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Covid-19 makes delivering on the UN Sustainable Development Goals ever more vital

15 May 2020

The current Coronavirus pandemic should serve to remind civil engineers of the crucial importance of delivering on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Following last month’s second ICE Strategy Session, Mark Hansford reflects on how the industry can help deliver them.

Covid-19 makes delivering on the UN Sustainable Development Goals ever more vital
The pandemic's effects are being exacerbated by the crisis in delivering on clean water and sanitation targets (Image credit: Shutterstock)

The world today is dealing with a crisis of monumental proportions. Covid-19 is wreaking havoc across the globe, upending lives and livelihoods. The cost of the pandemic in terms of loss of human lives is tragic; the effects on the global economy severe. And for an Institution whose purpose has always been to improve lives by ensuring the world has the infrastructure systems it needs, it throws up a huge challenge.

Two years ago, using the UN Sustainable Development Goals as the framework and the Global Engineering Congress (GEC) as the forum, ICE signed a statement of intent to bring about transformative change in the way infrastructure is conceived, planned, financed, designed, built and maintained.

A commitment to sustainable development goals

This commitment has not changed; indeed over the next five years we believe that our critical priority is to collaborate with others to drive real progress in turning the UN Sustainable Development Goals into reality.

And therein lies the challenge. The coronavirus pandemic has hit at a time when the SDGs were gaining traction and a significant number of countries were making good progress. But as the world is seized with containing the spread of the virus and addressing its negative impacts, the reality is that countries are resetting their priorities, and reallocating resources to deal with the pandemic. This certainly is the right thing to do because the priority now is to save lives, and governments must do so at all costs.

Civil engineers and civil engineering is well placed to step in and ensure that even in these crucial times resources are not shifted away from crucial SDG actions. More so, the opportunity is there to ensure governments around the world rebuild better, investing in projects that are informed by the positive impact they will have on SDG goals.

Last December, ICE launched the Enabling Better Infrastructure programme, in partnership with organisations such as UNOPS, OECD and the University of Oxford. The programme helps decision-makers grappling with the challenge of designing and delivering infrastructure for the long-term benefits of communities around the world. Late last month an ICE Strategy Session set out just how the SDGs can be used to prioritise infrastructure programmes.

This is crucial work. Emerging evidence of the broader impact of the coronavirus crisis on achieving the SDGs is troubling. The World Bank estimates that the crisis will push some 11 million people into poverty. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates some 25 million people could lose their jobs. Investing in the right infrastructure, worldwide, can have a big impact on mitigating these losses.

Clean water and sanitation targets

Equally, in many parts of the world, the pandemic and its effects are being exacerbated by the crisis in delivering on clean water and sanitation targets (Goal 6). Enabling action to transform the availability of potable water and sanitation across the world remains a strategic priority for the ICE.

That’s because despite progress, billions of people still lack safe water,sanitation and handwashing facilities. UN data suggests that achieving universal access to even basic sanitation service by 2030 would require doubling the current annual rate of progress. More efficient use and management of water are critical to addressing the growing demand for water, threats to water security and the increasing frequency and severity of droughts and floods resulting from climate change.

This is surely where ICE and civil engineering more broadly can and must step up, and we were pleased to be able to shine a light on some of those striving to make a difference in Urgent Action, an e-book published on World Water Day in March and featuring articles from industry experts and academics, as well as such organisations as WaterAid, UNICEF and the Oxford University Centre for the Environment.

But there is much more to be done. ICE is ensuring we deliver on that Global Engineering Congress pledge through the Sustainability Route Map programme led by ICE past president professor David Balmforth with three workstreams.

Working in parallel with this programme and addressing three key SDGs that specifically address the net zero carbon and the climate emergency, ICE has also established an all-new Net Zero Task Force chaired by senior vice president Rachel Skinner with three matching workstreams. This Task Force will be a delivering mechanism for recommendations to ICE and the profession emerging from the 2020 State of the Nation report, being launched on 1 July. Much work is being done and to find out more please email us.

Watch our ICE Strategy Session

  • Mark Hansford, director of engineering knowledge at Institution of Civil Engineers