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What will it take for Australia to meet all the SDGs?

The 2030 deadline to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is looming. While we all know the water sector plays a crucial role, Joshua Hoey looks at what else can be done to help Australia meet all the SDGs.

Australia is one of the world’s most advanced democracies, but we’re behind in key areas according to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the United Nation’s (UN) key indicator for progress and development through to 2030.

At present, the nation is on track to reach only a third of the 17 SDGs, if things continue on a business-as-usual trajectory. And while Australia certainly has a lot of work to do in order to become truly sustainable, the water sector knows too well the implications of failing to try.

Business as usual

According to the Social Progress Imperative (SPI), an independent non-profit that ranks countries across 51 indicators similar to the SDGs, Australia ranks 15th worldwide, but is still a Tier 2 country, meaning that it is falling behind similarly advanced democracies.

Australia drops to 54th position when it comes to access to piped water, 64th on biome protection, and 103rd on greenhouse gas emissions.

“We find that [on environmental quality] Australia performs below where we would expect it to perform relative to countries of similar GDP per capita,” SPI Partner Research Director Petra Krylova said.

The Australian Government’s report to the UN on progress towards the SDGs found that we are falling behind in the supply of clean water and sanitation services to rural and remote communities, particularly Indigenous communities.

Furthermore, the environmental issues in the Murray-Darling Basin and contamination of Tasmania’s lakes indicate Australia can do more to protect our natural waterways.

The big idea

The SDGs comprise 17 broad goals for development covering society, the economy and environment. In a way, the SDGs grew out of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): a blueprint for development by 2015 that covered eight broad and basic measures, such as halving the poverty rate, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, and ensuring environmental sustainability.

One critique of the MDGs was that they focused on issues faced more by developing than developed nations, so the SDGs have set goals that apply to all nations. The SDGs also have sustainability, economic growth and tackling climate change at their core.

"Managing water is one of the broadest functions you can have, and potentially has the broadest benefits of just about anything in society."

John Thwaites

Work is still ongoing, as not all of the indicators have sufficient data coverage or agreed measurement criteria to allow for regular reporting of progress towards the SDGs.

With broad, high-level policy such as the SDGs the question often is how useful are they for seeing change on the ground.

Chair of Melbourne Water John Thwaites, who also chaired the National Sustainability Council until it was abolished in 2013, said his time as former Victorian Labor Deputy Premier and water minister showed him that without a clear set of goals and targets, nothing gets achieved.

“The Sustainable Development Goals give us a set of universally agreed set of objectives that we can aspire to, and a spur for action by government and water authorities,” he said.

“They provide the opportunity to think much more holistically about the role of water in improving the life of Australians.”

At Melbourne Water, Thwaites said the SDGs have been a strong influence on the utility’s drive to have net-zero emissions by 2030. When it comes to individual projects, he said the SDGs have allowed Melbourne Water to think differently.

“With the work that we’ve been doing in the Dandenong Creek to restore the area, we sought to address multiple SDGs,” Thwaites said.

“By using the goals and thinking about them, it gave the engineers in that project more options than they would have traditionally considered.”

Where to next?

Of the Goals, SDG 6: Clean water and Sanitation captures the water sector’s fundamental role.

With its eight targets, SDG 6 covers the vital aspects of the water sector every nation needs to achieve to ensure sustainable supply into the future.

But the role for water sector is broader than just SDG 6. Australian Water Association (AWA) CEO Jonathan McKeown said the SDGs provide a powerful template for change for all sectors and the community at large.

“There is still limited understanding of the SDGs and how they can drive change. Our water utilities and many leading corporations are taking a lead but there seems to be limited traction from our national government,” McKeown said.

“On 18 February 2019, the senate standing committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade provided detailed recommended actions for the government to adopt to support Australia’s contributions to the SDGs, which the Association hopes will be actioned.

"The Association has established an SDG Specialist Network and our international program in Asia links directly to the SDGs. But we could do so much more here in Australia.”

Water Services Association of Australia Executive Director Adam Lovell said: “The Australian water industry is now building on a strong legacy of safe drinking water and sanitation services as well as contributing to all 17 goals through partnerships and projects.”

The focus has traditionally been just on water supply or sanitation services, but water is critical for so many aspects of our lives, whether it is health, the quality of our cities, our food, or economic development.

Thwaites agrees: “The SDGs comprehensively cover economic, social and environmental factors and are a benchmark we can use to ensure that when we are managing water we are achieving multiple goals across the economy, society, and the environment, rather than a nano-set of objectives."

This means that water authorities and others working in the sector need to also look beyond just SDG 6.

“It’s just one relevant goal. Managing water is one of the broadest functions you can have, and potentially has the broadest benefits of just about anything in society,” Thwaites said.

All aboard

Many Australian water authorities are already doing work that contributes to achieving SDGs beyond that of service provision.

At Melbourne Water, Thwaites said a mini-hydro project, suppling a significant portion of utility’s energy requirements, was underway before the SDGs were developed, but it contributes to SDG 9, 11, 12 and 13.

Similarly, South East Queensland water authority Unitywater launched a major wetlands rehabilitation project to help offset nutrients and improve water quality on the Sunshine Coast.

“The SDGs were not directly used as motivation for this project, but we welcome positive synergy with them,” Unitywater Executive Manager of Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions Scott Barnes said.

Lovell said more water utilities are integrating the SDGs into their corporate planning processes and using them to inform strategy.

“Yarra Valley Water has generated a report describing how the utility contributes to the Goals, and Melbourne Water has identified three broad areas of focus that align its strategy, culture and day-to-day operations with the SDGs,” he said

The Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC) sees itself as leading the way when it comes to SDGs 5, 10, 16 and 17, the targets for diversity, gender equality and representation.

The council fills 83% of roles with locals from Island communities, has gender parity well above market averages, and 82.5% of its workforce is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

“We understand this might not be as easy for other organisations, so we would stress that diversity is much more than policy,” TSIRC Engagement and Corporate Affairs Manager Luke Ranga said.

“It has to be in the DNA of all levels of your organisation. This extends to your supply chain and business partners.”

Sticking points

Yet Australia is still lagging in key areas to do with water. We’re off target for water affordability (SDG 6.1) and protecting water-related ecosystems (SDG 6.6).

“The recent fish kills on the Murray Darling river suggested that we are not adequately protecting all natural waterways and wetlands,” University of Queensland’s Dr Nina Hall said.

To address the issue, data from the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR) shows the government is investing $49.7 million over the next five years to improve the ecology at 24 of Australia’s Ramsar sites through Landcare’s Regional Land Partnerships program, and another $12 million to establish new Indigenous Protected Areas.

SDG 6 also calls for increased support for developing nations, an area that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) says is a priority.

“Australia’s global, regional and bilateral aid investments in this sector aim to improve access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene and management of scarce water resources,” a spokesperson from DFAT said.

Australia’s total water-related aid investment stands at $170 million, according to DFAT, and includes the Water for Women Fund that aims to improve health, equality and wellbeing through sustainable water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Agricultural and mining practices, poor management, and natural contamination all mean that clean and safe drinking water is not assured in all rural and remote communities.”

Nina Hall

But as a share of water aid, the WASH budget has been slashed from $160 million in 2009-10 to just $25.6 million in the 2018-19 budget. And, despite all our expertise, experience and technology, many in Australia’s rural and remote communities still don’t have clean water or adequate sanitation.

“Agricultural and mining practices, poor management, and natural contamination all mean that clean and safe drinking water is not assured in all rural and remote communities,” Hall said. 

Since Australia’s 2018 SDG progress report, the TSIRC has seen progress on reliable sanitation, with additional funding and training in partnership with Queensland Health and the Department of Local Government Racing and Multicultural Affairs.

According to DAWR, the Government has funded a number of projects in indigenous communities under the COAG Strategy on Water and Wastewater Services in Remote (including Indigenous) Communities.

“But there is still a long way to go to ensure adequate supply is available,” Ranga said.

Every year, the TSIRC relies on the use of desalination to supply water to communities and communities are then faced with major water restrictions, often including water not being available 24/7.

“We need to bring more people to the table, particularly Indigenous Australians,” Ranga said.

While the Australian water sector has been turbulent lately, Thwaites said the sector can still make a difference by taking part in SDG-oriented projects and management.

“Water authorities need to communicate what they are doing to implement the SDGs. They’re not well understood by the public and water authorities can play an important role in communicating how broad a role water can have.”

First published as ‘Watering our world’ in Current magazine April 2019.