Water: a unique opportunity for the EU to take the lead on SDGs

Europe's World

Digital, Skills & Inequalities

Picture of Sophie Aujean
Sophie Aujean

EU Representative at WaterAid, formerly at ILGA-Europe and the European Commission

In a meeting of the European Parliament Development Committee earlier this year, Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University urged the EU not to lose leadership on the Agenda 2030. If the Agenda 2030 was going to be successful, he argued, the European Union must play a key role in its implementation. Moreover, if the EU is to be wholly successful, it can only be so through demonstrating effective leadership on sustainable development, both in Europe and beyond.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is an ambitious set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) compiled to address the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. It applies to all countries and should guide both EU and member states’ policies and practices, both in terms of European relations and in their relationships with their partner countries.

The first UN summit on SDGs since the adoption of the Agenda 2030 will take place in September in New York. This is the time for world leaders  starting with the EU  to show political leadership and drive a clarion call for agreement on a clear roadmap for a decade of action on SDGs.

One of those Goals – SDG 6 – aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. SDG 6 is one of the most interconnected goals, with access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) aiding economic development, poverty reduction, education, health, the environment and much more.

In today’s modern world, however, injustice is widespread: millions of people have their access to these human rights denied, simply because of who they are, how much money they have or where they live.

EU institutions and member states collectively represent the largest donor to the water and sanitation sector

In Europe alone, 14mn people do not have access to a basic drinking water source. Furthermore, 17% of Europe’s territory and at least 11% of its population has been affected by water scarcity. Worldwide, 31% of schools do not have clean water and 892mn people defecate in the open. 

Why does WASH matter for the EU? In a context where debates around migration are taking up a lot of space on the EU political agenda, perhaps the spotlight should shift to an area that is arguably more worthy of our attention, such as access to basic services: WASH, nutrition, education and healthcare facilities.

Ahead of the EU elections, and along with the upcoming renewal of its institutions and seven-year budget (multi-annual financial framework), the EU has a unique opportunity to show leadership on WASH. It could adopt and promote measures that would have a tangible impact on people’s lives in both Europe and the wider world.

EU institutions and member states collectively represent the largest donor to the water and sanitation sector, contributing 40% of global overseas development assistance. However, this is only a very small proportion of the EU’s overall aid budget (3% on average over the period 2011–2016). The EU cannot claim to be able to eradicate poverty, to prevent and treat communicable diseases and to ensure women’s empowerment without first investing in WASH.

The current negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework (MFF) will therefore allow the EU and its member states to maximise the impact of their aid by ensuring that WASH services are integrated into all EU health, nutrition, education, disability, gender equality and climate programmes and strategies.

In Europe alone, 14mn people do not have access to a basic drinking water source. Furthermore, 17% of Europe’s territory and at least 11% of its population has been affected by water scarcity. Worldwide, 31% of schools do not have clean water and 892mn people defecate in the open. 

Why does WASH matter for the EU? In a context where debates around migration are taking up a lot of space on the EU political agenda, perhaps the spotlight should shift to an area that is arguably more worthy of our attention, such as access to basic services: WASH, nutrition, education and healthcare facilities.

Ahead of the EU elections, and along with the upcoming renewal of its institutions and seven-year budget (multi-annual financial framework), the EU has a unique opportunity to show leadership on WASH. It could adopt and promote measures that would have a tangible impact on people’s lives in both Europe and the wider world.

EU institutions and member states collectively represent the largest donor to the water and sanitation sector, contributing 40% of global overseas development assistance. However, this is only a very small proportion of the EU’s overall aid budget (3% on average over the period 2011–2016). The EU cannot claim to be able to eradicate poverty, to prevent and treat communicable diseases and to ensure women’s empowerment without first investing in WASH.

The current negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework (MFF) will therefore allow the EU and its member states to maximise the impact of their aid by ensuring that WASH services are integrated into all EU health, nutrition, education, disability, gender equality and climate programmes and strategies.

[I]it is also in the EU’s own interest to demonstrate leadership on the Agenda 2030

Moreover, there seems to be renewed political momentum on WASH at the EU level, signalled by the adoption of EU Conclusions on water diplomacy in November 2018 and the upcoming launch of an EU reference document on water and the EU human rights guidelines on water and sanitation.

It is critical that the EU builds on the commitments pledged in those documents by taking life-changing measures for the most marginalised communities in Europe and beyond, while simultaneously ensuring that human rights relating to water and sanitation are protected and promoted. The EU should prioritise ‘reaching the furthest behind first’ by pushing for equitable and inclusive service provision. Adequate financing for SDG 6 will therefore be crucial for reducing inequalities, ending extreme poverty and improving the lives and wellbeing of everyone, everywhere.

Many Europeans probably feel that human rights are abstract. It is likely that a huge majority are not familiar with the Sustainable Development Goals. However, SDGs are at the core of many of their concerns, from quality of education to affordable energy or responsible production. The EU thus has a key role to play in implementing them and encouraging its partners to follow the same path.

But it is also in the EU’s own interest to demonstrate leadership on the Agenda 2030. It might even be the only way forward for Europe to win hearts and minds. It needs to show – now – that it can profoundly improve people’s lives, in a sustainable way, and lead on solutions to global challenges.

There are ten years left to achieve the SDGs. The EU must seize its unique chance to show it can make a difference. This is one of the critical challenges of the upcoming EU elections. “This time I’m voting”, because it is critical that the next European Parliament puts people and the planet first.

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