Imperial faculty are conducting critical research on water management to enable access to clean water and sanitation in line with SDG 6.
Beyond a basic necessity, access to clean drinking water is a fundamental human right. Yet, billions of people around the world do not have access to safe, potable water, and even fewer have access to safe and sustainable sanitation such as toilets and wastewater management.
In 2015, the United Nations (UN) established Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Clean Water and Sanitation to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” Although this goal was designed to be met by 2030, the UN has noted that at the current rate of action, the target is not on track to be achieved.
Climate change has contributed to some of the worst drought conditions in water stressed regions, limiting access to water. In addition, poorly managed sanitation, hygiene, and pollutants have rendered countless water sources unhealthy to consume.
World Water Day, held annually on the 22nd of March, calls attention to the dire need to accelerate action that promotes sustainable water management, improves water quality, and enhances water stewardship globally. To achieve SDG 6, collaborative, cross-sectoral collective action must be rapidly scaled.
Professor Michael Templeton, the Oxfam and Water For People / Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair in Global Sanitation Technology and the Co-Chair of Imperial’s Global Development Hub, said: “Access to safe and sustainable water and sanitation is really at the heart of international development and impacts on pretty much all of the other SDGs.
"For example, having access to safe drinking water and clean toilets directly contributes to SDG 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing). And improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene conditions in schools contributes to a better learning environment for kids (SDG 4 Quality Education), especially for girls when they reach the age of menstruation (SDG 5 Gender Equality).
"It is important to recognize that achieving universal access to safe and sustainable water and sanitation is a truly inter-disciplinary challenge, requiring innovative, evidence-based, locally appropriate solutions that span water engineering, public health, governance, behavioural/social sciences, and business thinking.”
Leading up to World Water Day, two Imperial faculty members shared their insights on the water-society nexus and how a critical and responsible approach to water management must be taken to get back on track to achieve SDG 6.
Looking at water management in context
To understand the crisis around water access and water quality, it is also important to understand the ways in which people interact with water.
Dr Ana Mijic, Faculty of Engineering, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Reader in Water Systems Integration, said: “We need to understand the natural water cycle, but we also want to understand how people are changing that water cycle.”
Through the processes of development, civilisations and societies have altered their surrounding environments to suit growing populations, infrastructural advancements, and land use changes that come from increased levels of urbanisation. Varying levels and methods of development across countries, coupled with location-specific climatic conditions that impact water availability, mean there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to water use, access, and management. It is important to take a contextually driven approach to water and sustainable development, which considers local environmental and socio-economic conditions.
Dr. Mijic discussed her recent experience as a Satish Dhawan Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute for Science in Bangalore. She explained how the climatic conditions in India, with heavy monsoon rains falling from June to October, and dry conditions through the remainder of the year, play an integral role in the way India manages its water.
To manage its fluctuating water availability, India’s infrastructure is structured around decentralised sources and treatment systems. The complex governance of the infrastructure challenges the ability to manage and control wastewater discharge and other pollutants. This impacts human health when consumed and also impacts aquatic life and watershed biodiversity. However, Dr. Mijic explained that Bangalore is developing wastewater recycling schemes to recycle its wastewater through catchment systems to be used for agricultural purposes.
Dr. Mijic said: “The technology and infrastructure solutions exist.” What is required is a mobilisation of funding for those solutions, and political support to invest in countries where access to water is challenged.
Collective action and water stewardship
Claire Hunt, Faculty of Natural Sciences, Centre for Environmental Policy, agreed that the water conversation is nuanced and must be context and location specific. She promotes a water footprint that incorporates environmental and water stress factors, which she said extends “the concept of water used to include not just the amount of water, but the impact that water will have.”
In some geographic locations, managing water use is more pertinent than in others, where water may be plentiful. However, water management also involves making sure drinking water sources are kept clean and treated for pollutants, whether biological wastewater contaminants, plastics, or hazardous chemicals discharged from industrial facilities.
Low- and middle-income countries are disproportionately impacted by water stress and poor water quality because they do not necessarily have the technology or infrastructure to conserve, treat, and manage their water with interventions that are more readily accessible in higher income countries.
Along with the context-driven solutions, Claire Hunt advocated for taking a whole systems approach to water. Legislation to manage water use should work in tandem with the promotion of voluntary measures. In addition, stakeholders, including governments, local communities, urban planners, scientists, and private sector actors, should be brought together to work towards SDG 6. Global collective action and context-specific interventions are necessary to accelerate access to clean water and sanitation.
Change has only been happening incrementally. Critical, collective, and rapid changes are vital to drive a transformative shift in global water stewardship.
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