Creating a circular economy for sustainable water management that benefits all

September 26, 2023
Australia, India and Fiji hosted a side event at the UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) in New York on 13 July 2023. The event – Sustainable Management of Water for Sustainable Development for All – explored the linkages between SDG6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG12 (responsible consumption and production), SDG13 (climate action), and more generally, sustainable water management as an enabler of all SDGs. It was an opportunity for private sector, civil society and government stakeholders to share best practice on sustainable consumption of water, including circular economy approaches to better manage resources, make and use products, and regenerate natural systems.
From L to R: His Excellency Mr. Ravindra Raguttahalli, Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations; Her Excellency Ambassador Giovanna Valverde, Co-chair of the Board of the 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production and Ambassador in Kenya and Permanent Representative of Costa Rica to UNEP and UN Habitat; Professor Tony Wong (Professor of Sustainable Development at Monash University and Chair of the Water Sensitive Cities Australia Think Tank); His Excellency Mr. Filipo Tarakinikini, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Fiji to the United Nations; Mr. Johannes Cullman, Vice Chair of UN Water, and Scientific Adviser to the President of the UN General Assembly; and Ms. Kerry Bannigan, Executive Director of Fashion Impact Fund

While Australia, Fiji and India are very different in terms of their geography, population and economy, they share similar water challenges – ensuring water security within the context of growing population, urbanisation and climate change impacts. A common thread throughout the discussion was the need to re-imagine urban water systems that will support transition to a circular economy.

The panel – chaired by Professor Tony Wong  – identified some key principles and provided local context on how these principles can be operationalised:

  • reducing water consumption (e.g. water use efficiencies, demand management, reduction in non-revenue water etc.)
  • reusing products (and thus embedded water) and/or extending its use for as long as possible (e.g. influencing the fashion habits of consumers)
  • recycling water through treatment and use on a fit-for-purpose basis (e.g. recycling of used water and stormwater harvesting)
  • restoring water systems (e.g. replenishing groundwater aquifers)
  • regenerating natural systems (e.g. improving stream health through restoring supporting hydrology, habitat creation and improved water quality).

Importantly, the discussions that ensued highlighted that these common principles can guide and support context-specific solutions that reflect local biophysical and social/institutional conditions. For example:

  • India has the opportunity to leapfrog towards a circular economy in their design of essential water and sanitation systems for local communities not serviced by conventional centralised infrastructure .
  • Fiji identified reducing water leakages in aging infrastructure as a key priority, a significant water conservation step in reducing water consumption.
The circular economy is a new way of creating value, and ultimately prosperity.

In his concluding remarks, Tony reminded us we have no excuse not to implement circular economy practices:

“A circular economy framework can be as complex or as simple as society wants it to be, and it can be adapted to specific social/institution and technical contexts. In its simplest form, it could be reducing water consumption and reusing water in individual households. At an industrial scale, it could be connecting effluent from our sanitation systems to productive landscapes.”

While he was in New York, Tony also participated in several other official and side events during the HLPF.

“There’s a palpable sense of urgency to accelerate progress in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Despite progress, all nations are falling short of their SDG targets at the halfway point, with just 7 years to deliver transformational change. ‘Halfway there but nowhere near’ was a common catch-cry,” he said.

Other key observations include the following:

  • Examples of progress and innovation provide the inspiration for accelerating and upscaling for further advancements.
  • Collectively small island developing states expressed their need for more support – particularly grant-based funding – as they juggle climate crises and significant debt burden.
  • Minority groups reminded delegates that many people are being left behind, as multiple crises – including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change – undo recent gains in SDGs.
  • SDG6 progress is ‘alarmingly off track’ according to the SDG6 Synthesis Report 2023. Despite increasing access to safely managed drinking water and sanitation since 2015, 2.2 billion and 3.5 billion people still lacked safely managed drinking water and safely managed sanitation respectively in 2022.