Leveraging Space Technologies to Achieve SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation

Visualization of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite in space over a tropical cyclone. Source: NASA

The Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SGD 6) focuses on ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for humankind. However, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2.2 billion people lack safely managed drinking water, 4.2 billion lack safely managed sanitation,  and 2.3 billion lack basic hygiene. Furthermore, 129 countries are not on track to meet the target of sustainably managed water resources by 2030.

To effectively monitor the progress of SDG 6, the United Nations developed eight targets and 11 indicators. In addition, six of the targets are outcome-oriented, while the remaining two are the means of achieving these targets.

The six target-oriented targets include:

  • achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for everyone;
  • achieving 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;
  • improving water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimising release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally;
  • dramatically increasing water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensuring sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity;
  • implementing integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate;
  • protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes.

The two means of achieving these targets include:

  • expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies;
  • Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management.
Space for SGD 6 – Global initiatives 

Water resource management is a critical environmental challenge currently facing humankind. However, water sustainability is essential to achieve many of the SDGs, particularly Goals (3, 6, 7, 11, 14, 15 and 17) but is interconnected to all the Goals. However, the SDGs are interwoven as such; to realise a positive result from SDG 6, they must be addressed collectively, as a unit.

Space technology (earth observation) is leveraged to improve investigations into the global water cycles, map watercourses and build early warning systems to mitigate the effects of floods, landslides, storms and droughts. This is increasingly utilised globally in the fight for universal access to safe water. Also, the traditional barriers (such as the cost of building and launching satellites) to the access and usage of satellite data are reducing as technological innovations are opening new doors to the management and delivery of important information to a broader audience.

To this end, UNOOSA partnered with the Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water (PSIPW) in 2018 to promote the use of space-based technology for increased access to water. This collaboration led to the establishment of Space4Water Project, a unique online platform that brings together space and water experts to share knowledge and resources. To date, the project has helped to create an enabling environment for leveraging space technologies and space-based solutions to improve water management, monitor SDGs and indicators directly or indirectly linked to water, facilitate improved water use and water resource sharing globally, and assist in related disaster management. Similarly, satellite remote sensing is growingly utilised as an essential source of in situ monitoring networks and, in some cases, is the one viable source. For example, satellite-based sensors can effectively measure virtually all the direct and indirect components of the hydrological cycle (water cycle). These include precipitation, evaporation, lake and river levels, surface water, soil moisture, snow, and total water storage (surface and subsurface water).

Furthermore, the advancement of technologies for data acquisition and storage, computation, and telemetry has reduced the cost of development of such systems and also made them more readily available for a range of scientific applications. As a result, several hyperspectral EO missions, for example, NASA’s HyspIRI, the Italian Space Agency’s  PRISMA demonstrator, the German Space Agency’s EnMAP mission, and India’s HySIS (Hyperspectral Imaging Satellite), offer advancements in spatial resolution of up to 30 m, more frequent revisit times and opportunities in the data collection of both water quality and availability. 

Also, NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) offers excellent opportunities to advance groundwater data. Among its innovations, GRACE has monitored the loss of ice mass from Earth’s ice sheets, improved understanding of the processes responsible for sea-level rise and ocean circulation, provided insights into where global groundwater resources may be shrinking or growing and where dry soils are contributing to drought. NASA also partnered with the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) to launch the GRACE Follow-On mission in 2018 to test a new technology designed to significantly improve the already remarkable precision of the GRACE measurement system. In addition, the GRACE Follow-On (GRACE-FO) continues to monitor changes in ice sheets and glaciers, underground water storage, the amount of water in large lakes and rivers, and changes in sea level to provide a unique view of Earth’s climate.

Space for SDG 6 in Africa

While water is abundant in Africa, there is also the realisation that this resource is precious and can often decide over life and death. Water can be both a key and a limiting factor to economic survival and poverty alleviation. Thus, water conservation and protection are essential aspects for managing Africa’s water resources. According to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) assessment of the global environment, two-thirds of the Earth’s population will live in water-stressed conditions by 2025 if current consumption patterns continue; in this category are 25 African states.

Also, within the framework of the African Water Vision for 2025, the World Commission of Water for the 21st Century highlighted several roadblocks that affect water resource management. These issues include the multiplicity of transboundary water basins, the variability of climate and rainfall patterns, the water scarcity and groundwater resources, the increased demand and water pollution, and environmental degradation. From a critical examination of these issues, it is evident that the need for means for the location of water resources is good management policies. 

Furthermore, the alarming degradation of water monitoring systems and the datedness of in situ measurement equipment in Africa necessitated additional solutions to enhance water governance based on accurate and timely water information. The integrated approach of Geographic Information System (GIS) and remote sensing has been recognised universally as a unique, effective, and highly versatile technology for evaluating, managing, and monitoring water resources. Earth observation satellite data can help to address these issues in a variety of ways. For example, data acquisition at high and low spatial resolution, at daily, monthly or seasonal intervals, and over a multitude of spectral bands is not a serious concern; the archives of space agencies contain a valuable and extensive mountain of data awaiting exploitation. However, the main concern lies in applying satellite images within hydrological, hydro-geological and environmental practices, integrating with other geospatial data sources, and the practical support for making decisions.

To this end, the Commission Internationale du Bassin Congo-Oubangui-Sangha (CICOS), based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, leads the GMES and Africa consortia in Central Africa. CICOS is partnering with Groupement d’Interet Economique pour le Service Commun d’Entretien des Voies Navigables du Congo et de la République Centrafricaine, Université de Kinshasa, Observatoire Satellital des Forêts d’Afrique Centrale, Commission du Bassin de Lac Tchad, and Centre de Recherche Hydrologiques of Cameroon. The consortium tackles water resource management by delivering user customised information on navigation, meteorological, hydrological, hydropower and drinking water production, agro-pastoral services, forest management and protected areas, among others.

Lastly, the world needs to leverage space technologies to transform how it manages its water resources and delivers water and sanitation services for humankind. In addition, urgent action is necessary to overcome this global crisis, as it affects all countries around the world, environmentally, socially and economically.


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