6. Clean Water and Sanitation

How business leadership can advance Goal 6 on Clean Water and Sanitation

Sustainable water management is essential for human dignity and wellbeing, economic productivity, and environmental resilience. Current water resources are highly stressed, with two thirds of the world’s population projected to be living in water stressed areas in 2025, a problem climate change and population growth will only exacerbate. In addition, 2.1 billion people worldwide lack access to safe, readily available water at home, and 4.5 billion lack safely managed sanitation. 

Businesses are impacted by and directly impact the quality and quantity of water resources through the production of goods and services, primarily through consumption of water and discharge into shared water resources. In water-stressed areas, these impacts are more acutely felt and where businesses need to pay particular attention. Ninety per cent of water consumed in the world today is used for agricultural or industrial purposes, highlighting the crucial role that businesses must play in promoting the responsible use and effective governance of global water resources. Infrastructure funding required to achieve SDG targets related to water and sanitation are estimated to be as high as $45 billion per year, with the private sector expected to provide a significant portion of investment. To help deliver on Goal 6, all businesses must respect the rights of communities to water and sanitation and are encouraged to support government, business and other stakeholder efforts to provide universal access to clean water and sanitation. This involves understanding impacts on local ecosystems and communities, particularly the cumulative impacts that businesses have on water resources; monitoring own water use; and taking appropriate action ranging from internal (improving water efficiency, reducing water inputs, investing in wastewater treatment, water reuse) to external collaborations to address risks and impacts in water intensive sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture, and extractives.

Leading businesses build on responsible business practices and take extraordinary steps to understand and respond to identified water risks to, and impacts of, their end-to-end operations on watersheds and communities. They can do so by implementing water stewardship plans developed in consultation with other water users. Leading action can also involve improving access to clean water and sanitation across own facilities, throughout supply chains, and the wider community. Business can do this through investment and engagement with government and civil society for the provision of water and sanitation (WASH) and the holistic management of water resources to meet social, economic and environmental needs. They can also protect and restore natural infrastructure that supports clean water provision.

The case for business leadership on water issues is supported by the key role water resources play in production across industries. Over 80 per cent of all jobs globally are dependent on sustainably managed water resources and related services. Unabated, water scarcity is estimated to cost as much as 6 per cent in GDP by 2050.

Goal 6 is closely interlinked with all other SDGs, reflecting the essential role water resources play in society, economy, and the environment. Specifically, managing water resources sustainably will enable progress on environmental and economic Goals, by avoiding potential costs of pollution and scarcity. Progress on people-related Goals, including those related to gender, poverty, education, hunger and health, will be boosted by improvements to water and sanitation. Access to clean water and sanitation supports healthier families and a more productive workforce. Mitigating the impacts of water scarcity on climate vulnerable populations is essential to make progress on this goal. Efforts to deliver other goals including Goals 2 and 7, can impact water supplies if characterized by water-intensive activities. Leading businesses will manage these risks by reducing potential conflicts between water, energy and food systems.

Do your actions satisfy the Leadership Qualities?

Guiding Questions to apply to the Leadership Qualities to your business






  • Is your company committed to supporting the achievement of Goal 6? Have you developed a holistic strategy that reflects this commitment, covering end-to-end operation and the wider community?
  • Are you committed to learn from your actions and do you have processes in place to improve them accordingly?
  • Is your strategy supported by the highest levels of management, including the Board of Directors?

Key Considerations

Actions related to Goal 6 should be in line with a company-wide water strategy that considers current and future impacts and risks on environmental, economic, and social uses of water in strategic watersheds around end-to-end operations

  • Do your actions achieve long-term outcomes that greatly exceed those resulting from current industry practice?
  • Are your actions aligned with what is needed to achieve Goal 6?

Key Considerations

Ambitious action that takes a watershed approach to identify and respond to environmental and social issues throughout end-to-end operations, must aim for lasting outcomes that align with what is required to realize the Goal 6 targets.

  • Is support for Goal 6 embedded across all organizational functions?
  • Are staff and board incentives aligned with achieving Goal 6?

Key Considerations

Consistency in the context of Goal 6 means that all departments, including government relations, the legal department, and external communications are committed to all aspects of water stewardship. This includes respecting the rights to water and sanitation in all areas of operations in engagement with suppliers

  • Do you proactively look for opportunities to partner with Governments, UN agencies, suppliers, civil society organizations, industry peers and other stakeholders to inform how to advance Goal 6?

Key Considerations

Collaboration with all water users and stakeholders in a watershed is crucial to developing a holistic water management strategy that addresses local water and sanitation challenges. Companies may also support joint advocacy or partnerships that promote greater WASH outcomes.

  • Do you publicly express your commitment to advance Goal 6?
  • Do you identify, monitor, and report on impacts, including potentially adverse impacts?
  • Do you mitigate risks associated with your action?
  • Do you remediate negative impacts associated with this action?
  • Do you engage stakeholders in a meaningful way?

Key Considerations

Accountability includes monitoring and reporting on how business impacts water resources, water related natural infrastructure, and community access to water and sanitation. These impacts must be reported publicly, and placed in the context of other users’ impacts on shared water resources

Business Actions


Develop holistic water strategies


Protect water-based ecosystems


Ensure access to water and sanitation

How taking action on Goal 6 is interconnected with other Goals

The Global Goals are inherently interconnected. Action taken toward one Goal can support or hinder the achievement of others. Identifying and addressing these interconnections will help business to build holistic and systemic solutions that amplify progress and minimize negative impacts. To help build a greater understanding, we have illustrated some of the ways in which the Goals connect. These are not exhaustive, and we encourage business to consider how they apply in their own operations.

Maximise likelihood of positive impact on:

Water and sanitation are strongly connected to the delivery of most Goals, but have especially strong links to people-oriented goals. This is because water is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights, and reducing water-borne and waste-related illnesses (Goal 3). Reduced illness and low costs of water collection can help further employment, boost productivity (Goal 8) and reduce poverty (Goal 1), and increase education rates amongst children and women in rural areas (Goal 5). Improving the use of water resources in business operations will also boost the ecological integrity of natural ecosystems (Goals 14 and 15) that critically depend on clean water.

Minimise risk of negative impact on:

Efforts to reduce water waste and misuse can have unintended effects on water-dependent systems through changes in pricing and availability. In agriculture, water rationing actions may have short-term effects on food production that can impact food supplies (Goal 2). Energy produced from hydroelectric dams could be impacted by water planning, causing a switch to less sustainable forms of electricity (Goal 7). Infrastructure projects can impact on Goal 3, including through impacting land and water rights, as well as the affordability of water. These impacts, especially those on local communities, must be managed to deliver sustainable development, which should result from watershed-level water management practices.

Goal 6 Targets

Targets of Goal 6

  1. Universal, equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water
  2. Adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, with special attention to the needs of women, children and those in vulnerable situations
  3. Improve water quality by reducing pollution and increasing recycling
  4. Increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity
  5. Implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including transboundary cooperation
  6. Protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes