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The Missing Piece of the Sustainable Development Goals: Within-Country Inequality

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

Water is necessary for life, yet billions of people around the world still lack access. This is of particular concern for communities facing population growth where there will be less water to go around as demand increases. Lack of water and sanitation has direct adverse effects on health causing nearly 1.7 million deaths per year and further influences social instability as it becomes more difficult for the government to deliver resources to those in need.

Water stress is one way to determine if people have enough to use and drink. The United Nations uses water stress as an indicator to determine when the demand on water supplies will impact a nation’s sustainability and result in potential conflict and competition between water users.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals prioritize the “availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” as one of their 17 primary development goals. A set of 232 indicators monitor progress towards these goals. Water stress is one indicator for the achievement of Goal 6: clean water and sanitation for all.

While the SDG measures are helpful in setting global goals for development, they fail to capture the inequality experienced within a country where the poorest and most vulnerable continue to be left behind. This analysis on water availability and accessibility assesses the disconnect between country level averages and the reality of resource accessibility at the subnational level.

Our research on three different case study countries- Colombia, Greece, and South Africa- analyzes how climate stressors impact a nation’s response to external shocks, like water stress. The graph below shows what our case countries look like in terms of water stress.

Figure 1. Levels of water stress as a percentage value from 2000-2017 created using the SDG Indicators Database. Missing data is filled by UN estimates for data.

You can see in Figure 1 that Colombia and Greece tend to have enough water available and are classified as having no water stress (less than 25%), while South Africa’s water supplies have become more stressed over time. Prone to drought, South Africa is stretched thin on water resources in areas like the Western Cape. An influx of population would further reduce water supplies.

However, this is just one side of the coin. The availability of water alone is not sufficient. Water resources must be equitably distributed and accessible to all. The following graph summarizes the situation of water accessibility in our three case countries.

Figure 2. Percent of population using safely managed drinking water services from 2000-2017 created using the SDG Indicators Database. Missing data is filled by UN estimates for data.

Figure 2 provides a snapshot of water accessibility in each country by showing the proportion of the population having access to safe drinking water services. You can see that Greece has had complete and sustained water accessibility for five years, despite the onset of increased migration and thus growing population.

In terms of water, Greece should be the most resilient to a population increase as the country has ample water supply and access. However, while Greece as a nation has low water stress, the government must import millions of cubic meters of water to the Aegean islands due to declining freshwater availability on the islands, highlighting the disconnect between resources and access at the subnational level.

Furthermore, while all countries signing onto the SDGs have pledged to ‘leave no one behind,’ one group has continued to be left behind: refugees. It is likely that the data does not capture those housed in camps in Greece where infrastructure and access to resources are diminished.

In Colombia, water is available, but it's not easily accessible. Roughly 28% of the population lives in slums, characterized as lacking one or more of the following conditions: improved access to water, improved access to sanitation, sufficient living area, and durable housing. We can see however, that Colombia is developing capacity with a very slight increase over the 17-year period captured by the data.

In terms of water, South Africa is the least resilient, having the highest levels of water stress and a declining proportion of the population with access to safe drinking water services. At the national level, South Africa faces medium levels of water stress compared to other countries of the world, but when you take a closer look at the subnational level, you find the situation is much worse.

For instance, the Western Cape, home to the second most populous city of South Africa: Cape Town, experiences extremely high levels of water stress. To make matters worse, residents of poorer townships and informal settlements suffer from inadequate water and sanitation services. This creates negative consequences for social and economic development and increases the potential for competition and conflict amongst water users.

Just last month, residents of the Khayelitsha township in Cape Town took to the streets to protest a lack of basic water and sanitation. Residents are angry that the local government is neglecting them of their most basic and fundamental human rights. This highlights again the disparities between water resources and access, particularly in informal settlements like slums and townships.

The water stress indicator brings to our attention how water availability and access to water and sanitation services can become so dire it results in conflict. The climate-conflict literature suggests that social conflict is the most likely outcome in situations of water scarcity. But we can see that this danger of social instability isn't clear just by looking at national levels, as the subnational picture shows how resources do not necessarily equate to access for everyone. Water is an inherently local issue suggesting that we should expect to see these social conflict events take place in local communities that struggle to sustain and provide water resources to their populous.

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