SDG 6 Clean water and sanitation

SDG 6 – “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” – has a monitoring framework with eight targets and 11 indicators. These will be used to drive action towards achieving universal access to safely and appropriately managed water resources as part of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.1

Access to water and sanitation is considered a universal human right,2 and making them available to all is the aim of Targets 6.1 and 6.2. However, this goal recognizes that access to these resources involves more than simply providing the services. It also requires addressing other water issues related to sustainable management, such as water quality and wastewater management, (SDG Target 6.3) water scarcity and usage efficiency, (SDG Target 6.4) water resources management (SDG Target 6.5) and the protection and restoration of water-related ecosystems (SDG Target 6.6).3 Efficient management of water will help to ensure well-being for all and to ensure resilient, sustainable development.4

Children cooling off with clean, piped water in Khan Village, Lao PDR. Photo by Asian Development Bank, Flickr. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Uneven progress

Providing sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation have been a development focus for decades and were key parts of the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).5 However, progress on this has been uneven as between water and access to sanitation, as well as between countries and demographics.6 While the MDG goal was met globally with respect to water, sanitation lagged far behind.7 In 2015, disparities still remained between countries such as Cambodia compared to the rest of the LMCs, as well as between rural and urban populations.8

In addition, problems in the official data collected by the Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) led by UNICEF and WHO meant that some issues remained invisible. For example, the global indicators based on proportion were not a good fit to individual country needs. Least developed countries like Lao PDR and Cambodia started with a very high number of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, so the goal was very difficult to meet. In comparison, a more developed country such as Thailand which had almost universal access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation to begin with did not have as much incentive to improve its services.9

While the MDG indicators captured differences between urban and rural groups and between countries, they did not capture differences based on gender, ability, or for those living in informal urban settlements.10 The indicators were also defined too narrowly, meaning the ‘sustainable’, ‘safe’ and health elements of water and sanitation were not captured in the data, which was just on ‘improved access’.11 

SDG 6 was developed taking these lessons into account. Countries are encouraged to use the most relevant indicators for their own circumstances. For instance, improving access to water (Target 6.1) and basic sanitation (Target 6.2) may still be a high priority for Cambodia, which has the least access in the LMCs,12 while a country such as Thailand, which has near universal access for both,13 may want to focus more on improving water quality (Target 6.3) or water-use efficiency (Target 6.4). Activities such as implementing integrated water resources management (Target 6.5) and protecting water-based ecosystems (Target 6.6), which require systemic change and potentially transboundary cooperation are well suited for receiving regional and sub-regional support. They are already being considered by bodies such as the Mekong River Commission.14 

The indicators also cover means of implementation, including indicators on both financial (6.a) as well as non-financial (6.a and 6.b) aspects. All of these indicators are to be broken down to show differences and inequalities on the basis of rural/urban, different levels of socioeconomic status and gender.15 In some cases, however, such as for indicator 6.1.1, the method of data collection (at the household level) does not allow for data that can be sufficiently broken down to show the details for gender and other sub-household differences in access to clean water.16 This may also impact achievements for SDGs 5 (Gender Equality) and 10 (Reduced Inequalities).

The SDGs should be seen as a whole and not as a series of separate parts. For instance, the SDG indicators explicitly cover water, wastewater, ecosystem resources, climate change, and water-related disasters across SDGs 6, 1, 2, 11, and 15. This allows for more equitable access to water by taking a more integrated and whole-of-water cycle approach. SDG 6 is considered to be a goal that is closely interlinked with the success of every other SDG.17 Decisions made about policies targeting water-related sustainable development can influence progress on the way sustainable development is governed (SDG 16), financed (SDG 17), and how capacity is developed within the water sector (SDG 4). This in turn, this improves the sustainability of SDG 6 outcomes through improved participation by vulnerable groups.18 Data that can be broken down to show useful details will assist with decision-making on the relevant policies.

SDGs 2 (Zero hunger), 6, and 7 (Affordable and clean energy) represent three sectors that are very closely linked, sometimes called the ‘water-food-energy nexus’.19 An integrated approach to implementing SDG 6 means considering all water-related SDGs. An example of this would be ASEAN’s approach to effectively implementing the two parallel but interconnected processes of their ASEAN Community Vision 2025 as well as the 2030 Agenda. By considering water issues in a more interconnected manner, ASEAN has noted that the targets of SDG 6 are complementary to four of five of ASEAN’s priority areas – infrastructure, sustainable management of natural resources, poverty eradication, and sustainable consumption and production.20 This will allow ASEAN to assist member countries in meeting international obligations while also meeting its own regional and international obligations.21

Taking an integrated approach means considering all water-related SDGs.
Source: UNESCAP. 2017. Integrated Approaches for Sustainable Development Goals Planning: The Case of Goal 6 on Water and Sanitation. Accessed April 26, 2018.

Means of implementation

While a lot of work has been done on providing access to water and sanitation services as a result of the MDGs, more needs to be done, and not only on the new targets. LMCs have far better access to water than to sanitation services,22 but this varies between countries. For instance, Thai rates of access to both water and sanitation services are at near universal, while Cambodian rates of access to sanitation is the lowest in the LMCs and one of the lowest in all of ASEAN.23 A gap also exists between rural and urban access to both water and sanitation services, especially in the least developed countries of Cambodia, Lao, and Myanmar.24  Without major improvements in policy development and financing, this gap will remain, due to a lack in both financial and human capital on top of the issue of remoteness.25

In the Mekong Region, more financing options for water-related sustainable development are becoming available while national and sector policies are becoming more aligned with the 2030 Agenda. However there is a mismatch between the desire of these countries to meet these aspirations and the financial resources available through national revenue, official development assistance, and foreign investments. LMCs governments, like governments globally, have been keen to take on the challenge of implementing the SDGs, but 80% of countries reviewed by GLAAS, including Cambodia, Lao, Thailand, and Vietnam, lack the financing to meet their national water and sanitation targets.26 Similarly, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese policies have specific measures to target various vulnerable populations, but often do not have a specific line in the financing plan, meaning that implementation is poor at best.27 

In general within the region, the proportion of external development financing sources from grants and aid compared to loans and investments has shifted. This means that official development assistance increasingly needs to be focused on vulnerable groups, while market-based mechanisms will play an increasing role in the provision of more general water and sanitation services. A greater reliance on market-based mechanisms may mean that ensuring equitable access remains a challenge.28

Asia-Pacific leaders met in December 2017 to discuss water issues in the region, with a special focus on implementing SDG 6. One outcome was a commitment to financing the implementation of water-related SDGs, including through developing innovative financing methods in the region, and establishing a monitoring system on the financing of water-related SDGs and targets.29 While crucial for the whole region, financing is of particular concern for countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, and Lao PDR which are still very dependent on ODA.30 Non-financial means of implementation, like research and development and tackling systemic issues, also formed part of the region’s commitments.31

Global Water Partnership Southeast Asia, the Southeast Asia branch of a global water partnership whose members include the LMCs,32 has indicated that a SDG Readiness Index is being developed. The index will map country readiness for SDGs 6 and 17 (Partnerships for the goals) so that countries requiring support can be identified.33 Once developed, the intention is for it to be implemented with partners such as UNESCAP and ADB.34

Follow-up and review, monitoring and evaluation

All water-related indicators will be monitored together by the UN-Water Integrated Monitoring Initiative. This is made up of three groups:

  1. JMP – WHO and UNICEF
  2. UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-water (GLAAS) – WHO

A robust baseline for as many countries as possible is being developed for July 2018, in time for the High Level Political Forum. Along with SDGs 7 (Affordable and clean energy), 1 ( No poverty), 12 (Responsible consumption and production), and 15 (Life on Land), SDG 6 will be reviewed in depth. A lot of work is being done in preparation for the review. In particular, much has been done to understand country baselines on data and monitoring.

IndicatorCustodianTierMonitoring Mechanism
6.3.1WHO, UN Habitat, UNSD2GEMI
6.6.1UNEP, Ramsar3GEMI

Chart created by ODM April, 2018. CC BY SA 4.0. Data source: IAEG-SDGs. December 2017. Tier Classification for Global SDG Indicators. Accessed April 19, 2018.

Tier 1: the indicator is conceptually clear, has an internationally established methodology and standards are available. Data are regularly produced by countries for at least 50 per cent of countries and of the population in every region where the indicator is relevant.

Tier 2: the indicator is conceptually clear, has an internationally established methodology and standards are available, but data are not regularly produced by countries.

Tier 3: there is no internationally established methodology or standards yet available for the indicator, but methodology/standards are being (or will be) developed or tested.

For SDG 6, some of the indicators have been monitored for much longer than others. Some indicators have required redefinition, and other indicators are new and have required the development of both methodology and monitoring systems. For example, for targets 6.1 and 6.2, the JMP has been in place since 1990, so it has been possible to develop a baseline, corrected for the updated definitions of the indicators.35 These definitions are made up of ‘service ladders’ that indicate the level of WASH services available, and make use of the previous definition of improved/unimproved to provide continuity with past monitoring.36 The ladders for water and sanitation are expanded, and there is a new ladder for hygiene.

The means of implementation, primarily investments and the enabling environment, has been monitored by GLAAS.37 They will continue to monitor indicators 6.a.1 (Amount of water- and sanitation-related official development assistance that is part of a government-coordinated spending plan) and 6.b (Proportion of local administrative units with established and operational policies and procedures for participation of local communities in water and sanitation management).38However, there remain seven newly developed indicators that require monitoring. UN Water indicates that despite existing monitoring more data is still needed, along with better monitoring systems, increased coordination, and innovative collection of quality data.39

For the seven remaining indicators, GEMI was established as the inter-agency initiative responsible for developing new targets 6.3-6.6 on:

  • wastewater treatment and water quality
  • water use and use efficiency
  • integrated water resource management
  • water-related ecosystems
  • expanding on the existing means of implementation targets 6.a and 6.b.40 

GEMI is currently in the process of testing these new indicators in various countries. Data gathering has been going well for 6.3.1 (Proportion of wastewater safely treated), 6.5.1 (Degree of integrated water resources management implementation (0-100) and 6.5.2 (Proportion of transboundary basin area with an operational arrangement for water cooperation). However, indicators 6.3.2 (Proportion of bodies of water with good ambient water quality), 6.4.1 (Change in water-use efficiency over time) and 6.4.2 (Level of water stress: freshwater withdrawal as a proportion of available freshwater resources) lack data and data monitoring mechanisms.41 Custodian agency UNEP has also reported difficulties with data collection for Indicator 6.6.1 (Change in the extent of water-related ecosystems over time) because of the comprehensiveness of the indicator as well as the complexity, which also impacts comparativity.42

ESCAP has been highlighted as a regional coordinator, especially in regards to data and monitoring.43 The Global Water Partnership Southeast Asia has also indicated that SDG regional monitoring is also on its agenda. There is the possibility of developing mapping of monitoring and data in the Asia-Pacific Region.44


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