SDG SERIES: Progress on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene through SDG 6? Only if the Focus Shifts to Eliminating Inequalities

SDG goal 6: clean water and sanitation
SDG goal 6: clean water and sanitation

Inga Winkler and Virginia Roaf

Much effort has gone into elaborating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the human rights community has made significant strides in integrating human rights into the goals. The human right to safe drinking water and sanitation is explicitly mentioned in “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” but more importantly the SDGs address substantive human rights concerns.1


6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all
6.2 By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations
6.3 By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally

SDG 6 on water, sanitation and hygiene holds significant promise and addresses many of the shortcomings of the former Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Whereas the MDG target called for halving the proportion of people without access to water and sanitation, the new SDG 6 requires achieving universal access.

SDG 6 and its suggested indicators also reflect human rights criteria to a greater extent. The experience of the MDGs has shown that the devil is often in the detail, namely the indicators that are used to monitor progress towards the targets. The indicators for the MDGs were heavily criticized for not monitoring water quality, even though the target called for access to safe drinking water. In comparison, the SDG targets refer to safe water and adequate sanitation, and the WHO and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (the body responsible for monitoring progress towards the targets) suggests monitoring whether water and sanitation are “safely managed.”2 Moreover, whereas the MDGs did not address the disposal, management and treatment of wastewater, SDG 6.3 now explicitly focuses on reducing pollution and treating wastewater. Finally, the water target (but not the one on sanitation and hygiene) also calls for affordable services, but it has to be acknowledged that developing robust indicators for monitoring progress on affordability is complex and unresolved.3

The greatest challenge remains addressing inequalities in access to water and sanitation. Equality has been identified as the biggest blind spot of the MDGs due to their focus on average attainments. Disadvantaged individuals and groups, including ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, and people living in informal settlements have not benefitted from gaining access to water and sanitation to the same extent as others. The last few decades have shown that there is no trickle-down effect. The most marginalized and disadvantaged in society continue to lose out; inequalities persist and grow.

The SDGs, in recognizing the shortcomings of the MDGs, attempt to tackle entrenched inequalities, by creating specific goals to achieve gender equality (SDG 5), and reduce inequality within and among countries (SDG 10). SDG 6 on water and sanitation focuses on ‘equitable’ access to water and sanitation, with women, girls and those living in vulnerable situations singled out for special attention in target 6.2.

However, to ensure that SDG 10 on equality is not just window-dressing and to keep it as a cross-cutting concern, equality must permeate all policy fields. The institutions responsible for implementing the SDGs must not be tempted to start with the ‘low-hanging fruit’ to achieve quick ‘progress’, and leave those who are living in vulnerable situations, the marginalized individuals and groups, and women and girls to wait their turn. Addressing the human rights of people who have been left behind for too long must take immediate priority. Real progress is progress that reaches the most disadvantaged people—in this case, those who experience discrimination and inequalities in access to water and sanitation.

To ensure accountability for eliminating these inequalities, it will be essential to strengthen the monitoring of inequalities through a combined reading of SDG 6 and SDG 10 on equality. One way to bring these goals together is at the technical level through indicators. Target 10.2 is, ‘By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status’.4 This is a rather broad target and the relevant indicator must ensure that inclusion is monitored from the outset. One proposal for an indicator to capture the elimination of inequalities as a cross-cutting concern is to ‘measure the progressive reduction of inequality gaps over time, disaggregated by groups […] for selected social, economic, political and environmental SDG targets’.5 The disaggregation by groups needs to relate to different factors such as ethnicity, language, religion, caste, gender, age, disability, nationality, place of residence, and others.

If we are to take the rhetoric of ‘leave no-one behind’ seriously, then monitoring the reduction and elimination of inequalities is imperative. Unless we start to identify who does not have access to water and sanitation, why certain groups of people often face systemic exclusion, and how the difficulties and bottlenecks can be overcome, the promise of equality will once again be an empty promise.

Disaggregating data, monitoring the progressive reduction of inequalities and truly understanding equality as a cross-cutting concern is complex —but it is certainly feasible.6 For the water, sanitation and hygiene sector, there have long been efforts to improve the monitoring on inequalities.7 This has included monitoring rural vs. urban disparities in access, analysis according to different levels of wealth in numerous countries, some examination of gender inequalities in access, particularly with respect to the collection of water, as well as initial monitoring of disparities in access according to religious, linguistic and ethnic groups.8

However, there is far more that needs to be done. Many steps have been taken at the initiative of the Joint Monitoring Programme. It is now initiating a task force on inequalities, engaging the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation and other sector professionals, to consider options for improving the monitoring of inequalities. Among other areas, inequalities within the household need to be monitored: anecdotal evidence suggests that even where there is a toilet in the home, not everybody living within the household is able to access it. This is particularly true for children, but menstruating women, persons with disabilities, or people with particular (generally stigmatised) illnesses may also be excluded from using a household latrine.

Integrating processes for monitoring inequalities into the SDG framework will make inequalities more visible, increase political accountability and promote cross-fertilization between sectors.

In conclusion, we urge States, and others working on implementing the SDGs to set incentives to eliminate inequalities by focusing on the most disadvantaged people, and measuring progress against these targets. There is a need to redefine progress within the context of development—“progress” does not leave significant parts of the population behind.

Inga Winkler is a human rights researcher based at the Center for Human Rights & Global Justice at New York University. More information on her work on her website and on Twitter.

Virginia Roaf is an independent consultant working on the human rights to water and sanitation.


1 “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, Draft outcome document of the United Nations summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda, UN Doc A/69/L.85 , Para. 7, available at:

2 Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators, List of indicators proposals (11 August 2015). See the suggested indicators for targets 6.1 and 6.2 suggested by WHO and UNICEF, available at

3 G. Hutton “Monitoring “Affordability” of water and sanitation services after 2015: Review of global indicator options” A paper submitted to the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, 20th March 2012, available at

4 See note 1.

5 See note 2, suggested indicator 10.2.1.

6 Inga Winkler, Margaret Satterthwaite, and Catarina de Albuquerque, Treasuring What We Measure and Measuring What We Treasure: Post-2015 Monitoring for the Promotion of Equality in the Water and Sanitation Sector, Wisconsin Journal of International Law 2014 (32/3), 547-594.

7 See e.g. WHO and UNICEF, Joint Monitoring Programme on Water Supply and Santiation, Drinking water: Equity, safety and sustainability Thematic report, 2011.

8 WHO and UNICEF, Joint Monitoring Programme on Water Supply and Santiation, Progress on sanitation and drinking-water, Update, 2014.