Goal 6 of the sustainable development goals (SDG 6) aims at providing the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all (United Nations, 2015) (Figure 1). Austria is known for its abundance of water and, generally, access to clean water and safe sanitation is given (ÖVGW, 2018). However, an increasing pressure for resource recovery (Cordell and White, 2015) and growing concerns about emerging pollutants (Eggen et al., 2014; Steffen et al., 2015) demand for more robust, circular approaches to deliver water and sanitation services. Additionally, urbanization and climate change (APCC, 2014; Neunteufel et al., 2017) are intensifying trends leading to changes in the degree of utilization of the current water infrastructure (Kleidorfer et al., 2013; Neunteufel et al., 2017) and (seasonal and spatial) water availability (BMFLUW, 2017). They pose growing challenges to the preservation of the current infrastructure and followingly the access to clean water and safe sanitation.

Figure 1: Targets of SDG 6

At a global level, many countries are struggling to make progress in achieving SDG 6: Water scarcity is increasing (Gassert et al., 2013; Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2016), endangering some of the positive achievements of the past to ensure universal access to clean drinking water. Emerging pollutants or “novel entities”, which are defined by Steffen et al. (2015) as one of the processes defining the planetary boundaries, are a growing concern but yet insufficiently quantified (Steffen et al., 2015). Present in wastewater, they are often not removed by conventional treatment technologies (Eggen et al., 2014). Beyond that, 2.3 billion people still lacked even basic sanitation services in 2015 (WHO and UNICEF, 2017). Integrated water resources management to tackle these problems systemically is widely lacking and the quality as well as the extent of water related ecosystems is decreasing (UN Water, 2018).

To be able to achieve SDG 6 universally and on the long term as well as to enhance synergies with other SDGs (e.g. SDG 2, 11, 15), circular, resource-oriented systems, which have the capacity to adapt to future changes while maintaining current sanitary and hygienic performances, are required. In this regard our current sanitation system is highly inflexible (Kleidorfer et al., 2013; Mulder, 2019). It requires continuous availability of large amounts of water (Neunteufel and Richard, 2012), and resource recovery is impeded by intermixing different substance flows (e.g. greywater, urine and faeces to blackwater). Novel entities are often captured insufficiently within the current wastewater treatment processes (Eggen et al., 2014) and followingly find their way into the soil, surface- and groundwater (Liebmann et al., 2015).

Different approaches focusing on resource efficiency in this field increasingly propagate the separation of the respective substance flows at the point of origin (depending on the approach: greywater, blackwater, yellowwater, brownwater, urine, faeces and faecal matter) (DWA, 2014). The recovery of secondary resources such as phosphorus, metals, organic matter and micronutrients provides an option to reduce dependencies on substance imports from foreign countries and to protect primary resources (Mulder, 2019; ÖWAV, 2019). Current projections predict raw material prices for phosphorus to increase (Cordell and White, 2015).

Still, risk aversion often leads to underinvestment in innovation in the sanitation sector (Mulder, 2019), while consideration of monetary and ecological benefits of circular economy is lacking (Blanken et al., 2019). The sewer system and the infrastructure, which have been growing over decades, and the embedded know-how and skills form an enormous investment capital, which indicates a barrier for changes of the system (Mulder, 2019). Besides the generally relatively high investment and operation as well as maintenance costs for the current sanitation system, extensive rehabilitation and remediation measures will be necessary within the next years (ÖWAV, 2019).

This work aims at estimating the potential of resource-oriented sanitation systems in Austria in order to achieve the SDGs and taking into account the criteria for sustainable sanitation defined by Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA). According to it, sustainable sanitation should be economically viable, socially acceptable, technically and institutionally appropriate, and protecting the environment and the natural resources (SuSanA, 2008). Illustrating alternatives to conventional, sewer-based approaches shall enrich the discussion on how to tackle current challenges in sanitation and water management.


The UniNEtZ project (German acronym for “Universities and the sustainable development goals”) is a collaboration of nineteen Austrian universities and research institutions aiming at proving a set of options for actions to achieve the SDGs, enhancing sustainable development in Austria in general and anchoring the SDGs in research, teaching, university management and society (UniNEtZ, 2020).

The here presented research will be conducted in continuous exchange with experts of the water and sanitation sector and discussed with other SDG working groups and stakeholders following the methods developed within the project. The framework of UniNEtZ and the methods used will complement the work on this thesis with interdisciplinary insight (Figure 2). The consideration of spill-over effects underlines the trans-national approach required to achieve the SDGs at a global level. The research shall contribute to the development and assessment of options for actions within the UniNEtZ project and possible areas for implementation.

Figure 2: Links between doctoral thesis and project


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