"The Sustainable Development Goals are part of everything we do"

Sustainability has been a key focus at Eawag for a long time – and not only since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals. Eawag researcher Christoph Lüthi, for one, has been working in this field for many years and helped to design this year’s Info Day.

Switzerland is facing mounting pressure on its water resources, and consequently, on entire ecosystems, due to recurrent dry summers, pesticides contaminating groundwater, and a significant decline in biodiversity. These pressures have adverse effects on many aspects of daily life, not least on health and energy generation. In the face of climate change, the sustainable management of water, often referred to as "blue gold", is growing in importance in Switzerland as well as in other countries. The significance of water as both a valuable resource and an ecosystem is acknowledged by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Within this framework, the United Nations has formulated the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to which Switzerland has pledged its commitment (see overview). These SDGs are not only relevant to politics, administration and the economy, but are also pertinent in the realm of research. “We align ourselves to these goals, and so make a valuable contribution towards their achievement through our work,” says Christoph Lüthi. “At this year's Info Day, we’ll be showing visitors exactly how Eawag goes about doing so.”

It’s no coincidence that Lüthi, an expert in urban development and head of the Sanitation, Water and Solid Waste for Development (Sandec) department, co-designed this year’s Info Day and will be overseeing it to ensure everything runs smoothly. In Christoph's own department, the work revolves in particular around Goal 6 – “Clean Water and Sanitation” – as was the case even before Agenda 2030 came into effect. Since 1992, Sandec has been researching and developing methods and technologies in order to provide the world’s poorest people with access to clean drinking water and sanitary facilities. These Eawag researchers have long played an active role in developing sustainable solutions in the area of water supply, sanitation and waste management in aligning their work with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were the precursor to Agenda 2030.

Water is (almost) ubiquitous

Unlike the MDGs, which drew frequent criticism for pinning responsibility solely on the countries of the Global South and therefore suffered from limited acceptance, the SDGs are also aimed at the countries of the Global North. The problems and challenges facing the “developed world” are different – here, the focus is not on overcoming poverty and hunger or on providing access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Rather, it is a question of ensuring responsible and environmentally-friendly production and consumption, protecting biodiversity and natural habitats, promoting renewable energies, and making our cities more resilient to the impacts of climate change – to name just a few examples. The areas to be addressed have become more numerous and diverse with the arrival of Agenda 2030, and water is an important factor in many of them. “Practically every research department at Eawag contributes to one of the Sustainable Development Goals either directly or indirectly,” says Lüthi. This even applies to goals that, on first sight, have nothing to do with water, such as access to high-quality education. “There are studies that show that girls in poorer regions of the world are more likely to go to school if the school has clean and functioning toilets.”

The fact that nearly all Eawag researchers deal with one SDG or another in their work didn’t make it any easier to select the contributions for this year’s Info Day. “We have tried to put together a programme demonstrating the breadth of our research and its impact on the Sustainable Development Goals,” says Lüthi. The topics range from technologies for water treatment (see articles “Autarky – ultimate convenience in a one-stop solution” and “Low-tech solutions for clean drinking water”) to the psychological perspective on the use of such systems (see article “An expert in the human factor”), from the measurement of pesticide residues in bodies of water (see article “Solving the pesticide problem in dialogue with agriculture”) to the global mapping of groundwater pollutants using machine learning (see article “Pollutants in groundwater: uncovering blind spots with machine learning”), and from blue-green infrastructure for liveable cities (see article “More green and blue in cities to enhance liveability”) to natural structures for habitable watercourses (see article “Keeping the emergency exit clear for aquatic organisms”).

A key partner

One goal that resonates with all Eawag research projects is SDG 17: Partnerships. Indeed, Eawag cooperates on a transnational and cross-institutional basis, provides data and information resources for governmental and professional spheres, and engages in educational and knowledge-transfer activities. “For example, we’ve produced four so-called massive open online courses (MOOCs),” says Lüthi. To date, these courses have provided over 160,000 people worldwide with further training on the topics of drinking water treatment, sewage disposal and waste management. In other educational activities, Eawag researchers also teach at universities in Switzerland and abroad, dozens of students complete their doctoral studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology each year, and practically oriented courses are provided for experts. These activities are another way in which Eawag contributes to sustainability. Lüthi says, “I believe it’s one of our principal responsibilities to train the next generation of water experts to face the challenges of tomorrow.”

Created by Isabel Plana for the Info Day Magazine 2023