Water Woes: The Institutional Challenges in Achieving SDG 6

Background: Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 envisions a future where everyone has access to clean water and sanitation. Yet, as 2030 looms closer, the complexity of achieving this target becomes apparent, with issues far surpassing basic water infrastructure and utility challenges. The underlying problems lie in broader spheres such as governance, policymaking, and financing.

Main body: The global landscape of water management is marked by complexities that transcend the operational troubles of water utilities. Financial sustainability is a monumental task. And while it is true that water utilities struggle with revenue generation, the broader picture reveals systemic challenges. The true cost of water provision often extends to ecosystem services such as watershed protection. Often, these services are not internalized in the revenue models of utilities but are typically subsidized by governments or simply not considered. Balancing affordability for users with cost recovery for service providers, however, is not just an arithmetic exercise. It is also a question of equitable policies. Non-revenue water (NRW), resulting from physical losses such as leaks, theft, and inaccurate [or lack of] metering, exacerbates existing financial strain. Annual NRW losses are estimated at an astonishing 126 billion cubic meters, costing roughly USD 39 billion. But at the most fundamental level of achieving SDG 6 is misgovernance. Effective water governance demands consistent policies, coherent collaboration among diverse stakeholders, and comprehensive strategies that cater to specific regional contexts. Current models often suffer from fragmented policies, inadequate public-private partnerships, and weak engagement mechanisms. A glaring gap exists between academic advancements in water management and their practical implementation in policymaking. Moreover, international cooperation, while vital, reveals an unequal landscape in knowledge exchange. Knowledge transfer is often skewed, favoring dominant nations while sidelining voices from the Global South. This emphasizes the need for an inclusive, equitable, and context-specific global cooperation model.

Conclusion: The road to realizing SDG 6 is multifaceted, and while on-the-ground solutions are essential, the real success lies in addressing the foundational challenges. This requires innovative financial solutions, reimagining water governance structures, and ensuring all voices, especially from the Global South, are heard and integrated into global policies. As 2030 nears, it is the synergy of governance, finance, and technology that will ultimately make clean water and sanitation a reality for all.

By Jaivime Evaristo, Yusuf Jameel, Cecilia Tortajada, Raymond Yu Wang, James Horne, Howard Neukrug, Carlos Primo David, Angela Maria Fasnacht, Alan D. Ziegler and Asit Biswas, 2023. Article published in Sustainable Earth Reviews, Volume 6, Number 13, pages 1-9. DOI: 10.1186/s42055-023-00067-2

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