19 Jun 2018 Story Sustainable Development Goals

Sustainable Development Goals are indivisible

“Rain has become my enemy. When it rains, my heart sinks,” says Jane, an entrepreneur who runs a village grocery shop in the Isingiro District of Western Uganda.

Over the years the forests in the Isingiro area have been transformed into farmland. This has resulted in the land failing to retain water during heavy downpours causing floods damaging homes, crops and businesses, including Jane’s. It has also led to nutrient runoff from the soil, contributing to water pollution. Furthermore, water from wetlands is no longer clean for human or livestock consumption.

As the UN Environment’s field trip to this area ended it became apparent that land degradation is taking a toll in East Africa. The growing demand for food and fuel is the cause for forests being transformed to farmlands, trees being cut for firewood to serve the growing charcoal industry. At the same time wetlands are also being used for construction.

Climate change exasperating the unpredictability of weather patterns and is the cause for prolonged dry seasons leading to intense downpours during the rainy seasons. The erratic climate patterns are impacting livelihoods and are the root cause of poverty and food insecurity. As a result women spend more time to fetch water and firewood; children are unable to attend school and communities’ health is deteriorating especially those affected with HIV/AIDS.

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Water is life: As forests have been turned into farmlands, where pesticides and chemical fertilizers are used, more and more water sources including wetlands have been contaminated. This is one of the rare spots where water is still clean and abundant.  Photo by Victor Tsang/ UN Environment

In another community, in the Kamwenge District of Western Uganda, 26 women ranging from teenagers to the elderly talked about the impacts of flood, drought and intense heat.  When asked about domestic violence, the women burst into laughter, as if a sense of levity could alleviate their sufferings. Regretfully domestic violence is common in Uganda, and statistics show that it happens more often during the dry seasons as husbands try to usurp their wives of the crop they grow. There are also cases of women fighting back and becoming perpetuators of domestic violence.

Sustainable Development Goals: The road map to ensuring better lives for everyone

The linkages among the Sustainable Development Goalsare at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which calls for an integrated development approach and breaking the existing silos.

In the case of Uganda, land degradation (SDG 15) and climate change (SDG 13) are having negative impacts on poverty (SDG 1), food security (SDG 2), health (SDG 3), education (SDG 4), gender relations (SDG 5), availability of clean water (SDG 6) and firewood (SDG 7). The story does not end here as we are seeing men migrating to cities (SDG 11) in search of jobs and better income (SDG 8); trees being cut and natural resources degraded to meet an exponentially increasing consumption pattern (SDG 12).  

In the green United Nations office complex in Nairobi, Kenya, where one can see monkeys running around, experts from different parts of the globe and sectors discussed how to strengthen gender equality. They talked about the challenges and opportunities to advance gender equality, how to break the silos, create synergies among the goals and identify Sustainable Development Goals that can act as catalysts to advance gender equality. One such catalyst could be investing in public toilets in urban spaces; as this will contribute to SDGs 5 (gender relations), 6 (clean water and sanitation) and 11 (sustainable cities and communities).

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Indivisibility of SDGs: The 26 women in the focus group discussion seem to understand perfectly the indivisibility of the environmental, social and economic dimensions of the 2030 Agenda, a message for policy makers. Photo by Victor Tsang/ UN Envrionment

Experts also discussed the need to create synergies between and among SDG targets to bridge the social-environment gap. For instance, experts in SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), tend to focus on issues to do with water pumps and toilets, while professionals with an environment background may put emphasis on water ecosystems. Under Goal 11 (sustainable cities and communities), most experts tend to look at urban planning and equitable access to urban resources, while environment professionals tend to focus on air pollution and solid waste. To bridge such knowledge gap, there is a need to create the space for social and environmental scientists to engage in a conversation.

When there is a will, there is a way

This summer, policy makers are coming together at the United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development to conduct an in-depth review of the Sustainable Development Goals. Experts who came together under the auspices of , UN Environment, UN-Habitat and UN Women compiled a series of recommendations which will be discussed at the HLPF meeting.

“Back in the Kamwenge District in Western Uganda, before closing the focus group discussion with the 26 women, I asked if the community was willing to participate in wetland restoration activities led by Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment, supported by UN Environment and to be funded by the Global Environment Facility", said Victor Tsang. “It was heart-warming to hear the overwhelming “yes”, albeit with the caveat of having economic incentives and an increased income generating opportunities”.

Women in Uganda are fully cognizant of the strong linkages between the environmental, economic and social dimensions of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. One can only hope that this message is heard loud and clear at the High Level Political Forum.