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  • James Howey

Sustainable Development Goal 6: An Australian Perspective

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

These 17 Goals build on the successes of the Millennium Development Goals, while including new areas such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice, among other priorities. The goals are interconnected – often the key to success on one will involve tackling issues more commonly associated with another.

They came into effect in January 2016 and are being used to guide the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) funding allocation until 2030. These are the targets for Goal 6:

  • By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all

  • By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations

  • By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally

  • By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity

  • By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate

  • By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes

  • By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies

  • Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management

When thinking about the UNDP most thoughts are directed towards developing nations. But how many of those targets are applicable to Australia? The very first point universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all is worth some consideration. What is safe drinking water? In Australia the authoritative reference is the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines and it states that drinking water should contain no harmful concentrations of chemicals or pathogenic microorganisms, and ideally it should be aesthetically pleasing in regard to appearance, taste and odour. The guidelines contain health-related guideline values, which based on present knowledge, does not result in any significant risk to the health of the consumer over a lifetime of consumption. Therefore the minimum standard of safe drinking water is water that does not exceed any of the health-related targets in the ADWG.

A recent review of the Closing the Gap strategy recommended that a priority focus of the ‘refreshed’ Closing the Gap Strategy is on delivering equality of opportunity in relation to health goods and services and in relation to health infrastructure (housing, food, water). The majority of Australians have a municipal supply of water, which is regulated for quality. However, many remote communities rely on private bores, wells, rainwater tanks and surface water. It has been reported that many of these do not meet the ADWG guideline values. These communities are predominantly aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and they therefore are disproportionately disadvantaged though the supply of potentially unsafe water.

How does Australia meet Goal 6 and by 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all? Is a national program to identify and test private drinking water supplies required in the first instance? Based on the current status, should these supplies be regulated? There are many questions that need to be answered for Australia to meeting this goal, which should be straight forward for an OECD country, but there are a number of hurdles to overcome (political, social, geographic and economic).

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