Achieving UN water goals demands new approach

Posted 18 July 2016
People taking a bath in a river
Australia must change its approach to tackling water and sanitation issues if it is to meet the United Nations’ most recent goals for sustainable development, according to a newly released paper.

The University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute Sustainable Water Program Manager Dr Nina Hall said tackling the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will require an approach different to that of the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

“The SDGs were developed on a list basis. Different agencies and governments sent in their lists of priorities, and then it was a process of compromise and negotiation to get it down to 17 goals,” Hall said.

“Now that list is created and we have 15 years to achieve these goals. It’s now about a new way of thinking.

“The SDGs are applicable in Australia as well as overseas, and that is new thinking for Australia because the MDGs, which were the previous goals, were only for developing countries.”

Signed by 193 countries in September 2015, the SDGs are an integrated set of goals focused on the economic, social and environmental aspects of all nations worldwide.  

Hall’s co-authored discussion paper addresses the need for a whole-of-system approach to achieving the UN’s water and sanitation goals, both regionally and within Australia’s borders.

“We’ve had 19 researchers write it from a variety of different disciplines. We’ve put new thinking into it, because you can’t look at a list of 17 diverse goals and be able to answer it from one discipline,” Hall said.

“In seeking to attain the goals, that interdisciplinary thinking is also required. And that is a major hurdle at a governmental level. It is different to how we have operated before.”

Hall said moving away from a business as usual approach towards a more holistic method that is sensitive to interconnected priorities and needs will help Australia maximise the positive effects of its efforts.

“Business as usual means looking at Australia as an aid donor. What good we can do in our neighbouring countries that have very glaring development needs?” she said.

“And while this is a noble use of our aid dollar, working through the goals like a list risks neglecting opportunities to support interconnected effort and actually have greater benefit.

“When you look at the 17 SDGs and the 169 targets within them, there is actually a lot of preparatory work that needs to be done to figure out the order in which we need to address them.”

The paper outlines seven recommended steps the government can take to begin addressing the water and sanitation goals more effectively:

  • identify the status of water and sanitation challenges both within Australia and in our region;
  • apply targets both within Australia and in our region;
  • adopt appropriate government policy coordination arrangements and oversight;
  • monitor the achievement of the SDG targets in Australia and our region;
  • consider the SDGs as a coherent ‘set’ with interlinkages and feedbacks;
  • adopt a systems approach to ensure positive synergies and avoid perverse effects; and
  • support challenges through Integrated Water Resource Management frameworks.


“The idea of a systems approach is to look at everything as being interlinked. If two or more goals or targets can enhance each other, that should be the objective. But, likewise, we want to avoid any unexpected negative outcomes or impacts,” Hall said.

“Let’s look at how these goals all interlink, then we can prioritise based on where the needs are in the Asia-pacific, and our remote Australian setting, and apply the funding appropriately.

“It’s the best way to maximise investment. If you can invest in one thing, but it actually achieves three other goals, what a fantastic outcome in terms of aid-dollar return.”

The Global Change Institute will release a second discussion paper in September, outlining a systems-based methodology for attaining the UN SDGs.