Research & Innovation 2015-16 - Page 86

Thought leader
Will SDG 6 improve access to water
and sanitation?
Access to water and sanitation was one of the targets under Millennium
Development Goal (MDG) 7, on environmental sustainability. By the end of
2015 we had seen mixed results. The target of halving the proportion of
people without access to improved sources of water was met five years ahead
of schedule, but – according to the United Nations (UN) – 2.4 billion people
globally still lack access to basic sanitation. Loretta Feris argues that SDG6
has the potential not only to increase the number of people who have access,
but to make it more equitable.
During the period of the MDGs, a UN General Assembly
resolution recognised human rights to water and
sanitation; which was followed by an affirmation by the
Human Rights Council (HRC) that the rights to water
and sanitation derive from the right to life and the right
to human dignity, as well as “from the right to
an adequate standard of living and … the
right to the highest attainable standard
of physical and mental health.” This
creates clear and substantive
obligations on states to respect and
promote the right to sanitation.
Having made these strides, the
question arises whether the SDG
on water and sanitation, SDG 6, will
advance the gains made so far.
We have seen some significant
differences between the MDGs and
SDG 6 that provide grounds for optimism.
Under the MDGs, the water and sanitation
target was framed rather simplistically: to “halve,
by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable
access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”. The
target did not require an assessment of which sectors of
a population would gain access. Furthermore, the MDGs
focused mainly on poverty and health: environmental
concerns were underemphasised.
It is clear that issues of universality, equality,
vulnerability and the environment have been taken
into account in the targets set under SDG 6, and the
adoption of a human right influenced its framing.
Specific targets include the need to achieve universal,
equitable access to safe and affordable drinking
water; and to provide access to adequate, equitable
sanitation and hygiene, with special attention to those
in vulnerable situations. The inclusion of the need to
strengthen the participation of local communities will
strengthen targets related to universal access. It also
includes targets related to integrated water-resource
management, water quality, the protection and
restoration of water-related ecosystems, and increased
water-use efficiency to address availability of water – in
particular, water scarcity.
More than a numbers game
What are the implications of this
framing? It requires that states
and non-state actors engage
with both the human-rights
and environmental dimensions
of SDG 6. Meeting the target
becomes more than a numbers
game; and states must consider
not only how many, but who will
gain access to water and sanitation.
It also requires that states ensure the
protection of water, and of all aquatic ecosystems
that are used in sanitation or act as receptors
for sewage systems; incentivise the quest for
alternatives to waterborne sanitation; and stimulate
much-needed research on the suitability of more
sustainable sanitation solutions.
Finally, the SDGs shift the responsibility from
developing countries to all states; it is a global
responsibility that needs to be taken up by both state
and non-state actors. Funding for meeting SDG 6
will have to come not only from states, but also from
development banks, national development agencies,
donor funding and the private sector.
Loretta Feris is a professor of law and director of
the Institute of Marine and Environment Law.
Image by Pixabay.


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