UN Water’s 2023 Data Drive:

strengthening the evidence base for SDG 6 progress

19 May 2023 by The Water Diplomat

On the 2nd of May, UN Water launched the third round of global data compilation for sustainable development goal 6 (SDG 6) on water to integrate and mainstream the evidence base for global decision making on water and sanitation, the 2023 Data Drive. This third data drive is taking place against the background of a marked improvement over time in the breadth and depth of national reporting on SDG6 since the first data drive in 2016/2017 and the second in 2019/2020: the size and quality of the global data set guiding national and international decision making on water has improved steadily since the launch of the 2030 Agenda in 2015. While in 2019 countries were reporting on average on just seven water related indicators, this rose to 8,5 at the end 2022. Perhaps surprisingly, many countries from Sub Saharan Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe reported on ten or more SDG 6 indicators between 2018 and 2022, whereas their North America, Western European and Eastern Asian counterparts reported on between seven and nine indicators on average.     

The data drive covers four of the targets and seven of the indicators embedded within SDG 6, covering a wide range of thematic areas ranging from the proportion of a country’s wastewater flows that are safely treated to the change in water related ecosystems over time. The data drive is carried out by the UN-Water Integrated Monitoring Initiative for SDG 6 (IMI-SDG6), whereby different water related UN agencies act as custodian agencies for the monitoring of progress on each indicator. The aim of the data drive is to compile information from national governments on the status of different elements of the water cycle and to broadly track progress towards SDG 6 and communicate needs for policy development and decision making at national level. For each indicator there is a specific focal point in national government working together with colleagues within and outside their organization to compile data on that particular indicator. Similarly, countries have an overall focal point for SDG who functions as the main of contact for the IMI and receives information about cross-cutting and institutional issues related to SDG 6 monitoring, reporting, analysis and data use.

The reports from individual countries are compiled into a wide range of reports by UN Water focusing on individual indicators as well as on overarching themes. The information feeds into processes such as the High-Level Forum on Sustainable Development, the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development, and it informs global thematic processes on health, food security, disaster risk reduction and climate change. In 2021 it lay at the basis of UN Water’s 2018 synthesis report on progress in achieving sustainable development goal 6 (SDG 6) on water and sanitation, which already warned that the world was off track to achieve SDG 6 by 2030. It also enabled the 2021 UN Water  progress update , which made it clear that existing efforts needed to be quadrupled if SDG 6 is to be achieved by 2030. These conclusions are based on the country data on progress on SDG 6 indicators, which is collected and compiled by UN-Water in partnership with the custodian agencies for each of the 8 sub-targets within SDG6.

UN Water’s Integrated Monitoring Initiative for SDG6 supports countries in their monitoring of water and sanitation related indicators: country level data are compiled and validated by different custodian agencies, after which the work commences on an integrated and comprehensive data set across the 11 different indicators.  Historically, before SDG 6, data on water and sanitation was collected in the context of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in which data collection focused on access to ‘improved’ water and sanitation services. The MDG’s facilitated the development of the first global snapshot of access to water and sanitation, but the system had shortcomings in that it did not measure critical dimensions such as the quality of the service, its physical and economic availability, or its continuity. Beyond this, the system only covered the 11% of global water withdrawals dedicated to household water use. With the advent of SDG 6, a much more ambitious data collection effort was launched which embraced new topics such as water quality, water use efficiency, integrated water resources management, water related ecosystems, international cooperation and stakeholder participation. This enabled monitoring of the entire water cycle but required considerable expansion in monitoring capacity and therefore a global drive for data.

From fairly humble beginnings, member states are therefore currently reporting on more than 70% of the indicators. However, data collection and synthesis on some of the indicators still remains a challenge. The monitoring of water quality under SDG target 6.3, for instance, which embraces both the quantity of domestic and industrial wastewater that is safely treated, as well as the proportion of natural water bodies with good ambient water quality, still suffers from both a relative lack of water monitoring points and the complexity of tracking a very wide range of different pollutants. Similarly, the change in water-related ecosystems over time (indicator 6.6.1) involves a complex analysis of changes in different kinds of ecosystems over time which are hard to quantify or compare with each other.