Gerald Lacey lecture: sustainable water management crucial to our future

UNESCO’s Professor Stefan Uhlenbrook explains how achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 – the water goal – is key for the UN.

Billions of people lack access to safe drinking water and sanitation services
Billions of people lack access to safe drinking water and sanitation services

Professor Uhlenbrook, Director of UNESCO Programme Office for Global Water Assessment and Coordinator of the Annual UN World Water Development Report, delivered the 2018 Gerald Lacey memorial lecture on 21 May at One Great George Street.

He presented findings from the UN’s evidence-based review to establish the global baseline status of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 – ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation.

Prof. Uhlenbrook emphasised that now is the time to act on SDG 6 and that achieving this goal is essential for progress on all other SDGs, posing a huge challenge for civil engineers. Water should be understood as the key enabler of all the other SDGs.

Investment in water and sanitation, he said, has a 5-fold increase on a country’s economic development (e.g. increased school attendance, health, productivity) so there should be far more investment in meeting SDG6.

Prof. Uhlenbrook presented maps indicating global performance on the critical key performance indicators (KPIs) for water.  These showed stark differences between different countries and the huge challenges that remain.

2.1 billion people lacking safely managed drinking water. 844 million people still lack a basic service (access to drinking water within 30m of their home) while 263 million people use a limited service. The newest research also shows significant subnational inequalities in basic drinking water services.

Meanwhile 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services and over 2.3 billion still lack basic sanitation services. 892 million people still practise open defecation and the world is not on track to end open defecation by 2030. Only 27 per cent of the population in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) has access to soap and water for hand washing on premises. However, access to hand washing facilities with soap will become a KPI for future UN reports which should help improve this.

Prof. Uhlenbrook was very pleased to report that all heads of state have now agreed that implementing integrated water resources management (IWRM) is essential towards achieving SDG 6.  Integration across the water and water-using sectors would ensure that water resources are shared effectively among many competing demands. Only 38% of countries reported at least medium high IWRM implementation in 2017/18.

Encouragingly 59% of countries with cross-border water resources reported that they had an operational trans-border agreement.  However, such agreements are very complex and take many years to establish, so actions in this area really need to be increased now.

Other actions that would help progress towards SDG 6 include increasing water-use efficiency by reducing water losses, such as tackling leakage in municipal distribution networks. There are significant opportunities for water saving from increased water efficiency in agriculture, which is the source of 70% of all freshwater withdrawals. By comparison, 10% of all freshwater withdrawals are for cooling processes in the energy industry.

Currently, wastewater treatment uses 20% of the energy used by the water sector globally but by adopting existing energy-neutral technologies, wastewater treatment could become a global source of energy production.

More and better quality data capture related to gender, income and migration status at regional and local level is also needed to deliver effective solutions.  Smart technologies could be particularly helpful in providing data from developing countries even in regions where there is a marked lack of other infrastructure.

The final report from Prof. Uhlenbrook’s review is due to be published in June. A draft version is available at along with a ‘Public Dialogue’.

ICE is helping civil engineers to understand the role they can and should play in delivering the UN SDGs, including SDG 6. In October 2018 ICE, together with the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, are holding the first Global Engineering Congress to agree a worldwide response to deliver the UN SDGs.

Find out more and book your place at the GEC