This year’s UN water conference – the first in almost 50 years – did not result in a binding agreement. But the event, held in March in New York, sounded the alarm that water crises are getting worse and need our urgent attention.
Last year, some 2.2 billion people still did not have access to safe drinking water, according to a July report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF, the United Nations agency for childhood (see go.nature.com/3djb6tb). And some 653 million people did not have handwashing facilities at home.
Solving these problems is one of the targets of the sixth of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): “ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” by 2030. This editorial is part of NatureThe series examines each of the SDGs, which takes place in 2015, halfway through. We focus on questions and gaps that researchers can help fill.
Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals
When the SDGs were launched, there was optimism that the water goal could be achieved, and progress was made on some of its goals. Since 2000, 2 billion more people have gained access to clean water, and by 2020, approximately 56% of all households will have had their wastewater treated.
But overall, progress has not been fast enough, and as early as 2018, UN-Water, which coordinates the UN’s work on water and sanitation, warned that the world was not Wasn’t on the right track. Countries are not prioritizing this goal, either nationally or globally. According to the UN’s own estimates, to achieve SDG 6 the world will need to spend $260 billion a year by 2030, mainly in Asia and Africa, where the number of people without clean water is the highest. higher. International development assistance for water projects currently stands at around $9 billion per year and has been declining since 2017. In the absence of a policy strategy, it becomes difficult to demonstrate research or large-scale pilot projects. Yet this is what must happen if drinking water and sanitation are to become universal.
Generations of water-stressed communities have applied the results of knowledge and innovation to obtain water. But attempts to systematically share techniques that are known for working locallysuch as condensing water from clouds with giant nets, used in Chile and Peru, or storing snow for use during dry periods, as is practiced in parts of China.
The same goes for newer technologies. For example, membrane distillation is a method of desalinating water at low temperatures. It’s greener than existing methods because it uses less electricity, as chemical engineer Mohammed Rasool Qtaishat of the University of Jordan and his colleagues reported last year.1. However, it is struggling to move beyond the research and piloting phases and to be deployed on a larger scale. In a study2 published in March, Patricia Gorgojo, a chemical engineer at the University of Zaragoza, Spain, and colleagues recommend improving communication between those undertaking small-scale studies and those implementing larger demonstration projects scale, as the two often have different needs.
Global action for water: less rhetoric and more science
When it comes to broad research, the findings can be far-reaching, as medical anthropologist Sera Young and her team at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, show.3,4. They developed inclusive measures of the experience of water stress, called Water Insecurity Experiences Scales (WISE).
The SDG 6 target on sanitation calls for “particular attention to the needs of women and girls”. But the UN’s annual progress reports do not include data on this subject. The main reason appears to be that surveys are usually conducted at the household level – rather than the individual level – and therefore cannot be disaggregated by sex or gender. This is where WISE scales are effective: they can collect data at the household or individual level. They examine how water insecurity affects daily activities, health and well-being, from cooking, hand washing and laundry to personal hygiene and feelings of anger and anxiety. Respondents are identified by age, gender and income, among other characteristics.
The WISE scales are used by around 100 national, intergovernmental, research and civil society organizations around the world. Their use as a policy tool was demonstrated last year in Australia, where officially the level of water insecurity is relatively low, with only 1% of the population affected. But some communities do not recognize this image. In 2022, Yuwaya Ngarra-li, a partnership between the Dharriwaa Elders Group – an Aboriginal cultural organization in the rural town of Walgett – and the University of New South Wales in Sydney applied the WISE methodology to a survey of 251 people and found that about 44% of respondents reported water insecurity and 46% reported food insecurity (see go.nature.com/3dciovf). Communities and Walgett Shire Council are exploring how to make improvements.
As the world moves closer to the 2030 SDG deadline, other ideas will undoubtedly emerge with promising potential. But SDG 6 will not be achieved without careful attention to scale. This is a big missing piece of the water and sanitation puzzle. Ultimately, it’s the implementation that counts.