In honor of the beginning of the UN's High Level Sanitation Days, a showcase of recent progress in clean water, here is a guest post on the importance of SDG 6 - Universal Access to Water and Sanitation - by our chapter president, Donovan Guttieres. Donovan will be speaking at the UN event tomorrow, November 19, representing our chapter.
This is year is one of transformative change. A few weeks ago, the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly made history by in ushering in a new era of sustainable development. The UN Sustainable Development Summit saw the 193 member states adopt, celebrate, and make commitments to the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Included in the agenda are 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a revitalized commitment that builds on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and promises to “leave no one behind” and to close the gap of local and global inequity by engaging everyone, everywhere. The SDGs are integrated and indivisible, balancing the 3 dimensions of sustainable development - economic, social, and environmental - and establishing a framework for development over the next 15 years.
Of all the goals, perhaps the most relevant to the work we do at EWB-BU is Goal 6: “Ensure access to water and sanitation for all.” Universal access to water and sanitation is a big endeavor, and its importance goes beyond just the numbers and its seemingly simple chemical composition. Water is an indispensable component of many complex systems, such as health, pollution prevention, food safety, sustainable energy, disaster risk reduction, urban development, and more. Recognizing the scarcities in water supply and sanitation is a call to galvanize multifaceted solutions and sustainable actions to achieving this fundamental right to sustenance.
As outlined in the 2015 MDGs report, while the proportion of the population without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation has been halved since 1990, water scarcity due to physical, economic, or institutional constraints still affects more than 40% of the world’s population, hindering socio-economic development. This makes it clear that successfully reaching SDG 6 will not be an easy gap to close, but rather requires coherence between science, technology, and industry at each level, from the global to the local, to ensure that universal access to quality water and sanitation is fulfilled.
At the global level, the United Nations Secretary General Advisory Board on Water & Sanitation (UNSGAB), formed in 2004, has spearheaded efforts to galvanize policy and action towards sustainable water supply and water resources. Their most recent initiatives have been advocating for SDG 6 and putting in place the Hashimoto Action Plan III, meant to identify challenges in achieving universal access to water and sanitation, solutions for ensuring resilient water systems, and monitoring plans for assessing impact. November 18-19, UN’s High-Level Water and Sanitation Days, will showcase a set of coordinated events including UNSGAB’s final meeting, a special thematic session on the links between water and disasters, and celebrations of the World Toilet Day. Other programs, such as UNICEF’s W.A.S.H initiatives, have been influential in pushing for children’s rights, supporting national programs ensuring safe water and basic sanitation services, and promoting improved hygiene.
However, long-term and resilient impact will only come as a result of programs at the local level. Locally-driven assessments and interventions are essential to adequately identify barriers to reaching SDG 6 and potential innovative solutions using available resources. Ownership of such initiatives must stay at the local level in order personalize and contextualize the right for water and sanitation. The acquisition, delivery, and management of sustainable water supply and sanitation systems must be informed by the local sociocultural, economic, and environmental contexts that make up communities in order to develop resilience within technical and financial capacities. Barriers to water and sanitation are a nexus of challenges within sustainable development and must be addressed concurrently by governments, communities, and individuals.
Within our chapter of Engineers Without Borders, we are collaborating with the community of Naluja, located in Zambia’s Southern Province, in order to support locally-driven water sustainability programs. As we develop a watershed program meant to close the gap to basic health needs, we are continuously reminded of the importance of the socio-cultural contexts of where we work and the need for fit-for-purpose and human-centered technologies that can be scaled in low-resource settings. Our partnership has been met with much enthusiasm, inspiring us to support our partners in Zambia in helping identify the “theory-of-change” and innovations they are eager to pursue. This mutual relationship has had an immense impact on how we approach our work as “societal engineers”, our shared responsibility to drive innovative change to close the gaps of inequity, and the beauty of interpersonal skills that come from such local partnerships.