Stretching the Sustainable Development Goals

Written by Suzy Goldsmith and Darryl Day
Posted 23 July 2018

Ozwater'18 SDG workshopLed by a panel of experts, participants at the recent Ozwater’18 SDG Workshop showed their enthusiasm on how the Australian water sector can drive progress on an international stage by generating close to 300 ideas and suggestions in just one hour!

What we asked
The workshop was co-convened by Suzy Goldsmith for the Australian Water Association’s Sustainable Development Goals Specialist Network (SDG Network) and Darryl Day for the International Water Association’s Australia Committee (IWAA Committee). Our expert panel was led by Mr Anthony Slatyer, Special Adviser on Water to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and accompanied by:

  • The Hon Karlene Maywald – Strategic Advisor to the South Australian Government on International Water Opportunities
  • Distinguished Professor Cynthia Mitchell – Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney
  • Ms Lucia Cade – Global Advisor to the UN Global Compact – Cities Programme

 Members of the SDG Network and IWAA Committee assisted as Table Convenors on the day. These were Karen Campisano, Anthony Favero, Shona Fitzgerald, Lionel Ho, Jurg Keller, David Kirby, Carl Larsen, David Nixon, and Dan O’Halloran.

Anthony Slatyer opened the session with a thought-provoking summary of the state of play for the sustainable development goals. He pointed out that just 4,334 days remained to the 2030 target for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Yet, 892 million people still practise open defecation and 2.3 billion do not have access to basic sanitation facilities. This means we would have to build basic facilities to serve an extra 3.7 million people each week to reach just this component of the SDG 6 goal. (See SDG 6 Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation, 29 May 2018.)

With this perspective, members of the panel presented their own thought-starters on the three questions to be addressed by participants. Participants were grouped on eight tables, with each table addressing a unique pair of SDG, plus the ‘Water SDG’ which was common to all tables. The questions were:

1. The key influences of each SDG on the water sector. What should we be communicating to other sectors about consequences, costs and impacts in the water sector?
2. The most impactful ways in which the water sector can exert a positive influence on each SDG.
3. What needs to be done, and the barriers and enablers for beneficial progress.

What you said
Every water professional cares deeply about the goals of sustainable development; it is part of our professional DNA. We asked participants to express their ‘water professional DNA’ when addressing the questions, and to take the standpoint of their unique table theme.

The response from participants was terrific – even though it was the final session of a busy and exciting conference! We received many creative ideas about how water professionals might work together to progress the SDG agenda.

Your ideas focused on water sector collaboration and leadership, affirming the central role played by water in achieving the UN 2030 agenda.

You suggested actions to be taken by the water sector to:
  • Influence community attitudes for change
  • Measure sector contributions to change
  • Make change
  • Collaborate across sectors to support change.


Influence community attitudes for change
Participants highlighted how a restricted approach to valuing water can be a barrier to making change. We need to move beyond a restrictive interpretation of the value contributed by the water sector to a more inclusive appreciation of the whole of life costs, benefits and externalities attached to water.

We can do this by generating new stories which build community ownership and support for integrated water management and other features of a circular economy. Our #waterstories will overcome the difficulties of imagination and promote behaviour change within the community, including end users, water sector organisations and regulators. As part of changing attitudes, stories about #womeninwater would promote the power of gender equality.

Measure sector contributions to change
Progress on the SDGs needs to be communicated for the Australian water sector at national and international scales. Participants suggested that the Australian Water Association could drive water sector-related national reporting using outcomes-based frameworks. These frameworks would reinforce the new #waterstories (see above). A combined view of the cumulative impact of water sector efforts would help provide direction and build support.

Make change
Participants emphasised the need for the water sector to take action, and to act differently. We should provide a more flexible set of solutions according to the principle “fit for place, fit for purpose and fit for people”. A broader palette of solutions can facilitate end user behaviour change, overcome restrictions, such as capacity and scale, and satisfy an extended set of needs, such as nature conservation and parks.

The water sector should be “brave and bold” and “be the change”. In brief, the water sector should take the lead in redefining our objectives and expanding the reach of our responsibility in favour of the SDGs.

Disruptive change may be required to “leapfrog” to long-term integrated solutions. Science leadership, co-design and diversity are examples of how water challenges can be reframed in a broader context. Less developed communities provide good locations for disruptive thinking that can inform the rest of the sector.

Finally, new approaches should be embedded and used to reinforce the new #waterstories.

Collaborate across sectors to support change
“Building bridges” was the strongest theme to emerge from the SDG workshop. Participants wanted to see the water sector driving cross-sectoral collaboration in support of progress on the SDGs.  Inter-sector engagement is a long-term effort and involves developing the enabling factors for collaboration. These include, for example, champions, connecting platforms, knowledge, trials and demonstrations, and policy and guidance.

New approaches to investment are also required to support more integrated solutions addressed to the broader range of SDG outcomes. Participants emphasised funding as a key barrier to making change. Inter-sector engagement should identify the synergies across investments in multiple sectors and develop new approaches to funding that pursuit of the broader SDG agenda.