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Spain puts water and sanitation at the heart of SDGs debate

Development Policy

Spain puts water and sanitation at the heart of SDGs debate

Children in this Cambodian village enjoy better health because of a new water well.


SPECIAL REPORT / Despite heavy cuts in its development budget due to the financial crisis, Spain remains committed to helping the international community achieve the Millenium Development Goals and prepare the ground for the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular in the area of water and sanitation. EurActiv Spain reports.

Madrid wants the topic of water and sanitation, a service that is taken for granted in Western societies but is still considered a luxury for millions of human beings, to be at the core of the debates in the post 2015 development agenda.

According to UN figures, 2,500 million people lack access to adequate sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines, and 11% of the world’s population, about 780 million people, still have no access to clean water. This has heavy consequences on social and economic development and directly violates human dignity, besides having a negative impact on the environment, experts warned.

Spain plays a major role in the sector through a powerful tool: the Cooperation Fund for Water and Sanitation (FCAS) for Latin America and the Caribbean (created in 2007). The Fund focuses in particular in rural areas and in “peri-urban” regions (located in-between the urban core and the rural landscapes), where access to clean water is more difficult.

A major player in water and sanitation

Since that year, the Fund has promoted more than 66 programs in 19 countries with a total investment of €1,276 million in that region. The FCAS is expected to directly benefit a total of 3 million people, but has an even greater impact, since investment in water and sanitation is essential to progress in education, health and gender equality.

Despite the fact that Latin America has reached most of the current Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) on access to water, access to sanitation remains a challenge. According to a study by CEPAL (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), 60% of the population in the region do not have full access to water supplies 24 hours a day, 50% has inadequate water facilities, so they are not able to connect their homes to the public clean water network, and only 30% of the wastewater is adequately treated in the region.

Fernando Frutuoso de Melo, director-general at DG International Cooperation and Development (DEVCO) in the European Commission, told EurActiv Spain that investing in that sector is essential, and can also have a positive impact on the EU on the long term.

“If you want to be serious about things like access to water and sanitation, demography, migration or climate change, among other SDGs challenges, you must accept that massive investments are needed. Because all of us, in the end, can only have a better living if everybody has a better living outside Europe. Europeans are realising that. Investing in development is also investing in ourselves,” he stressed.

The proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) consist of 17 goals and 169 underlying targets to guide international development priorities and collaboration up to 2030.

Co-financing: a catalyst towards the SDGs?

“Co-financing (public-private) in the water and sanitation sector can be a catalyst for the new SDGs (with 2030 as target). We need to build strategic alliances among governments, the civil society, the private sector and the donors, because clean water is not a local issue anymore, it is universal,” De Melo added.

To guarantee sustainability in the future SDGs, it is crucial to have a good monitoring and accountability system, so that everybody respects their commitments, the Portuguese-born official said. He was speaking at a conference on water and sanitation that took place on 8 June in the Spanish capital, with the support of the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECID) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Experts warned that to boost access to clean water and sanitation after 2015, it would be necessary to forge more strategic alliances. Future projects in that sector should also have a proper follow-up system with full technical assistance.

New projects in water and sanitation, in the context of the SDGs, should also have a “leverage effect” for future donation sources. Also common rules and a consistent legal action framework are needed, in order to increase transparency, capacities and efficiency.

Bolivia puts question marks

Speaking to EurActiv Spain, René Orellana, minister for Planning and Development of Bolivia, put a big question mark on the financing of the new SDGs, an issue to be tackled in the next development conference in Addis Ababa in mid- July.

“Of course, we consider SDGs a huge opportunity for the future but at the same time, they represent a tremendous challenge. Where will all this public resources will come from? Nobody has a clear answer yet,” he said. Bolivia is one of the major beneficiaries, a priority country, of the Spanish Cooperation.

Asked about the role of the private sector in development, one of the major topics for the post 2015 agenda, Orellana said nobody should be allowed to “make business out of development”. “Please do not privatise, do not make business with human rights like access to water and sanitation,” Orellana pleaded.

Bolivia is a good example of projects on water and sanitation carried out by the Spanish Cooperation. The project “Access to safe water, sanitation, training on healthy habits and community empowerment in rural areas of Bolivia”, is already implemented in 89 rural communities. The project, which covered the period 2010-2014, benefited 22,100 people.

Water, sanitation and UN targets

Water and sanitation are target number ten of goal seven in the current UN MDGs. The objective is to halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by the end of this year.

Water, sanitation and health are also directly interlinked. Several current MDGs tackle this challenge: number four refers to “reducing the mortality of children under the five years”, number five aims at “improving maternal health”, and number six refers to “combat HIV / AIDS, malaria and other diseases”.

“Water is a key factor, an essential pillar of the Spanish Cooperation,” said Gonzalo Robles, Spanish Secretary-General for International Development Cooperation. These policies are also directly related with other development goals, among them gender, he stressed. “Without water policies, many girls in the world could not be it in school”, Robles said. Spain wants to put water and sanitation, among other topics, at the core of the international debates on the future SDGs.

Sustainable water and sanitation

As part of the process of the preparations for the Post-2015 Development Agenda, the Open Working Group (OWG) on the SDGs put forward, in a report issued in July 2014 to the UN General Assembly, several proposals related to water and sanitation.

The OWG proposal focuses in particular on goal six, dedicated to sustainable water and sanitation, where the six substantive targets capture much of the 2013/14 UN-Water recommendations of a post-2015 global goal for water.

Targets 6.1 and 6.2 substantially improve the MDGs commitment on drinking water and sanitation. Targets 6.3 to 6.6 deepen the objective to cover the whole water cycle, including wastewater management, water quality, integrated water resources management, water-use efficiency, and water-related ecosystems.

Strategic alliances after 2015

At the Madrid conference, Lina Pohl, Minister of Environment and Natural Resources of El Salvador, stressed the importance of establishing strategic alliances to make water and sanitation “a sustainable resource” in the framework of the SDGs. “We must focus our efforts on water governance, better planning and adequate infrastructures”, allowing the alliances public-private to merge and increase efficiency,” she said.

El Salvador needs an urgent action plan to overcome a “critical situation” in terms of clean water and sanitation. “None of our rivers has good water quality. The situation is critical”, Pohl said.


A lack of investment in water, hygiene and sanitation as well as government failure to plan country-wide programmes has hindered progress, according to the UN water global analysis and assessment of sanitation and drinking water report.

The study, which is based on data from 94 countries and 23 aid agencies, said 1.8 billion people use a source of drinking water that is contaminated and 1 billion defecate in the open, nine in ten of whom live in rural areas.

Water and sanitation goals have struggled to capture the attention of international donors, who have prioritised spending on other MDG targets.

About 1 billion people are thought to defecate in the open, the report said, with 600 million of them in India.

But the report said more than 2 billion people have gained access to clean water over the past 25 years. The number of children dying from diarrhoeal disease – which is linked to dirty water – has fallen from 1.5 million in 1990 to around 600,000 in 2012, the study said.


· 13-16 July: Third Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

· 25-27 September: United Nations Summit in New York to adopt Sustainable development goals

· 30 November-11 December: United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris

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