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Australia must change its approach to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

Australia’s approach to meeting the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals requires a significant shift in government mindset, according to 2016’s Australian Water Association Young Water Professional of the Year Kathryn Silvester.

Returning from Denmark’s UNLEASH Innovation Lab last month, Silvester said there is a noticeable difference between Australia and the countries leading the way in SDG performance measures.

“What stood out for me is that even with Denmark being ranked second in the world in terms of their SDG contributions, they all recognise that reaching the SDGs by 2030 in their own country is near impossible with a business as usual approach,” Silvester said.

“In Australia, we talk about SDGs in relation to foreign aid, but not about what we can be doing on our own turf. [These] other countries have a completely different mindset.”

Silvester said although the Australian water sector has been doing some incredible work, achieving the SDGs on home soil has largely been a bottom up effort.

“In the water sector, our private companies are taking initiative and trying to do more, but the effort seems to be bottom up. It's not really trickling down from the top yet,” she said.

“Government policies just aren’t aligned with achieving some of the SDGs. We have politicians who don't even believe in climate change, so is it surprising that we aren't doing very well in terms of the climate goal?

“In terms of the water goal, we're doing pretty well, but some of our most vulnerable citizens are being left behind, and part of the goal is to ensure that nobody is left behind.”

Silvester said it’s clear that more needs to be done to ensure SDG6 is met within rural Indigenous communities.

“The University of Queensland has put together some great position papers highlighting the lack of access to water and sanitation in Indigenous communities in Australia, and the role the water sector should play in terms of contributing to developing countries in our region,” Silvester said.

“There's such a huge gap between the level of service provided for people living in cities compared to those remote communities. It really should be something receiving more government support. But you have to start somewhere, so it's good that the SDGs have given a platform for this discussion.”

And although there is still work to be done, Silvester said the SDGs offer a huge opportunity for companies, as well as governments, to collaborate in order to achieve better results.

“We can use the goals as a framework for collaboration. It would be amazing if all organisations went through a process of tracking their current contributions, but also where maybe they're having a negative impact,” Silvester said.

“Then we could identify partnerships and opportunities for collaboration outside the water sector, once we're all speaking the same language.”

Silvester said there are many approaches applied to foreign aid internationally by utilities and other water companies that could work just as well within the Australian context.

“These communities just don't have the funding and the capability to manage their water systems. We have twinning programs with developing countries, but maybe there's an opportunity to do some twinning or pro bono work with remote communities,” she said.

“If we discuss the issues publicly, we can identify key players who are trying to contribute to the same goals. It's a bit challenging, but I think we're doing some good work at this stage. There’s just a lot more we can be doing in the future.”

Kathryn Silvester is on the program planning committee for the World Toilet Summit in Melbourne in November, which will be looking at SDG’s and WASH. For more information click here.

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