The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has issued a report on the crucial role of science, technology, and innovation (STI) in resolving the worldwide water and sanitation crisis. Currently, UN-Water reports that around 2 billion individuals lack access to safe drinking water, while 5.4 billion do not have access to safely managed sanitation services. World Water Day on March 23, with the theme of accelerating change to solve the water and sanitation crisis, aims to promote awareness and motivate action towards achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, which aims to ensure clean water and sanitation for all.
The report highlights that the use of frontier technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), big data, and the Internet of Things (IoT) in monitoring water and sanitation infrastructure can hasten progress towards SDG 6 and help combat climate change as the demand for freshwater is expected to exceed supply by 40% by 2030.
To increase the use of STI in addressing the global water and sanitation crisis, the UN’s Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) will address the issue in its 26th annual session from March 27 to 31, with UNCTAD supporting the CSTD in establishing synergies between UN-wide initiatives for leveraging STI for development, including SDG 6.
Enrique Cabrera, Vice President of the International Water Association and a Professor at the Polytechnic University of Valencia in Spain, stated that the combination of open digital tools, capacity-building, and international standards and frameworks is critical in scaling up efforts towards SDG 6. Cabrera emphasized the importance of adapting water solutions to local conditions as one size will not fit all.
Innovative technology adoption and collaboration are also essential in accelerating progress towards SDG 6, with Doulaye Kone, Deputy Director of the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, stressing the importance of cooperation among various stakeholders in fast-tracking progress towards SDG 6. Kone cited industry, academia, and government stakeholders in China, India, Senegal, and South Africa pioneering transformative solutions to make sanitation services inclusive and safe for all, particularly women and girls.
The CSTD session will include a high-level panel on ensuring safe water and sanitation, with Sucharit Koontanakulvong, a distinguished scholar in water resources management at Chulalangkorn University in Thailand. Koontanakulvong noted that early warning systems utilizing drone technologies or deeply integrated earth observation systems can aid in disaster threat prediction and mitigation, while solutions like smart metering can enhance the efficiency of existing water and sanitation systems.
According to Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s Director for Technology and Logistics and Head of the CSTD Secretariat, access to safe water and sanitation remains a challenge in developing countries, with climate change and increased pressure on water, food, and energy resources worsening the situation. The CSTD will continue to act as the focal point in the UN system for knowledge-sharing, consensus-building, and securing synergies between UN-wide initiatives to leverage STI for development, including SDG 6.
In conclusion, new technologies hold tremendous potential in resolving the global water and sanitation crisis, with global partnerships and cooperation among various stakeholders crucial in accelerating progress towards SDG 6. Ad-hoc solutions will be required for each local situation to determine the best use of the latest technologies and how to optimize the use of existing financial resources. With the acceleration of STI adoption and collaboration, it is hoped that the global water and sanitation crisis will be effectively addressed.