Pushing Water Uphill in Asia
SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation for all
A United Nations (UN) goal of providing clean water and sanitation for all by 2030 is proving to be challenging in Asia. What does this mean for the region and what is being done to ensure this most basic of human rights?
The World Health Organization (WHO) offered some simple advice as Covid-19 began to spread: Wash your hands. Hand hygiene was one of the most effective ways to limit the spread of pathogens and prevent infections, it said, including the new virus.
Being able to wash hands is taken for granted by many. For others, it’s not so easy. The United Nations estimates that two in five healthcare facilities globally lack clean water and soap. Nearly two billion people only have access to water that is fecally contaminated and almost a billion more lack access to basic sanitation such as toilets.i
Clean water for all
Access to clean water and sanitation is widely seen as a basic human right. It has the power to alleviate poverty and hunger, improve health, reduce inequality of wealth and gender and improve standards of education. It offers people greater dignity in their daily lives: the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that some 673 million people still practice open defecation. i
On a broad economic level, the World Bank estimates that poor sanitation resulted in a loss of about US$223 billion of global GDP in 2015. Asia and the Pacific suffered the most, with losses of about 1.1 per cent of GDP overall, and some nations losing more than 5 per cent.
While poor sanitation has significant negative impacts, it also provides an economic opportunity: the WHO estimates that for every dollar invested in water and sanitation, the return is four dollars through saved medical costs and increased productivity. ii
Most goals rely on SDG6
While the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) goals are measured individually, none of them can be achieved in isolation and almost all rely in some part on the delivery of SDG 6: “Ensuring sustainable access to clean water and sanitation for all.”
SDGs 1 to 3 (no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being) are clearly dependent on clean water and sanitation. There are less obvious links with Goals 4 and 5 (quality education and gender equality), but it is impossible to build decent schools without good sanitation and – in many of the world’s poorest nations – it is women who take responsibility for collecting and providing water for the family, keeping them out of schools and further increasing gender inequalities. The goals associated with climate change, energy and the environment are also connected with progress towards SDG 6.
Bigger cities, bigger problems
A 2019 United Nations report on the SDGs presents a bleak picture for Asia. The region is failing to make progress on almost two-thirds of the SDG targets and none of the 17 goals look likely to be achieved.iii Of particular concern was a lack of progress in reducing inequality, protecting oceans and taking action on climate change. In many countries, especially in South Asia, lack of access to clean water and sanitation is contributing to targets being missed, with the situation stagnating or getting worse in developing nations.
Much of the problem in Asia stems from rapid and unplanned urbanisation. More than 60% of urban households live without piped water supply, with the problem being most acute in Manila, Jakarta, Dhaka and New Delhi.
Asia: green shoots
Overall, though. Asian countries have made good progress in improving access to safe drinking water and santitation over the past decade.
Only one per cent of the population now uses surface water for drinking purposes and around 92 per cent now have access to basic drinking water. Between 2000 and 2017, the SDG regions of Central and Southern Asia and Eastern and South-Eastern Asia increased the provision of basis santitation by 36 per cent and 24 per cent respectively.
There has also been a dramatic decline in open defecation in Asia since 2000, with more than half of the population of Cambodia, nearly half of the population of India and a third of the population of Nepal and Laos stopping this practice.iv
In spite of these encouraging indicators, progress towards SDG 6 remains uneven within the region. According to the United Nations, relatively wealthy North and North-East Asia has almost achieved the 2030 target already, with North and Central Asia not far behind, but populous South-East Asia and South and South-West Asia were behind schedule in 2019.v
Asia’s water challenge
- 369 million people without access to basic sanitation
- 165 million people lacking access to basic drinking water
- Around 30 per cent of the region’s population is already facing water scarcity
- Climate change and rising demand expected to increase water scarcity
- By the 2050s, Asia is expected to have greater demand for water than the rest of the world combined
UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Annual Results Report 2019
IIASA: 'Is Asia facing a coming water crisis?'
Delivering the promise
Recognising the challenges that remain, the United Nations recently launched a Global Acceleration Framework titled “Delivering the promise: Safe water and sanitation for all by 2030.”
The framework puts in place five “accelerators” designed to dramatically improve the international community’s support for SDG6. These include optimising the use of financial resources; improving the quality of data; improving capacity by increasing job creation in the water sector and the retention of a skilled workforce; developing and implementing new technologies; and improving governance through better cross-sector and international collaboration.
Various countries have proved that dramatic improvements in the provision water and sanitation can be achieved in just a few years, and that some solutions are inexpensive, effective and can be deployed quickly.
UNICEF has lauded government initiatives including China’s Toilet Revolution, Indonesia’s Sanitation Campaign, Myanmar’s Clean Villages initiatives and the Philippines’ Sanitation Master Plan for generating “huge traction in terms of drawing political attention for accelerating progress in sanitation and ending open defecation.” vi
New technology is helping, too. In Vietnam, dirty water from a canal in the Mekong River is treated at a plant using a chemical-free process developed by Akvotek, an Australian company. The energy-efficient system provides at least 400 homes and 2,000 people in the southern city of Ben Tre with safe drinking water today, and is expected to do so for many years to come. vii
Big companies are also looking to SDG goals for guidance in forming their sustainability strategies. Among many others, Dutch brewing company Heineken has made commitments to reduce its use of water. In Indonesia, it has established a cross-sector alliance with UN agencies and partnered with an NGO to replant trees and restore land that is critical to the water supply and flood resilience of 30 million people. viii
Delivering on SDG 6 will not be easy for Asia. But there is hope that, with the UN accelerator framework in place and the region’s governments, businesses and communities increasingly focused on sustainability, the chances of delivering clean water and sanitation for all are increasing.