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Improving water and sanitation, and sustaining our cities

SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation
An aerial view of Dublin, Ireland. A large river runs through a busy city.
© Trinity College Dublin

Welcome to Week 3 of our course on achieving sustainable development! In the last two weeks you have explored some of the challenges to sustaining health and peace around our globe. All of the case studies you have been shown are challenged by the three main areas we looked at in Week 1: instability, governance, and implementation.

This week is no different, and we will be looking at two more sustainable development goals. SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation and SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. These two goals have many intersecting challenges to achieving sustainable development.

“Sanitation is more important than independence.”

This quote from Mahatma Ghandi, in 1925, gives us an interesting starting point for why sanitation is so important for our world. He believed that improved sanitation was key to good health, well-being, and a stable society.

So, what do we mean by sanitation? The WHO defines sanitation as:

“the provision of facilities and services for the safe disposal of human urine and faeces.”
Since 1990, there have been great changes in improved sanitation around the world, with one third of the world gaining access to an improved sanitation facility. What we mean by “improved sanitation” is one that hygienically separates human excreta from human contact. For example, a flush toilet, connection to a sewer or septic system, or a composting toilet. However, there is still much to do to ensure that all individuals around the world have access to adequate and safe sanitation.

Coming up

As we will see in the next steps, poor sanitation has a major impact on SDG 3: Good health and Well-being, showing how all the SDGs are intertwined.
Prof Laurence Gill will be exploring the challenges we face to provide clean water and sanitation, and will examine some fascinating case studies, from Ireland, Tanzania, and India, that look to solve these challenges. We will also be encouraging you to think and reflect on your own experiences with water and sanitation.
You can take a look at the SDG 6 targets here for reference.
Another key part of the sustainable development puzzle are the challenges facing SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.
According to a number of scholars, we live in an era of planetary urbanisation. Cities are growing rapidly, while new urban settlements are being built across the world. Our planet is rapidly becoming an enormous urban artifact, and if we want to achieve sustainable development we must rectify urban development first.
Cities account for about 80% of global energy consumption, are responsible for over 70% of carbon emissions, and are sources of inequality, pollution, and ultimately unhappiness.
SDG 11 addresses these challenges by pushing governments to rethink urbanisation, asking them to take into account ideas of social justice and ecology. In essence, cities must become socially just and ecologically healthy places, meaning that we need to break both the gap between the rich and the poor, and the barrier between the built environment and the natural environment.
These challenges are relatively easy to tackle from a scientific perspective; disciplines such as urban ecology and design have been improving a lot, and we now know how to build architectures that are in balance with nature.
However, there are major issues from a governance perspective.
In a capitalist world, largely dominated by the logic of economic growth, it is hard to convince both state and non-state actors to join forces and work together to achieve social justice and protect the natural environment.
Ultimately, the built environment is a reflection of the political environment of a country, hence the need to target SDG 11 together with other SDGs, such as SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, and SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals.
After all, it is not a coincidence that renowned examples of sustainable urbanism, such as Freiburg and Stockholm, are located in countries with stable and democratic institutions, strong welfare systems, and state-of-the-art governance.

Coming up

You will be looking at the challenges we face in a rapidly expanding urban world with Prof Martina Kirchberger. Prof Federico Cugurullo will be exploring eco-cities and why these could be one of the solutions to SDG 11’s challenges.
You can take a look at SDG 11’s targets here for reference.
  • Thinking about SDG 11 and SDG 6’s targets, which do you think is the most difficult to achieve?

  • Why?

© Trinity College Dublin
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