Relating One Water to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals

Oct. 23, 2020

This article was originally published as "One Water, Multiple Goals" in the September print edition of WWD.

About the author:

Vijay Sundaram is regional practice leader of water sustainability for Stantec. Sundaram can be reached at [email protected].

The availability of affordable, clean freshwater for potable use, food production and industry appears to be a major hurdle to quality of life in much of the developing world. To address this global challenge, the United Nations (U.N.) released its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) in 2015 after years of development. This approach to sustainable development has 17 specific goals, see Figure 1.

Concurrent with UN efforts on addressing global sustainability, the U.S. Water Alliance in 2016 released “One Water Roadmap: The Sustainable Management of Life’s Most Essential Resource,” which states: 

“The idea of an integrated systems approach to water is not new. Its full-scale implementation, however, has yet to be realized. There are many signs that water management in the U.S. is entering another great era of change and innovation. 

All around the country we are seeing silo-busting examples of integrated and inclusive approaches to water resource management. These approaches exemplify the view that all water has value and should be managed in a sustainable, inclusive, integrated way. We call this perspective One Water. While our focus is water, our goals are thriving local economies, community vitality and healthy ecosystems.”

One Water Policy

The U.S. Water Alliance in its 2017 “One Water for America Policy Framework” included a visualization of the multiple, interactive aspects and benefits of the Alliance’s One Water approach (A diagram of this was published in last month’s issue of WWD.). A comparison of Figures 1 with the U.S. Water Alliance visual reveals material similarities, but also some differences that are a result of the scope of challenges each agency is addressing. 

The U.N. SDGs are designed to guide sustainable development in even the poorest places on Earth where poverty, hunger and lack of education are a way of life. Many of these basics have been largely, but not completely, achieved in the U.S. where One Water was developed. 

When it comes to sustainable management of water resources and the consequential benefits to the local economy, local community, and local ecosystems, the two programs–U.N. SDGs and One Water–are virtually identical. 

Consequently, U.S. communities implementing the One Water approach to water sustainability should also be taking credit for implementing several of the U.N. SDGs. Why? To inform the community that it is participating in this important U.N. program, and to potentially attract businesses that are committed to locating in communities implementing the U.N. SDGs. 

The purpose here, is to map the One Water approach relative to the global U.N. SDGs, particularly regarding water, so the U.S. water industry can better articulate the broader net benefits of sustainable water resource management on a global scale to a wider audience within the local community specifically being served. 

The fundamental basis for One Water (and SDG #6) is a realistic inventorying of:

  1. The community’s available water resources; 
  2. Current and forecast uses of water; and 
  3. The triple bottom line analysis of cost and benefit of the existing and proposed uses of the water resources.
  4. All waters have potential uses and benefits, but possibly at costs exceeding the values of the benefits.

The One Water approach aims to balance the overall costs and benefits to the community and its environment, including:

  1. Direct water cost; 
  2. Direct wastewater treatment and disposal/reuse costs (thus, the “sanitation” element of SDG #6); and
  3. Collateral costs and benefits resulting from water use and wastewater production. 

One Water in the Real World

A community in the Pacific Northwest is under growth pressure, but freshwater is becoming scarce and wastewater treatment is becoming expensive because growing evidence shows nutrients in treated wastewater being discharged to the ocean are causing problems for the environment. Traditional planning involves three silos filled with problems: water supply problems, wastewater treatment and disposal problems, and environmental mitigation problems. 

  1. The One Water approach to planning integrates all water-related problems by considering: 

  2. Available water resources in the greater community area;
  3. Water use needs and benefits; and 
  4. The toll of institutional/financial, social, and environmental costs (i.e., triple bottom line analysis).

The One Water Solution

A potential solution involved piping the nutrient-rich effluent inland to irrigate existing farms. The farms could reduce their use of river water so the riverine ecosystem improves, allowing the community to remove raw potable water from the river just before it enters the ocean. The community required new development to use treated wastewater for all non-potable reuse as economically feasible (SDG #6). The quantity of treated wastewater discharged to the water body is reduced materially (SDG #14). 

This One Water approach addresses community growth objectives (SDG #11), benefits farmers who are under pressure to reduce use of river water (SDG #8), benefits the river, and benefits the natural environment (SDG #6). A triple bottom line analysis was recommended to quantify costs and benefits of an effluent distribution system and a new water resource for farmers. That analysis then was compared to the approach of upgrading wastewater treatment to meet new requirements to determine the appropriate solution. 

More complex One Water programs under various stages of implementation can be seen in the work of One Water Los Angeles, One Water Nevada and Monterey One Water. All of these programs have an integrated water resource management plan that emphasizes the balance between overall water resources, and their uses and costs relative to overall long-term local economics, community vitality and healthy ecosystems. 

This approach to water resource planning is vital to relatively water-rich areas, such as the Great Lakes region of North America, where deteriorating water-based ecosystems may be the primary water problem. However, greater importance is placed on it in relatively arid areas, such as the Southwestern U.S., where there is not enough freshwater to sustain reasonable growth through use of traditional water resource management strategies. 

As the 2016 “One Water Roadmap” stated, “There are many signs that water management in the U.S. is entering another great era of change and innovation.”


One Water and the U.N. SDGs have the same goals of creating:

  1. Thriving local economics; 
  2. Healthy ecosystems; and
  3. Communities that are a better place to live for all. 

As communities embark on sustainable water resource planning, keeping in mind both One Water and U.N. SDGs with the foregoing message is critical. From our practice, we believe the U.S. is entering a new age of change and innovation in sustainable water resource planning. 

Leveraging U.N. SDGs as a framework for assessing wider benefits from water initiatives and projects will help the U.S. water industry get buy-in from a wider audience, as well as global companies seeking to locate facilities in sustainable communities. 

About the Author

Vijay Sundaram

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