SDGs can be smarter and better

Healthy drinking water and wastewater treatment for all

If you don’t measure what you want to know, you can’t manage the progress. That also applies to achieving the sustainability development goals (SDGs). This is why we prepared a report/publication, on a commission from the Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP) and the Amsterdam International Water Week (AIWW), about how the important SDG 6 – clean water and sanitation for all – could be concretised for the 28 EU member states, as a call on the political community.

Sustainable Development Goal number 6 of the United Nations has to do with clean water and sanitation for all. That’s a big challenge, because more than two billion people have no good drinking water, and more than four billion people have no good wastewater treatment. This goal – SDG 6 in short – is central to all of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, established by the United Nations. The SDGs are hugely important, not only for countries, regions and cities, but also for the business world. The SDGs are also a part of KWR’s recently updated research agenda. But how integrated and how smart are these goals and their indicators? Do they fit in with the circular economy of water, the challenges of climate adaptation, the extremely high costs for the water and wastewater infrastructure? And are we monitoring all this effectively? In short: does SDG 6 deal with the challenges of when water is excessive, insufficient or too dirty?

Concretising SDGs

This year, on a commission from the NWP and the AIWW, we prepared a report/publication about how this goal could be concretised for the 28 EU member states. The research results were explained during a presentation and round-table discussion at the AIWW in Amsterdam. The outcomes were also provided to Environmental Management for publication.


A thorough analysis of the targets and indicators of SDG 6 revealed that they are not all equally ‘SMART’ (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realisable and Time-bound). Considering, for instance, that according to a recently published OECD report, the cost of realising SDG 6 is more than $ 22,000 billion up to 2050, then a good diagnosis, followed by good monitoring is clearly a prerequisite.

Diagnosis and also implementation monitoring

The search for good indicators is to a significant degree a function of the availability of good data. This is an area we’ve built up a lot of experience in, thanks to our work on cities and to Stef Koop’s doctoral thesis.  It is also something that can produce dangerous circular reasoning: if you really need information, then you must also be very clear about it and make it a requirement, particularly since it represents a fraction of the total costs involved. After all, 1 per mille of 22,000 billion is 22 billion, which, to me, seems more than enough for all UN countries to effectively monitor the implementation of SDG 6.

Proposal for the political community

To put it bluntly: if you don’t measure what you want to know, you can’t manage the progress. Bryony Essex (a Master’s student at the University of Utrecht), Stef Koop and I have together proposed a workable set of indicators to enable the effective monitoring of the implementation progress of SDG 6 in Europe. Our proposal is directed at the political community. Political actors need to examine the indicators critically, set the targets explicitly and, whenever possible, also introduce improvements to our proposal, leading to a broad acceptance of a set of tools to be applied with regard to SDG 6. One key concept here is Distance-to-Target. What this means is that we have proposed indicators that specify how far one is from the politically-decided targets.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.