On March 22, we celebrate World Water Day, an international observance and an opportunity to learn more about water related issues, be inspired to tell others and take action to make a difference.

2016 marks the first World Water Day following the newly adopted global development framework under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This bold plan is comprised of 17 goals and 169 targets, and serves to guide global development efforts for the next 15 years—building on the successes and lessons of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) era. Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs highlight water as a key area that needs priority attention and action-oriented programming. On this World Water Day, we want to call attention to the importance of Sustainable Development Goal 6 on a worldwide platform, and encourage policymakers, philanthropic funders, the private sector and civil society to prioritize and act on the issue of safely managed water.

Why Does SDG 6 Matter?

For more than 25 years, the Foundation has been committed to improving access to safe drinking water in low-resource settings of Sub-Saharan Africa, Mexico and India. Our investments in the Water sector have been guided by global ambitions, beginning first with the call to eradicate guinea worm followed by the MDGs drinking water target.

The previous water target under the MDGs challenged developing countries to reduce the proportion of people without access to a basic water source by 2015. By 2010, the developing world had already met this target and significantly improved the provision of water supply services for the purposes of drinking, cleaning and hygiene, five years ahead of schedule. Today, 6.6 billion people, or more than 90% of the global population, have access to an improved water source, such as household taps, community-shared hand pumps, or protected wells.

The adoption of Sustainable Development Goal 6 gives the Water sector a new global ambition to strive for. This Goal goes beyond the MDG target by challenging all countries—low, middle and high income—to “ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” SDG 6 includes six ambitious targets that touch on water and sanitation-related issues that impact all countries, such as water scarcity, fragile ecosystems and lack of drinking water, and two targets for implementation. This allows countries to focus on water challenges of the greatest relevance to their local context and level of development. It also reveals a change in thinking about the field of global development: the development and management of the world’s water resources is a universally shared concern and not the responsibility of a few countries to shoulder – lifting the imagined division between the “Global South” and the “Global North.” Ultimately, collective action is imperative to achieving sustainable, transformative development.

Another fundamental change between the MDGs and the SDGs is the emphasis on meeting the needs of all citizens, signifying that no one person should be left behind in the global movement for social and economic mobilization over the next fifteen years. Trying to meet the needs of all citizens will require a new approach and outlook on implementation. No longer can the sector continue to conduct business as usual to meet this ambitious Goal. The emphasis on all also suggests that solutions need to go further than meeting individuals’ minimum water requirements for health; services will need to account for entire communities’ domestic and productive water needs.

In addition to our interest in safe water, we recognize that SDG 6 can go a long way to stimulate other development efforts. The SDGs are designed to serve as an integrated, comprehensive approach for global development, and safe water is highly linked with many of the other Goal initiatives. For instance, the quality and quantity of water plays a pivotal role in agricultural productivity, and therefore could help communities achieve food security. By addressing the Goals from an inclusive standpoint, there is an opportunity to advance multiple development efforts, and truly achieve sustainability.

Moving From Declaration to Implementation and Collective Action

193 countries have signed off on the SDGs. Now is the time for countries to devise action plans that can actually be implemented to benefit those who are still without a safely managed water source. SDG 6 offers a strong framework for governments to create national and regional policies and implementation plans. Within these plans and strategies, it’s vital that policymakers take into consideration the funds and human resources needed to effectively realize the development and management of water supply services. As more countries implement decentralization reform, plans will also need to account for the capacity of local government (communes or municipalities) to oversee services.

Although country governments are the drivers and owners of their solutions, we also recognize that some governments cannot shoulder the responsibility alone. Ensuring universal access to safe and reliable water for all will require greater international cooperation and support, as made clear in the SDGs. Currently, several countries face various bottlenecks to improving the quality and quantity of water for communities, including limited technical expertise, lack of human resources, and shortfall in public funds. We see an opportunity for civil society, philanthropy and the private sector to be an asset in the co-development, -implementation and -funding of new, innovative solutions. These efforts, however, should be coordinated and aligned with countries’ priorities and strategies, in order to leverage their existing efforts and resources to generate large-scale social impact.

Looking Forward

The Water sector has made enormous progress under the MDGs. Yet, more work needs to be done to ensure that all individuals have access to a safely managed water supply service that is not only reliable, safe and close in proximity, but also meets communities’ multifaceted needs. Over the next several months, we will be re-designing our Safe Water grant-making strategy, looking toward SDG 6 as a guiding framework and determining how best to contribute our limited philanthropic dollars to this ambitious call to action. If the global community wants to strive for bigger and better outcomes, we recognize the need to look at these issues differently and act boldly, building on our Founder’s motto of “Think Big, Act Big, Dream Big.” We encourage others—policymakers, philanthropic funders, the private sector, and civil society—to join the challenge of ensuring safe, reliable and affordable water for all.