Interlinked nature of the Sustainable Development Goals

Three years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, countries are taking bold actions to achieve the ambitious vision of this transformative plan. As they do so, they face daunting problems: a changing climate, conflict, inequality, persistent pockets of poverty and hunger, rapid urbanization and environmental degradation. Policymakers in every country need to reflect on how societies can be made more resilient while confronting these challenges. A good place to start is by establishing robust water and sanitation infrastructure, ensuring access to clean and affordable energy, building safe and ecologically friendly cities, protecting ecosystems, and instituting sustainable consumption and production patterns.
Transitioning towards more sustainable and resilient societies also requires an integrated approach that recognizes that these challenges—and their solutions—are interrelated. This section provides a perspective on the interlinked nature of the SDGs in the context of the Goals and themes under review at the July 2018 highlevel political forum on sustainable development.

Transitioning towards sustainable and resilient societies hinges on responsible management of finite natural resources

Land- and water-based ecosystems and the rich biodiversity they support provide food, clean water and air, and raw materials that fuel economic growth. They provide natural sites for human settlements and mitigate climate change. However, population growth, agricultural intensification, urbanization and industrial production are creating competition for natural resources, including land and water. Overuse is contributing to their rapid depletion and consequent environmental degradation.
More than 2 billion people are affected by water stress, which will only increase with population growth and the effects of climate change. Agriculture accounts for almost 70 per cent of global water withdrawal, which is projected to increase significantly to meet food needs.
This poses a fundamental challenge to sustainable development. Effective implementation of integrated water resources management (IWRM) at all levels is critical to reversing this situation. In 2017, 157 countries reported average IWRM implementation of less than 50 per cent, highlighting the need for accelerated action and increased financing for water resources management.
Forests cover 31 per cent of the world’s land area, and forested watersheds and wetlands supply almost 75 per cent of the world’s fresh water. Forests also play a central role in building and maintaining soil fertility, slowing land degradation, halting landslides in mountainous areas and protecting against certain natural disasters. Studies show that, in 2011, the economic value of forests globally was an estimated $16.2 trillion. Deforestation and forest degradation are still a concern, pointing to the need to fully implement sustainable forest and land management practices.
Biodiversity loss is escalating. About one fifth of the Earth’s land surface covered by vegetation showed persistent and declining trends in productivity between 1999 and 2013. Urgent actions are needed to protect and restore ecosystems and the biodiversity they support. These efforts can help mitigate climate change and provide increased resilience in the face of growing human pressures and mounting natural disasters.
Sustainable and resilient societies will also require the establishment of strong national frameworks for sustainable consumption and production, environmentally sensitive business practices and consumer behaviour, and adherence to international norms on the management of hazardous chemicals and wastes. By 2018, a total of 108 countries had national policies and initiatives relevant to sustainable consumption and production.

Access to basic services is not only a fundamental human right, but also a stepping stone to sustainable development

Every citizen has the right to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, electricity or other forms of energy, safe transport, waste collection, education and health care. Provision of these basic services goes hand-in-hand with economic growth, social inclusion, poverty reduction and equality. For example, reliable road and transport networks connect farmers in poor and remote communities to major agricultural markets, and make health and education services more accessible.
Globally, significant strides have been made in improving the quality of and access to basic services, while making them more inclusive. However, in many countries, the poor and most vulnerable have been left behind. In 2015, 4.5 billion people (61 per cent of the world’s population) still lacked access to safely managed sanitation services, and 892 million people—mostly in rural areas of Southern Asia and sub‑Saharan Africa—practised open defecation.
That same year, about 2.1 billion people (29 per cent of the world’s population) lacked access to safely managed drinking water supplies. In situations where water must be collected outside the home, women bear primary responsibility. A study of 25 sub‑Saharan countries found that each day women spend a combined total of at least 16 million hours collecting drinking water, men spend 6 million hours on this task, and children spend 4 million hours. This burden leaves women less time to engage in other activities, such as attending school or participating in the labour market. The situation is much worse in areas affected by conflict, where walking long distances to gather water or fuelwood often puts women and children in harm’s way.
One billion people (13 per cent of the global population) are currently living without electricity. Rural residents make up 87 per cent of the global deficit in access to electricity, which is strongly associated with poverty. Access rates are four times higher in the wealthiest 20 per cent of households compared to the bottom quintile in the 20 countries with the largest access deficits. Three billion people, mostly women and children, are still cooking with polluting fuel and inefficient stoves, adversely affecting their health and well-being.
Improving the lives of the poor and most vulnerable requires significant investments in quality basic services.

Social protection systems provide a safety net for the vulnerable

Challenges to sustainability and resilience manifest themselves differently for different population groups. Social protection systems can have a levelling effect. They help prevent and reduce poverty and inequality at every stage of people’s lives and make societies more inclusive and stable. Despite significant progress in many parts of the world in extending social protection, the human right to social security is not yet a reality for most people. Based on 2016 estimates, only 45 per cent of the world’s population were effectively covered by at least one social protection cash benefit, leaving 4 billion people behind.
In 2016, only 22 per cent of the unemployed received unemployment cash benefits, 28 per cent of persons with severe disabilities collected disability cash benefits, 35 per cent of children were covered by some form of social protection, and 41 per cent of women giving birth received maternity cash benefits. Although 68 per cent of people above retirement age received a pension, the benefits were often not enough to lift older people out of poverty. Major work lies ahead to ensure social protection for all who need it.

The path to resilient cities must address growing social, economic and environmental challenges

Since 2008, more than half the world’s population has lived in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to rise to 60 per cent by 2030. Cities and metropolises are engines of growth, generating nearly 80 per cent of global GDP. But they also face mounting problems: increasing air pollution, unplanned land use, growing populations living in slums and lack of basic services.
In addition, climate change has increased the frequency and severity of natural disasters. With their dense populations and growing concentration of economic activities, cities are becoming more vulnerable to such disasters. By 2050, an estimated 680 million people will be exposed to cyclones and 870 million to earthquakes—an increase from 310 million and 370 million, respectively, in 2000. Urban habitats in small island developing States are the fragile areas where urbanization, vulnerability to natural disasters, and climate change intersect, with often dire consequences. In the Caribbean for instance, more than half the population live within 1.5 kilometres of the sea. This resulted in record economic losses in 2017’s catastrophic North Atlantic hurricane season.
With sound urban planning and management, cities can become inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable as well as dynamic hubs of innovation and enterprise. Globally, 152 countries have national urban policies in place to promote more coordinated and interconnected urban development that sets the stage for sustainable urbanization. More work is still needed to ensure effective implementation of such policies.

A resilient society can deflect the threat of conflict

Over the last decade, the number of violent conflicts has increased significantly, leading to the forced displacement of millions of people (the number in 2017 reached another record high of 68.5 million). According to recent analyses, one of the effects of conflict is a rise in hunger and food insecurity. And for the first time in more than a decade, the number of people who are undernourished has increased—from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million people in 2016. Conflict is one of the main drivers of food insecurity in 18 countries, where 74 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
Forced displacement as a result of conflict also influences urbanization patterns, particularly slum formation. In countries around the world, from Asia to Africa, people displaced from conflict are finding their way to slums, where even basic water and sanitation facilities are scarce, and where thousands of people live in uninhabitable conditions.
While the causes of conflict vary widely, the effects of climate change only exacerbate them. Climate-related events such as drought threaten food and water supplies, increase competition for these and other natural resources and create civil unrest, potentially adding fuel to the already-disastrous consequences of conflict.
Investing in good governance, improving the living conditions of people, reducing inequality and strengthening the capacities of communities can help build resilience to the threat of conflict and maintain peace in the event of a violent shock or long-term stressor.

Migration can work for all in building more inclusive and sustainable societies

Globally, the number of international migrants reached an estimated 258 million in 2017, up from 173 million in 2000. Migration contributes to inclusive and sustainable economic growth and development, in both countries of origin and destination. In 2017, remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries reached $466 billion, more than three times the amount of ODA they received that year. Remittances constitute a significant source of household income, improving the situation of families and communities through investments in education, health, sanitation, housing and infrastructure. Countries of destination also benefit, since migrants often fill critical labour gaps, create jobs as entrepreneurs, and pay taxes and social security contributions. Rising above adversity, many migrants become the most dynamic members of society, contributing to the development of science and technology and enriching their host communities by adding to cultural diversity.
Nevertheless, many migrants remain highly vulnerable, and investments in sustainable and resilient societies will benefit them as well. Improving living conditions in countries of origin will help minimize the adverse drivers that compel people to leave their homes. In countries of destination, providing universal access to basic services such as education, health care and social protection ensures that the human rights of migrants will also be respected, empowering them to become productive members of society. A win-win situation for all.

LIU Zhenmin Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs