Interview with Stefan Uhlenbrook and Angela Ortigara about the SDG 6 synthesis report and science-policy dialogue


In 2018, the UN published a report entitled “Sustainable Development Goal 6: Synthesis Report on Water and Sanitation”. It reviewed progress on achieving SDG 6 at the global and regional level. A recently published research paper published in the journal Water discusses this report and asks how those engaged in education, training and research could contribute to enabling and accelerating progress towards achieving SDG 6. We talked to the paper’s authors, Professor Stefan Uhlenbrook and Dr Angela Ortigara from the UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme, about this paper and how GRoW researchers could engage in the SDG 6 process.

GRoW: What was the main objective of the SDG 6 Synthesis Report? And where did the idea to write this review paper come from?

Uhlenbrook: The idea was born in early 2016 when the whole SDG 6 performance process was under discussion. One of the key lessons learned from the MDGs between 2000 and 2015 was that we need a continuous monitoring and performance management system to track the progress on achieving the SDGs.

Once it became clear that water would be reviewed at the High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development in 2018, the danger was that every agency involved in the process would produce its own report to inform policymakers, which might have caused incoherent messages. We were convinced that it would be much more efficient to synthesize everything in one report and write a comprehensive review showing where we are with regards to SDG 6 progress and highlighting the keylink between water and the agenda’s other goals. This commitment, including the German, Swiss, Dutch and Italian funding, created enthusiasm and consequently many agencies got involved, which is a really good sign.

GRoW: You mentioned that most of the 11 indicators now have their own report of around 60 pages. Condensing that all to produce a 200-page report must have been quite a challenge.

Uhlenbrook: When drafting policy recommendations, trusting in segregated assessments alone is not helpful. We have to understand the interlinkages and produce recommendations that ideally address all of the targets, as well as the other goals and all the ways in which they interact with SDG 6. SDG 6 is a key enabler in the 2030 agenda. However, as well as talking about water, we also have to understand that conflicts of interest sometimes arise with energy, agriculture, ecosystems and so forth. Therefore, we believe that a more integrated approach to reporting is essential.

GRoW: Why did you decide to write this particular paper as a review of the SDG 6 synthesis report? What was the idea behind writing a more research-oriented paper?

Ortigara: With this specific paper we wanted to reach out to people in academia and highlight the issues that we felt were most relevant for this stakeholder group.

Uhlenbrook: In particular, ideas around integrative thinking are very relevant for educators and we believe this is the way students should be trained early on in their career. They should be aware of the interlinkages. Being able to think in systems, instead of just in single processes, is essential. In terms of research, many gaps exist that need to be filled, so this review paper is also about us sharing our mindset with the academic community.

GRoW: What can the science community do to enable and accelerate progress on achieving SDG 6? Where do you see the greatest potential for its involvement?

Uhlenbrook: There is one simple truth: you can only manage what you can measure. We struggle with measurement and monitoring, especially at the scale where the process is actually happening. A simple example is monitoring access to improved sanitation. You can do this by surveying a couple of ‘representative’ households, but this is not necessarily representative for a bigger region, country or other larger management unit. If you look at data, the UN often operates on the national scale, for example with water use efficiency and water scarcity. Yet the real water scarcity is not happening at a country level. Look at Germany: this summer we had a drought, but it was very unequally distributed throughout the country. We therefore need much more disaggregated data, which requires the help of researchers. For the examples I just mentioned, satellite data and citizen science may be better and more reliable approaches. We also need better monitoring for social data, such as access to toilets, safe drinking water and many other issues. This is one major area to which science can contribute.

Ortigara: Another fact concerns technologies and knowledge transfer. Universities often test new technologies, such as those for wastewater treatment. Those technologies, however, are not reaching the governments. Researchers usually address other academic stakeholders, but they also need to reach out to politicians and policymakers. If they did, the technologies they are developing could also be used in other contexts and upscaled.

GRoW: You’ve outlined many ways in which researchers could potentially engage, but how do you think researchers such as those in GRoW can really participate in ongoing policy processes related to SDG 6 monitoring? Where do you see concrete entry points for their involvement as part of the science community?

Ortigara: The UN also runs the Science Technology Innovation Forum annually (see here), which is an opportunity for researchers to engage and disseminate their findings at the highest level.

However, this is not enough. Reaching out to decision makers at the local level may have a greater impact on local challenges. In general, I think we can make a difference if we communicate better with policymakers at the local level.

Uhlenbrook: Another aspect is that researchers are too driven by the knowledge-production side, instead of by what is needed on the ground. Many innovations are beautiful, but are often not implemented. I believe that every sustainable development project should begin by finding out what is really needed on the ground. This doesn’t happen enough. I see a mismatch between research development, the needs on the ground, and the actual research being conducted.

GRoW: So you’re saying that researchers need to focus on the demand side. I think we agree on this. But given that a lot of applied research is happening in Germany and many researchers want to make a change on the ground, could you point out a few concrete pathways for researchers to bring their findings into policymaking?

Uhlenbrook: There are many ways researchers can do this. For example, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a global network that mobilizes scientific and technological expertise and is strongly involved in capacity building, recently developed a new module on water and SDG 6. Angela and I helped with that, and the work could be expanded. I’m also sure that more knowledge could be tailored to different modules.

In addition, sharing best practices in non-scientific language would be helpful when reaching out to policymakers. Researchers tend to write papers for people who share the same background and work in the same field. Making that accessible to the global community, for example via platforms like the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, is a challenge. In our experience, politicians often do not listen carefully to dull statistics. Instead, very concrete examples showing what has been learned onsite and what the various interventions have achieved can help the policymaking process. At the UN, we would also love to use these convincing examples in our reports. Instead, we often struggle to find good case studies.

Ortigara: Policymakers need to know where successful projects were carried out, how they were implemented and what has worked and what not. It needs to be in a language that is understandable for non-scientists. On the UN level, we organise a lot of international conferences to initiate that learning. But as I have mentioned, the local level lacks platforms for communication. Which university invites municipal policymakers to explore its research? Is there any attempt to engage? Those interactions at a local level may not make a big change overnight, but we should not underestimate the power of the local level.

Uhlenbrook: Also, for GRoW, we should really consider a separate lessons-learned report, in addition to the project report.

GRoW: We are planning a synthesis report on several topics at the end of the project. It will address issues from various cross-cutting topics, as well as other matters. However, the challenge remains that the projects themselves need to make a practical impact on the ground.

Uhlenbrook: This is the first time I’ve been involved in a BMBF programme and I think it’s a very good, although still uncommon, example of how the UN can be involved in research projects from the very beginning. Relevant policy decisions are mainly made at the national level. In 2020, GRoW will hold its final symposium. For that, we should bring together policymakers, especially from the key countries, and produce podium discussions and presentations that will encourage them to listen closely to GRoW’s research findings and jointly develop relevant research questions for the future.

GRoW: Thank you very much for talking to us.