Why long-term water sustainability needs a holistic approach

Posted 10 February 2017

Water sustainabilityPeace and justice, gender equality and education might not strike you as immediate concerns for water professionals, but according to one expert, they are all related to water sustainability here and abroad. 

Those first three are just a sample of the 17 objectives outlined in the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). As the successor to the UN Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs take a more holistic approach to global insecurities and the effects they have on general health and wellbeing, said Yarra Valley Water Sustainability Manager Grace Rose-Miller.

“The concept of sustainability has been around for a while, but it started to lose some of its meaning, or people didn’t have a clear picture of what it meant or looked like in practice,” she said. 

Australia is one of 193 countries that in 2015 signed the SDGs, which are composed of 17 core goals supported by 169 underlying targets. The goals are comprehensive and wide-ranging, making some are harder to understand and relate back to the water industry, Rose-Miller said.

However, a bit of digging reveals that they all interconnect, and the success of one rides on the success of others. Along with Tim Costello from World Vision and John Thwaites from Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Rose-Miller will share practical ways organisations can relate to and implement the SDGs at an upcoming event in Melbourne

“The journey we went on while implementing the SDGs was moving beyond that siloed thinking of ‘well, there’s a water one here, and a water one there’,” she said.

“Once you move beyond the obvious water-related ones, you begin to see that all the goals are relevant to the water industry. Because of the different activities we undertake – our roles as employers, as parts of the community, as procurers and providers of goods and services – you start to see that you can measure progress against them all.” 

Rose-Miller said the SDGs help give the water industry more focus and practical ways it can contribute to long-term sustainability in Australia. 

For example, the “Zero Hunger” goal has risen in significance in recent years because it’s one of the few where Australia is in the red.  

“A supporting target of this goal relates to obesity and nutrition, so one way the water industry can act on this is to consider how water affects health and wellbeing, and then create campaigns or programs that raise awareness of this issue,” she said. 

Other areas related to the SDGs where Yarra Valley Water is focusing its efforts include: 

  1. An environmental strategy with a target of zero emissions by 2025, neutral impact on waterways and a new treatment plant that converts commercial food waste into energy.
  2. More assistance for customers facing financial insecurity through collaborations with other sectors that operate in this space.
  3. Building stronger relationships with Aboriginal communities and groups through reconciliation plans.  


“What the SDGs have done for the conversation around sustainability is give it definition. They help to provide a common framework that we can all work within. It’s something the industry is looking at more: how we can define our role and the contributions we can make.

“People who work in the water industry are a passionate bunch, and the SDGs can tap into that sense of pride to inspire people to think more broadly about what we as an industry can contribute.

“The SDGs provide a lens through which we can view a strategy and test it to make sure it stays relevant over time.”

To learn more about how the UN Sustainable Development Goals affect the water industry and what role you play, click here