Water is intricately linked to all the United Nations’ other 16 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It’s already clear that “everybody wins” is not the true story of sustainability. Even more surprising is how different sustainability goals relate to each other, and it couldn’t be more complicated than when it comes to water.
According to a new paper published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, water is intricately linked to all the United Nations’ other 16 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as competition gets remixed with mutual support, trade-offs, and synergies. The findings are based on a systematic literature review and in-depth case studies of the links.
When it comes to SDGs like health and wellbeing, the relationships are generally clear: freshwater is essential to ensure a good quality of life and general wellbeing.
Yet the ways we strive for those ends often undermine water quality, provision, and health as such. One key example is that the overuse of antibiotics creates residuals and resistant bacteria paving their way into waterways, which can, in the long-run, lead to bacterial epidemics.
With other SDG goals like economic growth and poverty elimination, it gets even more complicated. An increase in economic welfare often comes with higher discharges of pollutants into water sources. However, at a certain level of income a society can invest more money in improving wastewater treatment and purification methods and systems.
Eliminating hunger requires a careful choice of strategies when water quality is taken into account. Intensified agriculture is likely to increase water pollution, while sustainable food production systems help to protect water quality through less agricultural waste and less nitrogen runoff.
Among other relationships worthy of attention is the importance of public education and reducing corruption for good water governance. Also key is the role of women in ensuring water quality in developing countries. No less important are complex impacts of climate change on water quality globally.
The authors conclude that while synergies are possible in most cases, we should be aware that tradeoffs will often remain part of the story. Research of this kind helps us better understand the complex links between SDGs so we can avoid harboring hopes about silver bullets.