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Twin sisters: water and sustainable development

by Gaetano Casale, Manager Liaison Office, IHE Delft Institute for Water Education

This article appears in REVOLVE #34
Opinion 6 February 2020

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Agenda 2030 and the related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the best opportunity to frame water research and innovation efforts; and they belong to us (citizens, companies, communities) – not just to governments.

I am at the Water Innovation Europe event, presenting the Sustainable Development Goals to a large audience of water experts, the best innovators in Europe. This is the place where the best technology advancements are discussed; the point I am trying to make in my talk is maybe obvious nonetheless I take my chance there: we all have produced in our organizations great innovations, however what is the ultimate goal? What global challenges are we contributing to?

I continue and claim that Agenda 2030 and the SDGs prove to be a marvelous “compass” for our innovation engines. Then the question comes: “Excuse me Gaetano, what does SDG mean?” Wow, I never thought I would get this question from this audience? I start asking myself if we folks from the water sector are all aware of the importance of Water in the 2030 Agenda? The story continues – just as in that panel session (and maybe on a less funny note), after trying to convince the audience about the compass story, a more fundamental question comes: “These SDGs are nice, but they feel too abstract to me, and it’s difficult for us to understand what’s in it for us?”

This distance between big policies and the “normal” people and communities (including civil society organizations, local governments, or private sector organizations/companies) are luckily getting shorter and shorter. Part of the reason lies in the fact that we are getting closer to tipping points so that such communities (outside the experts and the scientists who have known this for long time) start observing clear impact of water-related issues in their day-to-day lives. The Cape Town crisis (and still after that current water shortage in South Africa and in other regions), extended droughts, flooding becoming a regular part of daily news, are probably creating more awareness without even needing special awareness campaigns.

So, the positive news: the distance from big policies and us is becoming slowly smaller. Still, we need more and more policies that guide broad actions at local, national, regional, and international levels, in support of the SDGs. We can be proud of the fact that for example at EU level there is clear intention to streamline a large number of policies around the SDGs and even EU organizational structures are being formed around the people, planet, and prosperity pillars of the SDGs.

Agenda 2030 and the SDGs prove to be a marvelous “compass” for our innovation engines.

At the same time, in many (mostly large) companies the SDGs are no longer the remote domain of an isolated Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) person or (small) department but are more integrated in company strategies. And there is no choice now, since depleting the world of its resources or continuing to contaminate them in a way that makes them unusable does not exactly make sense from a business perspective (check out initiatives like the WBCSD SDG Compass).

Another concrete response to the question of how to make SDGs a concrete topic lies in its complex yet fascinating discussion about monitoring. The goals at first sight might look quite abstract, however at the indicators level (and its monitoring) you can really get a better grip of what they mean. Many organizations are even trying to do innovation at the monitoring level of indicators, with the purpose of studying how to make them more relevant and how to involve entire communities in the monitoring activity, for example with citizen engagement activities and again with company impact reporting.

Despite the questions above, society is slowly but recognizably moving towards actively participating in the achievement of the SDGs beyond the obvious policy-making arena. Now who can tell me by heart each of the 17 SDG goals? (And its relation to better water management of course…)


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