The Sustainable Development Goals – which track are we on? A personal perspective.

Posted 10 May 2017
Written by Richard Savage, Principal Engineer, GHD


The Sustainable Development Goals comprise 17 goals that target the eradication of all forms of poverty across the planet and the transformation of human action and resource consumption to a state that truly is sustainable. This will require the development and implementation of a range of economic, social and environmental improvement strategies. Action is not the preserve of rich nations or the desperate plea of poor nations, but an obligation on all nations and there is no easier place to implement action than one’s own backyard.

With this in mind, it seemed extremely important, to me at least, that the SDGs themselves be formally adopted by civil society in Australia and that we develop some form of transparent reporting framework to keep the public informed on challenges and progress. Indeed, more than keeping the public informed, the Australian public should be the initiators, facilitators, contributors and auditors, keeping civil society accountable to their obligations.

The goals themselves offer opportunity for all sectors of our society to evaluate their status quo, develop strategies for action and implement those actions. There is no sector that can say there is no part for them to play.

The SDGs are summarised in the table below and accompanying graphic of logos adopted throughout all UN documentation and literature.
GOALS 1-6 GOALS 7-12 GOALS 13-17




Climate Change

Hunger and food security




Infrastructure, industrialization

Biodiversity, forests, desertification



Peace, justice and strong institutions

Gender equality and women’s empowerment



Water and Sanitation

Sustainable consumption and production


The ubiquitous three-legged campfire pot has been used over a long time as an analogy for the triple bottom line elements of environment, social and economic sustainability and whilst the SDGs can generally be categorised into these elements, what we are now dealing with is the whole pot. Each of the SDGs is linked inextricably to the others, no single goal can be achieved without being underpinned by, or underpinning, the others.

Where are we in the big picture in Australia?

The so-called ‘Western World’ societies rely significantly on being regulated in a top-down model, but whilst this has some advantages, it can also inhibit initiative. The public in general tend to sit back and are reliant on the policy and regulatory frameworks, and the institutions, authorities and organisations charged with all forms of service provision, looking after their interests. This is predominantly the case in the water sector in Australia. What we need to recognise however, is that to achieve progress in the SDGs our mindset across civil society, from each individual, to all public and private enterprises, needs to change. There can be no sitting back, being reliant on others to look after our interests. We need to initiate bottom-up action, working collaboratively with all stakeholders, taking charge of our destiny.

The water sector in Australia is highly regulated, for good and obvious reasons, and within the bounds of the relevant laws and the regulations, the mining, energy, agricultural, tourism and conservation and urban sectors have grown exponentially over the last two decades. It is probably fair to say however, that we have fallen short in the integrated planning space. We have planned our extractions, utilisation and discharges on the basis of secular interests. For every success, there has been a failure, not least our wrestling with over-allocated surface water resources, with diminishing surface water quality, with deteriorating soil resources, increasing salinity levels in aquifers, with the recourse to costly desalination plants to supplement high reliability water supply for our major cities, with high nutrient loadings in our rivers flowing into the oceans, with increasing treated effluent discharges and managed sewer overflows, etc. It doesn’t take too much scratching to realise that our perfect world, our lucky country, requires some concerted work.

There are of course many successes and achievements to underpin our approach to the future. In the myriad of actions by stakeholders across all sectors, there are some remarkable achievements, e.g. in effluent treatment, in efficient irrigation practice, in the way large urban utilities are now actively embracing integrated planning principles, recognising the benefits not only on an economic basis, but also against social and environmental objectives.

Mapping the SDGs

In simple terms, we all need to take stock of how we give effect to those SDGs over which we have some influence, be it in our community, our businesses, our industries or our public authorities. This is not a ‘sit back and see’ scenario. As our cities expand and the world, let alone our own people, become increasingly reliant on our mineral and agricultural production, the stress levels on our water resources will increase exponentially. This is not a future scenario, it is a ‘now scenario’. Collective effort is imperative, but I would suggest developing a plan of action within our organisations, institutions, authorities or departments, grouped according to each primary sector, to map our enterprise to each of the SDGs with a simple question – do we have a plan or don’t we, and if we do have a plan, does anyone outside of my jurisdiction know about it? If we have no plan of recognition of where we stand on each of the SDGs, what is our timeframe for establishing one? This is not science fiction or rocket science, but simply about focussing our minds on issues we generally know a lot about, but haven’t galvanised into a framework such as that represented by the SDGs. The UN work leading to the adoption of the SDGs was patently clear – if we sit back and wait for the problems of resource sustainability and poverty to go away, we will rapidly become the problem, not the solution.

The ideals of water stewardship, promoted in Australia by Water Stewardship Australia (an affiliate of the global Alliance for Water Stewardship), focus on the need for collaboration and outreach, rather than an inward focus on one’s own process, be you a farmer, catchment authority, industry or urban utility. Stewardship is about having visibility and input on what water you receive, optimising what you do with it, and ensuring that what you discharge does not impoverish or disadvantage those downstream of you. In the word of our TV meerkats, “Simples!”

Where to from here?

Australia as an economy, as a melting pot of diverse cultures, as the custodian of incredible natural resources, has a critical role to play in the global effort to meet the SDGs. We contribute significantly as it is to global outreach programs, and are now dealing with the shortcomings of previous approaches to resource management within our own country. We have a stable socio-political environment (by global standards!) and well established laws, regulations and policies. What we need to do better is collaborate, across all sectors, to share data and lessons learnt, to honestly acknowledge our short-comings and to feel proud to communicate our successes.

We should not for one minute think that a failure to meet the SDGs will not impact on our livelihoods at home. An IMF Working Paper examining the impact of China’s economic slowdown (Paul Cashin, March 2016) estimated that a 1% drop in China’s GDP ‘could translate into a fall in world economic growth of around 0.29 percentage points’. At the same time, as a resource-rich country, global demands on our resources (including iron ore, coal, natural gas, agriculture, etc.) will continue and will accelerate the need for us to manage them in a sustainable way.

In terms of our current and future actions in respect of water resources, the Association can provide a platform for the exchange of ideas, for knowledge sharing and development, for communication. Let’s hear your stories and move to a collective, collaborative effort to play our part.

You can also download the Australian Water Association's discussion paper on the UN Sustainable Development Goals here.