Reduce, reuse, recycle – a circular economy for sustainable water management

Australia, jointly with India and Fiji, hosted a side event at the UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on Thursday 13 July 2023. The session convened a panel discussion on Sustainable Water Management, focusing on the linkages between SDG6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG12 (responsible consumption and production), SDG13 (climate action), and more generally, sustainable water management as an enabler of all SDGs.

Australia, Fiji and India face respectively unique and yet common challenges in sustainable water management. Unique simply from their respective geography, land mass, population, and economy. The core of their water challenges is nevertheless common – that of water security within the context of growing population, urbanisation and climate change impacts. The solutions, while based on common principles of practice, are decidedly different as the three countries operationalise sustainable water management through adaptation to local biophysical and social/institutional context.

Chaired by Professor Tony Wong, Monash University, some panellists reflected on progress made in their respective countries in SDG6, and their priority actions in stepping up their efforts toward 2030, while others discussed key issues in promoting sustainable consumption and production, including in the garment/fashion industry. We were also reminded of unintended consequences in the infrastructure and policy design of water management systems, despite intentions to deliver integrated water management systems.

A common thread that emerged in linking the key messages from panellists is the need to re-imagine urban water systems to support greater efforts in transitioning to a circular economy framework. Key principles of practice in circularity common to all include:

  • reducing water consumption (e.g. water use efficiencies, demand management, reduction in non-revenue water etc.)
  • reusing products (and thus embedded water) and/or extending its use for as long as possible (e.g. influencing the fashion habits of consumers)
  • recycling water through treatment and use on a fit-for-purpose basis (e.g. recycling of used water and stormwater harvesting)
  • restoring water systems (e.g. replenishment of groundwater aquifers)
  • regenerating natural systems (e.g. improving stream health through restoring supporting hydrology, habitat creation and improved water quality).
SDG12 infographic (Source:

Each of these initiatives are manifested differently as highlighted by the panellists. For example:

  • India, with its impressive achievement in SDG6.1 and SDG6.2 can have the greatest opportunity to leap-frog towards a circular economy framework in the design of these essential water and sanitation systems.
  • Fiji identified their efforts to reduce water leakages in aging infrastructure as a key priority, a significant water conservation step in reducing water consumption.

In his concluding remarks, Professor Wong stated that a circular economy framework can be as complex or as simple as society wants it to be, and its implementation can be adapted to specific social/institution and technical context. There is therefore no excuse for inaction in commencing the transition to a circular economy framework. In its simplest form, it is reducing consumption and reuse of the resource in individual households – a social behavioural intervention. At an industrial-scale, it could be connecting effluent from our sanitation systems to productive landscapes.

Featured image: Panellists participate in the discussion at UNHQ (Source: Tony Wong)
Panelists were (L to R): His Excellency Mr. Ravindra Raguttahalli, Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations; Her Excellency Ambassador Giovanna Valverde, Co-chair of the Board of the 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production and Ambassador in Kenya and Permanent Representative of Costa Rica to UNEP and UN Habitat; Professor Tony Wong (chair), Professor of Sustainable Development, Monash University; His Excellency Mr. Filipo Tarakinikini, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Fiji to the United Nations; Mr. Johannes Cullman, Vice Chair of UN Water, and Scientific Adviser to the President of the UN General Assembly; and Ms. Kerry Bannigan, Executive Director of Fashion Impact Fund.
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