The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an ambitious blueprint for advancing human well-being globally while preserving the planet’s biosphere. Adopted in 2015, the SDGs look to confront several natural and societal challenges—from climate change and threats to marine and terrestrial ecosystems to poverty, hunger, and gender inequality—all by 2030. Together they provide the foundation for the global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Water plays a foundational role in human prosperity, economies, and cultures, as well as in the planet’s biogeophysical functioning. Progress on SDG 6, which is dedicated to providing and managing clean water and sanitation for everyone, is thus critical to the broader 2030 Agenda.

The global consensus among water scientists, policymakers, and implementers is that we are losing ground on achieving SDG 6.

In July 2020, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres stated, “The water and sanitation crisis demands a holistic, systemic and multilateral response.…Water is required to deliver almost all other SDGs, from global health to food security, and it is essential for resilience to climate change.” In the same speech, however, Guterres noted that SDG 6 is “badly off track.”

Indeed, the global consensus among water scientists, policymakers, and implementers is that we are losing ground on achieving SDG 6. Nearly 70 countries, for example, are demonstrating progress that’s too slow to achieve just one portion of the goal: universal access to basic drinking water [UN Water, 2018]. And on the basis of data from 2022 from 120 member states, the United Nations reported that the rate of progress needed to increase sixfold on average [UN Water, 2023].

What we need are new approaches to better understand and manage water resources, promote water security, and accelerate progress toward this essential development goal. Recent efforts to engage water experts and stakeholders from around the world, including through a global virtual marathon event, are bringing ideas about such approaches to the table.

The Ineffectiveness of Siloed Solutions

Since the end of the 20th century, there has been a rich history of policy interventions and approaches aimed at enhancing water security, though these efforts have been poorly coordinated. They have suffered from the “siloed” nature of both conventional water solutions and the policy actors responsible for them. For example, building large water storage reservoirs, a central component of many countries’ development agendas, focuses on only the perceived benefits of increasing water supply to agricultural, domestic, and other users without factoring in broader social and environmental concerns raised by building large dams.

A narrow focus like this can compromise and preclude more integrated and inclusive solutions that account for societal water, food, energy, and ecosystem needs and that have been shown to yield longer-term environmental, social, and economic benefits [e.g., Godinez-Madrigal et al., 2020].

Opportunities to consider integrated solutions and avoid unintended consequences are available, but unfortunately, narrow sectoral solutions for water security have continued to dominate. Other examples include introducing piped water to communities without considering the need for wastewater treatment, installing solar panels to pump groundwater at the cost of exacerbating aquifer depletion, and pursuing uncoordinated multipurpose dam operations that are inefficient and costly. Such traditional engineering approaches can also encumber lower-income countries with huge debts.

The advantages of holistic, science-informed solutions to water problems around the world are well recognized.

The tradition of siloing water security policies and practices hinders universal access to water and sanitation, and it reflects limitations in the underlying knowledge base, governance, and management capacities of the agencies who craft and implement them.

The advantages of holistic, science-informed solutions to water problems around the world are well recognized [High-Level Panel on Water, 2018]. Such solutions exist, for example, in the form of “green-gray” approaches combining the individual benefits of natural and engineered systems, such as the use of protected, rehabilitated, or engineered wetlands for urban waste processing [Browder et al., 2019; United Nations Environment Programme, 2014]. However, difficulties in practically implementing these solutions, including in the understanding of the economic costs and benefits of such blended systems, have resulted in continued and broad-scale impairment of water resource systems [Vörösmarty et al., 2021].

Achieving the ambitions of SDG 6 by 2030 is premised on progress measured by a series of 12 indicators developed and accepted by 192 countries. These indicators include, for example, the fraction of a country’s population using safely managed drinking water services, the proportion of protected and restored water-related ecosystems, and a country’s aggregate level of water stress.

In practice, countries’ tendencies to focus on only one or two of the indicators will ultimately be self-defeating: The siloed solutions they pursue may lead to successes in some indicators but failures in others. On the other hand, achieving a wider range of SDG 6 indicators is a hugely complex task that is beyond the scope and capacity of many national agencies tasked with meeting these goals. Accounting for interlinkages and trade-offs among the different SDGs makes matters even more complex [Nilsson et al., 2016].

A Virtual Global Marathon

In 2020, 35 U.N. and affiliated agencies dealing with water recognized the slow progress made toward SDG 6 in the first 5 years since its adoption, as well as the inherent obstacles to progress. In response, they developed an SDG 6 Global Acceleration Framework, identifying five “cross-cutting and interdependent ‘accelerators’” to shift from the business as usual approach that has historically constrained society’s ability to meet the goal. These accelerators, which we see as generating a critical focal point for global water security efforts, center on financing, data and information, capacity development, governance, and innovation (Figure 1).

Stylized illustration of a propeller, with each of the five blades labeled with a different “accelerator” identified by the Sustainable Development Goal 6 Global Acceleration Framework
Fig. 1. The Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) Global Acceleration Framework identified five interdependent “accelerators,” depicted here together as a propeller to drive progress on achieving the goal.

The framework and global accelerators generated much interest ahead of the U.N. Water Conference in New York in March 2023, and they were used to structure critical dialogues at the conference, reflecting their value in the development agenda. However, practical limitations as well as lingering impacts of COVID-19 on travel prevented many stakeholders, especially from less developed countries—the very experts who could provide valuable insights from region-based experiences—from being physically present for the event in New York.

In response, a team from the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education and The City University of New York’s Advanced Science Research Center developed the idea of an online global marathon to enhance participation and give a far wider group of scientists, policymakers, and practitioners a voice in discussions of SDG 6. Framed as a debate, the event took the form of a 24-hour relay, with a virtual baton passed westward from region to region in a sequence of 2-hour meetings distributed across the world, starting and ending in New York (Figure 2).

Global map highlighting nine regions, each numbered and shaded in a different color, involved in a virtual marathon relay discussion about Sustainable Development Goal 6
Fig. 2. This map shows the regions involved in the virtual marathon relay, each of which was allotted 2 hours for its discussion. The relay started in New York with a discussion for North America (region 1; 12:00–14:00), then moved on to South America (2; 15:00–17:00), the Pacific Islands (3; 17:00–19:00), the western Pacific Rim (4; 20:00–22:00), Southeast Asia/China (5; 22:00–00:00 +1 day), South and Central Asia (6; 00:00–02:00), the Middle East (7; 02:00–04:00), Africa (8; 04:00–06:00), and Europe (9; 06:00–08:00), before returning to New York (14:00–16:00) for a final synthesis. Times shown are local to New York.

As the virtual baton was passed, conversations over water priorities and needed actions shifted naturally to reflect local context and concerns.

Each of the nine regional groups—which collectively engaged more than 500 participants—was asked to identify and debate the most critical and innovative actions that could lead to meaningful acceleration toward achieving the SDG 6 targets in its respective region. At the end of each time block, a “time zone manager” from that region explained their group’s recommended actions to the next group in the relay, thus handing over the baton and providing a basis for the next group’s discussions.

As the virtual baton was passed, conversations over water priorities and needed actions shifted naturally to reflect local context and concerns. When the baton arrived back in New York City for a final synthesis discussion, it was clear that the globe-trotting discourse had covered a diversity of ideas from around the world while also revealing common, crosscutting themes and threads. The discussions also reflected nearly universal societal frustrations with systemically compromised water resources and sanitation systems, entrenched and unresponsive development agendas, and slow progress toward implementing practical alternatives.

Gathering Input from Around the World

A key lesson from the marathon discussions was that context matters hugely in water resources management. Solutions cannot be one-size-fits-all but, rather, must be tailored to local situations. Participants across the regions highlighted that local communities, including Indigenous stakeholders, must be engaged and empowered so that their own knowledge is embedded in solutions. Governance processes should also be localized, “especially to local cultures,” one participant noted, adding that “Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge isn’t being considered and does need to be brought more to the surface in some of the places I work.”

This notion of localization extends to the process by which funding for water solutions is appropriated. Another participant noted how funders often place conditions when providing financing to pursue water solutions, such as restrictions that technology be purchased only from the funding country. With such conditions, however, “you completely lack the link with the community where, ultimately, [the solution] will be applied.” This situation suggests the need for new investment partners and new ways to finance the water sector, not only the hardware but also maintenance, operation, and capacity development [Vörösmarty et al., 2018]. Philanthropic money—from foundations and nongovernmental organizations, for example—can help to speed the development of water projects, and social impact bonds can accommodate the slow return of investment often related to these projects.

Participants in all regions highlighted the importance of capacity development, including raising awareness of the scarcity and value of water.

Participants in all regions highlighted the importance of capacity development, including raising awareness of the scarcity and value of water and preparing the next generation of the water sector workforce, as a critical need for making progress toward SDG 6. This development requires that water be part of education curricula at all levels and in all disciplines, not just those in traditional scientific and engineering domains. We need to start explaining water security and its relation to health, energy, food, and the environment at the primary school level.

In addition, many workers in the water sector today are aging, and “within the next 5 years, large portions of the workforce are going to retire,” one person commented. So there’s an urgency for organizations in this sector to focus on “thinking about their workforce and better ways that they can transfer knowledge…to brand new people.”

Finally, marathon participants pointed out that timely, verifiable, and easily accessible data and information could help unleash the digital revolution onto the water security problem if appropriate management and global data commons protocols are adopted. Sharing information on groundwater levels and water quality using consistent protocols, for example, will greatly help stakeholders to better manage, restore, and protect these important water resources.

And in all cases, innovation is required to change behaviors. As one participant stated, “We use a mobile phone for many things other than [as] a telephone. Like that innovation, what we need in the water sector is to change our attitude and behavior towards water, so that we respect it.”

From Baton Passing to Leapfrogging

At the end of the virtual event, a broad cross section of innovative transformations and strategies was suggested (Table 1). They were related to the five water goal accelerators and based on the common themes identified during the marathon to promote jumps in progress, or leapfrogging, toward SDG 6.

Table 1. Leapfrogging Opportunities Identified by the Virtual Marathon

Accelerator Transformation Action Opportunity
Governance Develop a systematic approach to create new governance models Test and implement policy analysis using GAINS6 Explore and understand the limitations and unintended consequences of current risk-averse water policies
Finance Shift the funding model emphasis from “hard” to “soft” systems (i.e., flexible and responsive, human capacity, green and decentralized infrastructure, regulatory mechanisms); recognize that the financing of water security is a public good, not necessarily (and only) a vehicle for private-sector profit Eradicate financing approaches that promote poor water management; view benefit-cost calculations through the lens of societal and environmental perspectives that consider marginalized groups


Explore and understand the limitations and unintended consequences of current water policies; determine the comparative efficacy of centralized versus decentralized funding for water development
Capacity development   Introduce routine use of accelerators in training programs for next-generation water practitioners Foster improved water and SDG literacy in the workforce and public Stimulate interdisciplinary approaches with broad constituencies (professionals/private sector, educators, nongovernmental organizations); undertake an inventory of competencies that could lead to improved targeting of capacity development efforts  
Data and information Democratize and pluralize data collection and access Enhance and expand data sources (traditional, smart monitoring, and crowdsourced) to improve integration of biophysical and social science water data Develop methods to instill trust and transparency in water-related data to improve its adoption by various users (researchers, practitioners, educators, the public)
Innovation Develop a systematic, globally distributed process to break away from risk-averse approaches to water management and replace them with innovative approaches to monitor and accelerate progress on SDG 6 Create the Global Accelerator Incubator Network for SD6 (GAINS6), where new ideas and technologies are encouraged and tested Understand how to catalyze innovation in the context of a prevalent conservative or risk-averse mindset

Important precedents exist for this notion of leapfrogging, particularly in the developing world. For example, starting around 2010, many parts of Africa adopted modern cellular telecommunications in lieu of updating antiquated phone lines. This technological jump, among its other benefits, allowed farmers and other businesses better access to market prices, which has ultimately helped raise incomes.

Leapfrogging could be achieved with respect to water security by adapting and innovating from tools available to us today, but only with committed political and economic willpower.

Such leapfrogging could be achieved with respect to water security by adapting and innovating from tools available to us today, but only with committed political and economic willpower.

One major outcome of the marathon event is the establishment of the Global Accelerator Incubator Network for SDG-6, or GAINS6. This global partnership network of water “incubators” will provide living laboratories—safe spaces for testing new technologies, policies, and financing approaches. Such incubators will be vital for leapfrogging to quicker and more effective global implementation. The network should comprise a mix of nonprofit, government, and international organizations as well as universities and companies to both integrate global ideas and facilitate local ones for water security and management.

GAINS6 will serve, for example, as a platform to develop water governance and funding strategies that break out of the mold of current approaches, which are often overly risk averse. Gray infrastructure, such as dams and levees for water control and highly built water treatment plants for sanitation, are examples of risk-averse approaches to water management. These “defensive” measures offer a level of engineered predictability in outcomes, but they are typically inflexible and are thus likely to become inadequate in a changing climate without significant continued physical and financial investments to update them.

Shifting the focus and funding of water management to “soft” systems, such as green infrastructure, could provide greater flexibility in the responses of management systems in future climate scenarios, especially if local social and environmental perspectives are incorporated, ultimately leading to reduced long-term costs.

Participants in the virtual marathon emphasized that a networked partnership such as GAINS6 could enhance knowledge integration through improved data sharing, democratization, and availability. Further, GAINS6 may facilitate capacity development efforts, including through education and training about water and its usage. For example, new strategies developed in the incubators for emphasizing water security in education, from primary through postsecondary levels, may be a mechanism for broadly enhancing the overall value placed on water as an inherent public good.

Human action is critical for pursuing each of the SDG 6 accelerators—people must manage both the problems and the resources needed to solve them. The idea for GAINS6 that came out of the virtual marathon is a novel means to achieve this. In any case, overcoming challenges of water management, governance, and financing to provide clean water and sanitation for all will require new solutions, or we risk falling back into old, unproductive patterns.


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Author Information

Eddy Moors (, IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, Netherlands; Charles J. Vörösmarty, Advanced Science Research Center, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, N.Y.; Graham Jewitt, IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, Netherlands; and Anthony D. Cak, Advanced Science Research Center, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, N.Y.

The logo for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 is at left. To its right is the following text: The research reported here supports Sustainable Development Goal 6. AGU is committed to supporting the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.
Citation: Moors, E., C. J. Vörösmarty, G. Jewitt, and A. D. Cak (2023), Accelerating toward water security, Eos, 104, Published on 22 December 2023.
Text © 2023. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.

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