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Sustainable Development Goal 6: Ensure availability of water, sanitation

Clean water is a human right. Can it really be guaranteed for the entire planet? P&G, Coca-Cola and Unilever have taken early steps.

This story first appeared on the blog of Corporate Citizenship, a global business consultancy specializing in sustainability and corporate responsibility. Its series of articles about the 17 Sustainable Development Goals is running here.

"Access to safe drinking-water and basic sanitation is essential to human health and survival."

Clearly this is a global issue of huge importance with no simple fix. However, 15 years on from the UN's Millennium Declaration, billions of people still lack access to continuous and reliable safe drinking water and one third of the global population live without access to basic sanitation facilities.

Ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all is not only singularly fundamental to our development as a human race, it also underpins several of the other goals that the world is set to agree on in New York this September.

Failure to ensure clean drinking water and basic levels of sanitation will hinder any efforts to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages (SDG No. 3), take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (SDG No. 13) or end poverty in all its forms everywhere (SDG No. 1).

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The MDG target for drinking water was met five years ahead of schedule and 91 percent of the global population now uses an improved drinking water source. Whilst the sanitation target was not met, progress was made as the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation dropped from 51 percent in 1990 to 36 percent in 2011.

This time around, sanitation and water will be included as a standalone SDG and the ambitious framework to tackle these issues will include targets to:

  • Achieve universal and equitable access to safe and a­ffordable drinking water
  • Achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all
  • Improve water quality by reducing pollution and halve the proportion of untreated wastewater
  • Substantially reduce the number of people suff­ering from water scarcity
  • Implement integrated water resources management at all levels
  • Protect and restore water-related ecosystems

As the development agenda moves away from traditional patterns of aid, towards trade and sustainable, inclusive economic development, it’s clear that businesses have a more active role to play in the achievement of SDG No. 6.


What is the role for businesses in Sustainable Development Goal No. 6?

Through their community programs, businesses are able to address some of the most challenging social issues related to water and sanitation. And, on a wider-scale, businesses not only face financial risks connected to water, but represent powerful agents of change when it comes to addressing such issues through their operations, products and services.

Where governments will still take the lead on implement the agenda on a country-level, SDG No. 6 provides businesses with a real opportunity to influence the global course of action.  The opportunities for businesses to align with SDG No. 6 can be broken down into three elements:

Collaborating to manage scarcity

The complexity of the water landscape in particular, means that partnerships between businesses, governments and NGOs is required to effectively address the issue on a global scale (water is a cross-border issue).

As businesses’ supply chains become increasingly interconnected, an approach to bring about change will be to collaborate with competitors, suppliers, customers, and local authorities.

An example of such an initiative can be seen with Coca-Cola’s Beyond Water partnership with WWF. This collaboration now extends across nearly 50 countries, where it seeks to improve water efficiency at a local level through operational advancements, helping to maintain healthy, resilient freshwater systems.

Directly impacting communities through flagship programs

Businesses are able to address the needs of some of the poorest communities through their flagship community programs.

P&G’s signature community program — Children’s Safe Drinking Water — is an example of how a business is using its expertise to focus on a particular aspect of SDG No. 6. The initiative is combatting the high number of diarrheal diseases caused by unsafe water through the distribution of its purifying product, PUR. Since its launch in 2004, the program has distributed more than 600 million packets of PUR to provide over seven billion liters of clean drinking water to communities. So far, the resulting clean drinking water has saved an estimated 39,000 lives and prevented 290 million days of diarrheal illnesses across 71 countries.

Unilever’s Lifebuoy programme sought to improve the hand washing behaviors of 1 billion people by 2015: it will be interesting to see how this programme adapts and continues in light of the post-2015 Development agenda.

Scaling impact through global market-driven solutions

Businesses are also able to come to the forefront of efforts to bring about change in a wide scale through their contributions to global market driven solutions.

The Toilet Board Coalition is a global, business-led coalition of leading companies, government agencies, sanitation experts and non-profit organizations that aims to develop commercially sustainable and scalable solutions to the sanitation crisis.

The Toilet Board Coalition is probably most famous for the World Toilet Day initiative, which seeks to raise awareness about all people who do not have access to a toilet; however the coalition is also delivering market-based sanitation initiatives for low income consumers.

The Clean Team project in Kumasi, Ghana uses Unilever-designed chemical home toilets and offers a private, clean and cheap alternative to paid-for public toilets. So far it has been taken up in 700 homes, employing 35 largely local people as sales and operational staff.

As the SDGs represent a move away from aid, market-based solutions provide an opportunity to drive scale through innovation, which is where businesses can add real value with their expertise.

Moving forward

It’s refreshing to be optimistic about global development and the SDGs do feel like a move in the right direction. However, in order for businesses to take on a lead position, they need to be convinced that this is good for them too. Whether it’s in opening up new markets and consumers, developing new products, or guaranteeing a supply of water for their businesses to survive.

As part of the SDGs 2015 series, Corporate Citizenship is collecting practitioner views about the implications of the SDGs for business. Have your say and complete the short survey here.

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