16 Experts Offer their Ideas to Solve the Threatening UN SDG 6 Crisis

It’s the least well-hidden secret in the World: progress towards achieving the UN SDG 6 is slow, to use an understatement.

Does that mean, the World will fail to provide Water and Sanitation for all? Let’s be crystal clear: as of now, yes.

What can we do about it? How can we speed up the adoption of this crucial sustainable development goal? Let’s review ⬇️

Infographic: Achieving the UN SDG 6


Achieving the UN SDG 6 is – literally – a Vital Challenge

The Water Sector needs to aligns itself to fight Water Scarcity and provide Water for All.

Is that a complex topic? Well, not for Mina Guli:

Everybody in Water will tell you how complicated it is. We need to make water simple. It is simple! If we don’t have it, we die.

Mina Guli – CEO & Founder of THIRST

And that is a straightforward statement:

According to UNICEF, each day, nearly 1000 children die due to preventable water and sanitation weighted DRL diseases. It is shocking statistics and it makes access to clean water and sanitation. One of the most urgent, sustainable development goals.

Hasmik Barseghyan

What are the consequences of failing?

I could be enforcing Hasmik Barseghyan’s statistic by explaining how 1 million people die from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related diseases every year. How every 2 minutes a child dies from a water-related disease. Or how a child under 5 is 20 times more likely to die from a waterborne illness than from war-related violence.

But as Mina Guli rightfully corrects:

We need to bring these numbers to life, and we need to help people to understand that these aren’t just numbers on a page. They’re real people’s lives in places all over the World.

Mina Guli

The problem is that for many – me included, honestly – this sometimes sounds like an abstract story.

What? No Water? Come on, are you serious?

Access to Water and Sanitation should not be taken for granted

I talked to my parents and my parents are actually second world war refugee children. So they know exactly how it is to carry the water home. It’s just one generation away that I live in pure luxury and health and without any problems at all! And they experienced the absolute opposite.

Ulrike Kelm

In fact, as Ulrike Kelm just reminded us, our Water Safety is much more fragile than we think. It swiftly changes with conflicts and wars, not talking of climate change.

And as Hasmik Barseghyan explains, your gender plays a role too:

Men and women are impacted differently by climate change and climate change places a greater burden on women because of the social culture, roles, and responsibilities that women have. Figures indicate that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. So we see again that women are more vulnerable.

Hasmik Barseghyan

Climate Change won’t give us a rest

We alluded to the discussion about days you’re in Cape Town, but you know, it’s going to be day zero for many countries.

Denise Mall – Managing Director of ENSO EARTH

In Cape Town, Day Zero referred to the point where Municipal Water Supply would have to be shut down because of the Water Shortage. Since the Cape Town event in 2017, similar challenges arose in other places, like Chennai in 2019.

And the reason why it hasn’t yet impacted more places around the World lies in the fact that we’re heavily withdrawing the savings we had in the bank, aka we’re overusing groundwater, which doesn’t renew that fast. Hence, as Graham Pearce identifies:

The amount of groundwater that contributes to the total Water available to humanity, that’s going to decline. It must decline. And it can’t be basically replaced by surface water because we are, in many cases, abstracting the surface water to the maximum possible that we can without destroying rivers and other ecosystems.

So we have no choice, but to develop wastewater reuse, desalination or a combination of both.

Graeme Pearce

We lack potable Water, not Water

In our deep dive on Water Reuse, we’ve specifically covered how this is supposed to support 9% of our Water Needs by 2030, while desalination contributes to a further 2%. And it is true that, as Navkaran Singh Bagga notes:

The World in general, can’t complain about a lack of Water because we literally have a water body or a water source close by. The challenge that comes is how accessible is Potable Water?

Navkaran Singh Bagga

But Alice Schmidt is convinced that relying solely upon a technological race to cover our future water needs might be short-sighted.

I think also not falling victim to this thinking that technology is going to save us. Technology’s a huge and important part of the puzzle and always has been right, but not every technology is good, just because it’s a technology.


Indeed, there’s a bigger picture at play.

We’re reaching Earth’s boundaries

As Denise Mall and Alice Schmidt again remind us:

We have pushed all the natural boundaries to the point of breaking. I don’t think we intentionally set out to do that. I think we did it as ignorance. You know, we thought we were clever, but we were not.

Denise Mall

There’s very interesting research that tells us that, for the longest time, until quite recently, it actually served as humans quite well to abuse nature. You can think of that as services that the planet has been providing to us humans for free, we are now much healthier, wealthier and in a much better position than our ancestors were in many, many ways. But we’re now starting to damage ourselves.

People are worried about what it costs to invest in sustainability, but it’s totally the wrong argument. Yes, you should calculate those costs, but they’re much lower than the cost of unsustainability.

Alice Schmidt

We’re used in the Water Industry to see any new treatment or effort to clean-up as a new cost. Because indeed, nothing’s for free, so extending a network, building a treatment plant or surveying water quality will have a cost.

The new lens Alice’s remark brings is to reverse the approach. What’s the cost of doing nothing? What’s the impact of inaction?

It’s time to become Planet-Centric

Henrik Hagemann and Marc Barra say nothing else:

In the past, we’ve had a tendency to take a very human-centric approach to treatment. So as long as the humans were fine, we said “job’s done!” Now we’re recognizing, oh, there was actually a price tag attached to biodiversity loss.

Henrik Hagemann – CEO & Founder of Puraffinity

Other ecological crisis will come in the next months and years. That’s just the beginning of climate change and of biodiversity decline. If we always produce the same pattern saying: “first, the economy and enterprises and business, and then after nature,” there will be a point where there will be no more economy because it depends on nature.

Marc Barra

This is also what Claudia Winkler and Alice Schmidt describe in their “Sustainability Puzzle” book as Mickey Mouse thinking.

The “triple bottom” concept is fading out

Yes, everybody agrees that Sustainable Development exists and relies on a triple bottom.

But that triple bottom today is heavily unbalanced. The economy is Mickey’s head, while Environment and Societal aspects only are its ears.

This is why John Elkington, the creator of the Triple Bottom himself, recalled his concept. If everyone uses it as an excuse to keep doing what they’ve always done, he doesn’t want to support it.

What shall we do instead?

Solve Societal and Environmental issues

Well follow Michael Stanley Gallisdorfer’s wisdom:

The basic idea is that we’re not solving water problems just for making money. We’re solving them for social reasons and for environmental reasons. And we can prove that over time!

Michael Stanley Gallisdorfer

So, what did we see so far? Well, clearly, there’s a problem. Too many people don’t have access to safe water sources, and the challenge will not solve itself alone.

Why don’t we act more on achieving the UN SDG 6?

So what are we doing? Well…

It’s actually shocking how disconnected people are and how apathetic people are at fixing or helping to fix the problem.

Denise Mall

So according to Denise Mall, we don’t much, and it is an understatement. For Mina Guli it is even worse:

For a topic like Water we’ve failed for years because we’ve fought against one another, or we’ve been lobbying one another to do things. And the reality is that we’ll only succeed. If we start to unite and work in the same direction.

Mina Guli

Indeed, the little we’re doing kind of contradicts itself.

I don’t think we intentionally set out to make a mess. We just happened to make a mess! Now that we know we’ve made a mess, can we actually ignore it? Or don’t we have an obligation to fix it?

Denise Mall

I’d say we do. But I’m just one person.

Getting the World’s attention on achieving the UN SDG 6

The problem is that on the broader scale of things, that mess doesn’t get the attention it deserves, as David Lloyd Owen confirms:

Every government at the moment has to make hard decisions. And Water is always going to be down on the agenda politically.

David Lloyd Owen – Author of Global Water Funding

Well, wait a second. I thought things were clear! Indeed, in September 2015, 193 countries adopted the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

These 17 goals were supposed to pave a sustainable road towards 2030.

For Water, SDG6 is very clear: we will ensure availability and sustainable management of Water and Sanitation for All by 2030.

A challenge when you consider that in 2020, 2 billion people lacked safely managed drinking water, 3.6 billion people lacked safely managed sanitation, and 2.3 billion people lacked basic hygiene.

But what’s a challenge when 193 countries unite to overcome it?

You see it coming. Don’t you?

We’re incredibly slow to achieve the UN SDG 6

Progress towards SDG 6 is running at a quarter of the speed level required.

David Lloyd Owen

David Lloyd Owen further breaks down how much we’re currently set to miss the Goal in his “Global Water Funding” book.

Regarding safe and affordable drinking water for all, 17% of the 193 countries will meet the Goal by 2030. Another 72% will partially meet the Goal. But 11% will be in a worse situation in 2030 than they were in 2015.

And for sanitation and hygiene? Well, it’s even worse. Only 11% of the countries are set to meet the Goal by 2030. 72% again will partially meet the Goal, and 17% will be in a worse situation by 2030.

Let me repeat that.

More countries will be in a worse situation regarding sanitation and hygiene in 2030 than will reach the Goal.

How can we accelerate action towards UN SDG 6?

Hence Mina Guli’s urge:

Could we actually accelerate action because here’s the thing about water. We don’t have 20 years, 30 years or 40 years to solve this problem.

Mina Guli

The problem is, that we’re simply not walking the sustainable talk. To achieve SDG6 by 2030, the World needs to spend an additional 43 billion dollars per year on drinking water and 70 billion dollars per year on sanitation.

What are we really investing in? Well, 16 billion dollars for both. 14% of what would be needed.

Current level of investment in achieving the UN SDG 6

Two approaches towards achieving the sustainable development goal

When looking at that, David Lloyd Owen and Mina Guli have diverging opinions:

I think the reasonable target for SDG six by 2030 would be that we have the capacity to start working on delivering it. In the latest monitoring report, which came out a couple of weeks ago, a large number of countries still don’t even have an accepted definition of what safe Water is, let alone a program to install it.

David Lloyd Owen

Problems in meeting targets need to be overcome because there is no choice, but to succeed in delivering on the target. SDG six failure is not an option.

Mina Guli

For David, let’s be realistic and do our best to align ourselves by 2030 to meet the goal by 2050. For Mina, it is simply not acceptable to fail the Goal.

What do you think? I’d be curious; come tell me in on Linkedin!

What’s the Path Forward?

But either way, one thing’s for sure: you eat an elephant piece by piece, as Lea I’m Obersteg recalls:

If you say we want to change the whole world, we’ll be sitting here and drafting a plan for the next 40 years and don’t do anything.

Lea Im Obersteg

So what’s our short goal, our short incentive for action, that can start things moving? Mina Guli believes there’s a potential milestone in 2023.

I think we’re at a really unique moment in time, which is that we have an opportunity to move from Water is a major problem to saying, how can we be part of the solution. And that unique moment of opportunity is in 2023, when the United Nations hosts their big conference on Water – the first in almost 50 years.

And we have an opportunity at that time, to say enough talk, now act. The only way that that will happen is if we spend the next 18 months moving together in a unified way to deliver on these three solutions. And to say by the time we hit the steps of that United nations, there must be no option, but to take meaningful, serious, bold action forward on Water.

Mina Guli

It could be transformative for the Water Sector

Aaron Tartakovsky believes we could leverage it to transform our approach towards the way we design and think about our Water Management.

If we look at 70% of the World’s population living in cities by 2050, we can either build back the exact same way. Or we have a moment right now in history where we can kind of rethink and re-engineer how we’re designing our cities when it comes to water and wastewater.

Aaron Tartakovsky

It might also be an opportunity to zoom out before we zoom in, a concept that’s key for Claudia Winkler:

We need to look at things from various perspectives. If we all stay in our function, our silos of business people in their business function, technical people in their function. Water people in the Waterfield. Energy people in the energy field… We will not have chance to look at the holistic picture and we need to get together and see these things.

Claudia Winkler

And once we zoom in again, what do we do?

A 3-Step Action Plan towards achieving SDG 6

Well, for Mina Guli it’s very straightforward:

I think we need to do three things. I think we need to mobilize a call for action worldwide. Second, we need to put Water onto the global agenda. And then third, we need to chart a clear path forward for action.

Mina Guli

Something is needed to succeed with this plan though:

Getting everyone’s buy-in

Paul O’Callaghan is proposing an interesting synthesis to that extent, and Hasmik Barseghyan agrees.

Things get regulated when people care about them. Policies that are popular are much, much easier for politicians to push through. The mayor is unlikely to do something that is going to be unpopular with people. So getting people to care about Water, getting people to value Water is really the start.

And how do you do that with Water? People need to understand that there is value here. There’s value for everybody there’s value for our ecosystems or cities, ourselves in terms of our own health. And if we can get people to view it like that, then everything becomes much, much easier.

Paul O’Callaghan

We need to work on fostering this relationship with Water in order to encourage greater prioritization and the protection of freshwater resources, diverse lakes, and what are stored underground, et cetera, as well as better management of water services. If citizens better understand this relationship, they will participate more and join efforts to solve common challenges.

Hasmik Barseghyan

We shall all be like the hummingbird and contribute to the movement by doing our part.

Build a sustainable future

Embed sustainability in our business practices, as Jacob Bossaer suggests, and go the extra-mile as Alice Schmidt proposes.

I believe that any young business starts now has to be sustainable and not brag about, “look how sustainable I am!”

Jacob Bossaer

It’s not just about achieving sustainability. Sustainability is not enough. If we sustain what we have today, that’s actually wrong. It’s about regeneration and you have to be even more ambitious. We want businesses to regenerate the planet.

Alice Schmidt

And if, beyond the rationale and the path forward, you need this extra motivation kick to start changing the world, I’ll let Mina Guli conclude with the pep-talk

I think too often, we’ve looked at these big global challenges, climate change, Water, all of these things. And we say, it’s too big. And I’m just one person. What on earth could I possibly do that will deliver meaningful change at the scale that it needs to, to solve this problem. And the reality is that we are all capable of doing it.

Mina Guli