, the clean water crisis necessitates immediate action with a degree of international fervor appropriate for the preservation of the most basic human need.

By the Numbers: A Snapshot of the Water Crisis

            One in three people live without adequate sanitation. Every day more than 2 billion people are forced to drink contaminated water. Across the globe, the percentage of people utilizing safely managed water services is only 71%. And with no further improvements recorded since 2015, 785 million individuals are still without the most basic drinking services. Some progress has been made in the past two decades, however. Adequate sanitation reportedly increased from 28% to 43% between 2000 and 2015, with most significant improvements seen in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South-East Asia. Nevertheless, in 2017, 892 million people still practiced open defecation. More than one-third of all primary schools lacked basic drinking water and sanitation services in 2016.2Moreover, unclean water continues to cause unnecessary disease and death. For example, diarrhea is responsible for 4% of all deaths worldwide, with many instances arising as a consequence of contaminated water inducing cholera and dysentery.3

Efforts by the United Nations

            Presenting the “United Nations Water Policy Overview” at the High-Level Political Forum on July 12, 2019, Ingrid Timboe, a water and climate expert for the UN, stressed the central importance of water for the entirety of the sustainable 2030 agenda. “Climate-resilient water management practices are necessary to ensure water security”, she stated as a key message from the presentation.4She particularly emphasized the intersection of water and climate change, arguing that resolving one should also resolve the other. Timboe summarized the main suggestions offered by the comprehensive water report recently released by the UN. Some of these solutions included adopting water management strategies to ensure present decisions do not ensnare society in unsustainable development traps, invest in climate-proof water infrastructure such as aquifers and wetlands that provide climate mitigation (e.g. carbon sinks) and offer adaptation benefits (e.g. buffers from severe weather events, drought protection), and develop regional and basin-wide climate adaptation strategies to promote integration of water resources. As part of the efforts by the UN to expand public knowledge about this issue, the new UN-Water SDG 6 Data Portal will launch to the public in August 2019 to provide users with regional and national data on water quality and access.4

A Source for Cooperation not Competition

For millennia, water has served as a source of competition between civilizations, with shortages spurring massive conflicts and inequities. Now, in 2019, the global community must come together, recognizing that water needs to be a source of transregional cooperation. For all the reasons heretofore described, countries with greater financial liberties should allocate more funding towards expanding water resources in developing countries. Not only would such foreign aid improve domestic health in these countries, it would also catalyze a degree of economic prosperity to benefit all nations. Furthermore, as Monika Weber-Fahr, CEO of the Global Water Partnership, stated, “the poor pay more for clean water than the rich, so we might as well make everyone pay the same.”4This recognition of the responsibility of more developed states to support improvements in the water infrastructure of developing states is quite essential for all ambitious goals set for the international community. 

The UN itself publishes that, even with current progress, attaining universal access to basic sanitation services would require doubling the present rate of progress. Much like the other SDGs, the effort to ensure clean water highlights the general need for enhanced globalism, i.e., an increasing recognition that a peaceful international union is necessary for the resolution of most objectives spelled out in the Sustainable Development Goals. Although national pride and nuanced cultural identities should absolutely be cherished, it is of the utmost importance that sociocultural traditions and isolationist policies do not serve as barriers to international peace and cooperation afforded to all peoples. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are meant to transcend sociocultural biases, not to supersede them, through working in unison with regional cultures, shaping a world still defined by diversity but yet not marred by inequities and pollution, i.e. unfortunate products of society.

With such a resolute understanding of globalism held and accompanying international projects executed immediately, water could finally become a source of cooperation. But until that point in time, the international community must contend with this water crisis. 

Works Cited

  1. “Sustainable Development Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform, United Nations, 2019. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg6
  2. Secretary General of the United Nations. Special edition: progress towards the Sustainable Developmental Goals. New York City: United Nations Economic and Social Council, 26 July 2018 – 24 July 2019; 2019 session.
  3. “Water Sanitation Hygiene: Water-related Diseases.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 2019. https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/diseases-risks/diseases/diarrhoea/en/
  4. Timboe, Ingrid. “United Nations Water Policy Overview.” United Nations High-Level Political Forum, 12 July 2019, United Nations Headquarters, New York, NY. Conference Presentation and Corresponding Audience Q&A.