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GUEST BLOG: Clean Water and Sanitation, and the Tower of Babel

Giggling with the SDGs: Goal 6

Clean Water and Sanitation, and the Tower of Babel

When I spoke with Izzy from the environmental charity Earthwatch Europe about her experience of supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on clean water and sanitation, an image came to mind: the tower of Babel. In an attempt to come together and build a bridge to heaven, we seem thwarted - not by God this time. But by us. The way language is being used (abused), and the global spreading out of administrative fiefdoms, each looking after a tiny fragment of an overall goal/indicator, are obscuring our ability to clearly communicate the beauty and importance of what we are trying to save in the first place. And in breaking the challenge up into such tiny component parts we are hampering our ability to save ourselves. It is my humble hope that if we can lovingly spot what is profoundly inspirational and remarkably dysfunctional about the SDGs, we have a better chance to fix the system.

There are 17 SDGs in total, split into 169 specific targets which are measured using 231 separate indicators. Izzy works on just one tiny part of SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation); Indicator 6.3.2, which focuses on the quality of water in the environment. A few years ago, Izzy participated in my Sustainable Stand Up course. Her fab set is here. In her set, she talked about her work as a freshwater biologist. Part of her job includes wearing waders and standing in various parts of the River Thames in the UK, weighing eels with kitchen scales to track their health. One of the problems for eels is that chemicals from the human world, including Viagra, are flowing into the Thames. So Izzy sometimes has to deal with ‘erect eel disfunction’. Now, that very last bit (erect eels) is an exaggeration, but because it is a logical extension of the real information and makes me laugh, it helps me to remember that chemicals of human origin are going into the Thames and impacting the ecosystem in negative ways. I now have an empathetic link to the health of those eels, erect or floppy, and their surrounding ecosystem.

The Tower of Babel: With our language we no longer communicate to each other

Which excites you more? Protecting from pollution all of the zaftig hippos, healthy fish, and vital people who rely on the Zambesi River? Or ‘increasing the proportion of waterbodies with good ambient water quality’? Both are phrases that apply to Izzy’s work. According to Izzy, part of our challenge with the SDGs is that the scientists have gotten hold of the language, and have chosen to insist on using terms that don’t even remotely evoke compassion, connection, or love.

Izzy was excited to share this with me because of a realisation that she had during the Sustainable Stand Up course: Scientists (herself included) are trained to remove compassion from their work in the name of objectivity. Izzy is the first to admit that she struggled with the process of writing her set - thinking about her own work with kindness and caring just did not come naturally to her. Now, though, she has it nailed. More than that, she has realised that the language used by scientists in the SDG world obscures our ability to love and connect with the beauty of what we are actually working to protect. And she wants that to change.

Through her work on Earthwatch’s ‘FreshWater Watch’ project, which is kind of like Baywatch, with the same slow-mo careful monitoring by the water, but with less David Hasselhoff, and more concerned citizens. FreshWater Watch enables non-scientists around the world to get involved with monitoring the health of the water bodies they rely upon via ‘citizen science’. She is working to not only increase monitoring capabilities for the SDGs in her purview, but also to use real-life engaging stories so we can see (and have empathy for) the people, zaftig hippos, healthy fish, and the rest of the living ecosystems behind the rather sterile language of the SDGs related to water. That pollution in the Zambesi? It’s currently being monitored by people who really care: in this case, school children who live along the banks of the river and use the water every day.

Photo credit: Ceswe Mpandamabula

Currently, Izzy’s life is focussed on supplying measurements for SDG indicator 6.3.2 (Proportion of bodies of water with good ambient water quality). Her long-term life ambition is to branch out into SDG indicator 6.6.1 (‘change in the extent of water-related ecosystems over time'). Because, she is a wild one. This indicator is supposed to represent the goal to ‘protect and restore water-related ecosystems’. Izzy explained that unfortunately, because of monitoring issues, the grand intentions of indicator 6.6.1, have effectively devolved into ‘how big are your wetlands?’ And much of the monitoring is focussing on whether the wetlands in a particular area are shrinking, growing, or staying the same over time. This falls woefully short - as what is to stop your wetland from staying the same size while becoming toxic due to mining run-off, chemical spill, or some such event? It could be the same size, but have a deeply different impact on the vitality of the surrounding humans and ecosystem. Izzy wants to help use human-based stories and data collected by citizen science to help make 6.6.1 inspiring again.

When I asked whether the data from 6.3.2 was feeding 6.6.1 Izzy said, ‘Well, no. Not yet.’

The Tower of Babel: With the way we are organised, we are too spread out and disjointed

Izzy told me that she recently went to the Water World Conference World Water Week, and she met 'Mr. Water World' himself, who, to my disappointment, was not Kevin Costner. To Izzy, he was even more beguiling. He was one of the few people who had an overview of the whole clean water and sanitation goal. She mentioned to him, and he agreed, that her data should feed into his work on other parts of the SDG goal 6. It had not for the previous six years.

So even the data from the different indicators within the same goal aren’t supporting each other? ‘Well, the UN Agency GEMS, that looks after 6.3.2 is in Ireland. UN Water, who focus on access to clean water and sanitation as a whole is in Geneva. And UNEP, who deal with 6.6.1, are in Nairobi.’ It was now that I started to think of Horcruxes from Harry Potter. Why was the world’s “water soul” broken into such tiny chunks and hidden in different parts of the world? This seems crazy to me. And like something that can, if we look together at it, be fixed.

What could we do around the SDG goal of clean water and sanitation, as a global group, that would make water giggle with delight?

The most delicious tap water I have ever had was in Zagreb. It tasted LIFE GIVING and delicious. That is how water is supposed to taste, for everyone, and every living thing, world wide. Let’s work together to make our remaining water on earth giggle.

By Belina Raffy, with help from the fabulous Izzy Bishop at EarthWatch Europe, originally published here

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