Responding to UN-Water SDG6 synthesis on water and sanitation

by Sean Furey, Skat Foundation/RWSN Secretariat Director

UN Water, the body that coordinates water issues across the United Nations, is currently running a consultation in its draft report: “SDG 6 Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation”. You can read the report and add give your feedback. Below are some comments that I have posted in the dialogue section:

Rural Water Service Sustainability

Overall the representation of rural water supply and wider rural water issues is well represented in the report.
However, my biggest surprise was the lack of explicit reporting, discussion or recommendations on the sustainability of WASH services. For example, p. 20 “Extending access to safe drinking water presents a huge challenge”
While extending safe water access to those who currently do not have even a basic service is important, equally important is maintaining the water and sanitation systems and hygiene behaviours and worldwide this is proving to be a challenge. The call for additional financing seems to focus only on capital expenditure and not on the other (larger) life cycle cost elements

Accountability and access to effective legal and enforcement services

Other area where the report appears relative light (and this maybe because it is more related to the Human Rights issues than SDGs) is on the role of legal systems and enforcement in ensuring Rights Holders can hold Duty Bearers to account and can mediate conflicts between Rights Holders. In many rural areas, access to the formal legal system is hampered by physical distance, cost, lack of awareness and low trust. Therefore a question going forward is what role do traditional and religious authorities have in water conflict resolution and how can their effectiveness be enhanced without entrenching existing discriminations.


There is only one mention of self-supply (p.115), which under represents the importance and role of household investment in improving water supplies. For example, Thailand achieved near-universal access to safe drinking water in large part due to household roof-water harvesting [1] and in a new World Bank report from the Danube Project recommendations include “Advocate for supported self-supply as a complementary model to reach universal access” [2]. Part of the problem is the lack of official monitoring and data of self-supply in many countries, and regulation of the water quality of such sources is often limited, even in high income countries.

Self-supply in rural areas is an opportunity to unlock unconventional WASH investment, such as micro-finance, which is the approach being taken by US NGO,, however, p117 only refers to micro-finance in the context of paying for household connections to a piped systems (which is many rural areas are just not there or prohibitively expensive). It provides a space for entrepreneurs and Small-Medium Sized Enterprises, such as manual drillers and hardware manufacturers.

In urban areas, self-supply, or private supplies, are a more problematic coping mechanism from inadequate or intermittent municipal supplies [3] (which is an issue I couldn’t find reference too, but is a regular topic within IWA and other platforms). Generally it is richer households and businesses that can afford deeper, safer boreholes, while poor slum and peri-urban residents often rely on shallow wells, which are easily contaminated by surface water, latrines and poor solid and liquid waste management.

Capacity Development

The point on p120: “KCD (Knowledge & Capacity Development) is an intrinsically slow and complex process. Yet, water donors are usually more interested in quick performance results as an indication of KCD effectiveness.” Is absolutely critical – if low income countries are to move away from donor-dependency then investment in skills, training and careers is essential, accepting that there will be inevitably be some brain-drain of talent. The description of the issues on p166-167 describes the issues well, particularly the problems of developing and retaining talent in the WASH sector as a whole and rural WASH in particular. This is not a SDG6 specific issue, it is right across all public services and so should probably be addressed as such – in strong cooperation with actors involved in SDG4 – should that be a recommendation?

The point “Opportunities exist to improve education in developing countries by linking to online education that specifically targets the water sector” is well taken and one that RWSN is seeking to address, albeit with a narrow focus on drilling professionalisation for the time-being, with UNDP CapNet.

Water & Energy

The point “Providing much-needed electricity in water-stressed areas may lead to conflicts among competing water users, with trade-offs needed to resolve them,” is important because the experience in India has been that subsidised energy for pumping has led to widespread groundwater depletion. The emerging issue is solar pumping, which has been around for a long time, but with rapidly falling hardware costs, it is becoming an attractive option. In high-density rural areas widespread uptake may threaten aquifer sustainability or drought resilience.

Similarly, sea-level rise and reduced river flows will see increasing pressure for desalination at all scales – piloting of small-scale desalination is already happening in coastal Bangladesh and while it is offers some benefits, widespread use is likely to create new problems around energy demand and brine disposal.


Threats to groundwater quality are well summarised on page 142. However, in relation to arsenic and fluoride on page 133 it should be made clear that both arsenic and fluoride risks in groundwater are widespread ( and naturally occurring. As it reads at the moment, it could be interpreted that these geogenic contaminants are from human sources, such as wastewater.

Groundwater is the largest freshwater resource available but is under-represented in SDG monitoring and often ignored or given a low priority in IWRM planning and implementation (Box 11, p79 notwithstanding). Challenges and recommendations are set out in the IAH Strategic Overview: The UN-SDGs for 2030 – Essential Indicators for Groundwater [4]

P157 – on droughts and climate change. Latest research [5] indicates that tropical aquifers recharge more in intense rainfall events, as is expected through climate change, therefore groundwater will become increasingly important for drought resilience. However, the areas and populations most at risk are where water (ground, surface, rain) monitoring is most sparse. Remote sensing (such as the GRACE satellites that measure gravity anomalies) can help, but only with robust ground-truthing. Design of infrastructure, such as roads [6] can enhance groundwater recharge and reduce localised flood risk.

Multi-stakeholder partnerships can unlock potential/Public Participation.

A common reporting and partnership mechanism that I can’t find any reference to is the WASH Joint Sector Review (JSR) and Sector Performance Reports (SPR) which have been used (with varying degrees of success by 18 countries [7]

I hope those comments are useful.

Sean Furey (Skat Foundation, Switzerland)


[1] Matthias Saladin (2016) Rainwater Harvesting in Thailand: Learning from the World Champions. RWSN Field Note 2016-1, RWSN, St. Gallen, Switzerland
[2] World Bank/Danube Project (2018) Beyond Utility Reach? How to Close the Urban – Rural Access Gap A review of rural water and sanitation services in seven countries of the Danube region
[3] UPGro (2017) Groundwater and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, UPGro Working Paper, Skat Foundation, St. Gallen, June 2017
[4] IAH (2017) The UN-SDGs for 2030 – Essential Indicators for Groundwater
[5] Jasechko, S & Taylor, R.G ‘Intensive rainfall recharges tropical groundwaters’ Environmental Research Letters 11 December 2015
[6] Demenge, J., Rossella Alba, R,. Welle, K., Manjur, K., Addisu, A., Mehta, L.,Woldearegay K. (2015) Multifunctional Roads: The Potential Effects of Combined Roads and Water Harvesting Infrastructure on Livelihoods and Poverty in Ethiopia, doi: 10.1177/0974930615609482 Journal of Infrastructure Development December 2015 vol. 7 no. 2 165-180
[7] DANERT, K, FUREY, S, MECHTA, M and GUPTA, S (2016) Effective Joint Sector Reviews for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). A Study and Guidance – 2016, World Bank

Author: RWSN Secretariat

RWSN is a global network of rural water supply professionals. Visit to find out more

3 thoughts on “Responding to UN-Water SDG6 synthesis on water and sanitation”

  1. Thank you Sean for this careful review of the document by UN-water. I particularly support your comments on Self-supply and Capacity Development, two not-so-new topics which systematically are underestimated (both in term of current importance and potential in the future) – probably because they are not-so-new and typically do not involve cool gadgets…

  2. Dears, some brief comments… though I did not study it in detail, to be honest.

    1. What is definitely missing in these documents is the recognition of the key-problem for the “Water for ALL” movement. It is clearly NOT understood what it means to be POOR!!!! Unbelievable… Anyway, so there must be more focus on cost-effective solutions and how to invest in that. Currently, implementors do not take that into the account.

    2. What is also painfully missing is the alarming fact the population is DOUBLING every 25 to 30 years!! this means that the systems must be able to grow and that the unsolved problems just also double every 25 years…

    3. Last but not least, what is missing is that every country in Africa has a more or less different approach, often imposed by the major donor of such country, that sends their wise guys consultants with often limited PRACTICAL experience. It’s about time that people start to learn from each other and not impose their “own” solutions.

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