Helen Clark: Opening Speech at UNDP side event on The Critical Importance of Water for Sustainable Development and the SDGs

Jun 9, 2015

I am pleased to welcome you to this UNDP side event on “The Critical Importance of Water for Sustainable Development and the SDGs”. 

The international community is on the verge of agreeing on an ambitious and transformational development agenda which will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The agenda will be universal in nature, cover all three dimensions of sustainable development, and aim to address the many interlinked challenges our world is facing. The agenda is relevant to countries rich and poor.

Part of what makes the new development agenda so ambitious, is the proposed 6th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG6), which, building on the MDG water access target, calls for water and sanitation for all by 2030.   It also goes beyond the MDGs in other important respects, including by encompassing water quality, water use efficiency, and trans-boundary co-operation, and by setting targets for the protection and restoration of critical water ecosystems.

The objective of today’s side event is to look at how we can work together to make this ambitious vision reality.

I suggest framing the discussion around two themes:

• First, to look at the importance of marrying the proposed water and sanitation SDG with the broader sustainable development agenda, including the other SDGs; and

• Second, to discuss how by working together, we can be more effective in achieving SDG6.

Allow me to elaborate briefly on each point:

On the first point – It is clearly established that water and sanitation are critical for poverty eradication and sustainable development. For example:

• Without adequate sanitation facilities girls may not attend school, and therefore may miss out on education;

• Women who must spend hours fetching water have less time for income-generating work and other important activities;
• Water-related illnesses disproportionately affect poor people – and particularly poor children. According to UNICEF, an estimated 2,000 children under the age of five die every day from diarrheal diseases. Of these, some 1,800 deaths are linked to problems with water, sanitation, and hygiene; and

• Unsustainable exploitation of water resources is among the biggest threats to the ecosystems which are so essential for food security and for the livelihoods of many hundreds of millions of people.

• Overall, water and sanitation deficits make for poor health, lower school enrolments, and greater gender disparities.  They have wide economic and social impacts.

UNDP has looked at how a range of important ‘development drivers’, such as access to energy, spending on education and health care, and access to water and sanitation, impact on human development. Of those, access to water and sanitation were found to explain 78 per cent of the statistical ‘variance’ in the UNDP Human Development Index. That was considerably higher than for any of the other drivers examined, and further demonstrates the very important relationship between water, sanitation, and development.

This is in line with recent analysis by UN-Water, which focused on the linkages between the proposed SDG on water and the other SDGs. It highlights, for example, that:

• The target on safe drinking water is integral to the first SDG, on ending poverty, and the fourth SDG, on education; 

• The target on sanitation and hygiene relates to the SDGs on healthy lives and gender equality; and

• The target on water quality is linked to the goals on sustainable cities, ecosystems, and oceans.

With the fundamental importance of water and sanitation in their own right well established, as well as their clear links to other drivers of development, the challenge is to take the actions which will deliver on the proposed SDG6.

This brings me to the second discussion point for today: with the need to put water and sanitation at the centre of development policy clearly acknowledged, how can we work together to achieve SDG6?

Here, I would suggest three areas of importance:

First, political will: over the last decade, initiatives such as the MDGs, the Water for Life Decade, the Sanitation and Water for All initiative, and others have helped to generate the political momentum and accountability for the water policy agenda which has led to the formulation of SDG 6.

To build on this momentum and drive, action, genuine political will, committed leadership, and firm commitments are needed. Governments need to place water and sanitation at the heart of their national development strategies, which in turn need to be supported by development partners and civil society. All of us here today have a role to play.

Second, financing achievement of SDG6: The cost of achieving the proposed SDG target of universal water and sanitation access has been estimated at $27 billion per year until 2030.  In global GDP terms, that is small, at .036 per cent.    Yet, current funding levels fall well short of that – only around $11 billion was committed in 2012.

Governments need to put in place enabling policy and regulatory environments to encourage more investment in the sector. Donors can use their development aid ins catalytic way which will help leverage other sources of finance.

Third, proven approaches to and tools for achieving universal access need to be promoted and applied.

To tackle challenges related to water and sanitation successfully, integrated approaches which cut across ministries and sectors are needed. By the same token, international development actors, including the UN, need to address these issues, working holistically across institutional silos.

A good example of such an approach is the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) process. IWRM brings together stakeholders from different sectors and levels of government to co-ordinate the development and management of water resources. The ultimate goal is to maximise economic and social welfare in an equitable manner, without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.

Experience has also shown that community involvement in water and sanitation programme design, management, and delivery is important in ensuring sustainability and accountability. Good examples include the Community Water Initiative of UNDP’s Small Grants Programme and the Every Drop Matters partnership with Coca Cola. Community engagement strengthens local ownership, and makes projects more relevant and sustainable, but it still does not always happen. It is important that governments and development partners resolve to promote local level engagement actively.

On the SDG targets on reducing water pollution, raising water use efficiency, and protecting ecosystems, there is a range of policy, economic, and financial tools which have proven to be successful. They include tradable pollution permits, feed-in tariffs, and payments for ecosystem services. These could be replicated and scaled up in many countries.  


From China to Ethiopia, from India to Kenya, and in Tajikistan and throughout Central Asia, investing in water and sanitation and water management infrastructure will transform economies, be beneficial for the environment, and lift human development.

Accelerating global progress on water and sanitation under the new SDG agenda is possible. It will require all of us working together, and a lot of innovation and ambition.

I look forward to your reflections and proposals in the discussion this evening.


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