Future urban water security

Future urban water security for cities

The next few decades will be the most rapid period of urban growth in human history, with 2.6 billion additional urban dwellers expected by 2050 (UNPD, 2011). All pleople will need water, but surprisingly little is known globally about where large cities obtain their water or the implication of this infrastructure for the global hydrologic cycle.

More than 2.5 billion people don’t have access to basic levels of fresh water for at least one month each year – a situation growing ever more critical as urban populations expand rapidly

Traditionally, cities, facing increased demand for water, along with variable supply, have relied on large-scale, supply-side infrastructural projects such as dams and reservoirs.

This is termed ‘supply-side’ management. According to Robert Brears in his blog, this supply-side management is out dated.

Its costly in economic, environmental and political terms. 

Urban challenges

  1. Economically
    Water must be transported over long distances increasing the costs of transportation. Additionally, the water is often of inferior quality and so requires additional treatment for potable consumption, increasing energy as well as chemical costs in water treatment plants
  2. Environmentally
    large-scale diversion of water disrupts the health of waterways that support aquatic ecosystems for example forests, wetlands and grassland components, which lie at the heart of the global water cycle.
  3. Politically, because the vast majority of water is transboundary. Importing water creates political tensions with other water users, irrespective of whether they are located in the same country or not.

So which opportunities are available for city planners? Brears gives his ideas about creating water-secure cities, including a few mini-cases.

Demand management

Urban water security – the ability of an urban population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate supplies of good quality water – can be increased through demand management, which involves the better use of existing water supplies before plans are made to further increase supply.

Demand management promo­tes water conservation, during times of both normal conditions and uncertainty, through changes in practices, cultures and people’s attitudes towards water resources. Demand management aims to:

  • Reduce loss and misuse
  • Optimize water use by ensuring reasonable allocation between various users while considering downstream users, both human and natural
  • Facilitate major financial and infrastructural savings for cities
  • Reduce stress on water resources by reducing unsustainable consumption levels

Water utilities can use a variety of demand management tools to achieve urban water security including pricing water to encourage conservation, encouraging or mandating that large water users implement conservation plans as well as educating people on the need to conserve scare water resources.

Case 1: Vancouver’s seasonal water rates

In Vancouver, the price of water increases by around 25% during the drier months, compared to the low-peak rate from November through May, to reflect the added cost of supplying water to the city. The summer surcharge enables the city to meet its Greenest City 2020 goal of reducing water consumption by 33%, which has two benefits for all of Vancouver residents:

  1. It helps reduce the strain on the city’s existing water system, eliminating the need for costly system upgrades that could lead to higher utility rates
  2. It helps the city live within its water means, ensuring all residents have access to abundant safe, clean water no matter how much the city grows

Case 2: Western Australia’s Water Efficiency Management Plan Program

The Water Corporation of Western Australia’s Water Efficiency Management Plan Program requires all businesses using more than 20,000 kL of water a year, to complete a Water Efficiency Management Plan (WEMP) to help save water. The program involves businesses detailing water saving actions and initiatives and providing annual progress reports about their efforts. As part of the program a WEMP includes:

  • Site water use history
  • Water saving opportunities (including benchmark indicators and targets)
  • Water saving action plan (including timeframes)
  • Management and Water Corporation commitment

Once the WEMP is submitted and accepted, the plan is valid for 5 years. However, if the business changes ownership or water use increases significantly a revised WEMP may need to be submitted.

Case 3: Irish schools going green and blue

Irish Water Ltd. is a water utility company in Ireland. The company sponsors and supports the country’s Green-Schools program which aims to develop awareness around water conservation in both schools and homes.

As part of Green-Schools, Irish Water runs the ambassador program in which the utility directly engages with second-level students on the topics of water, water conservation, treatment and the marine environment and encourages them to act as ambassadors for Green-Schools in their own schools and local communities.

In addition, Irish Water supports the Green-Schools Water of the Year Award, which recognizes innovation and creativity among schools in achieving significant water reduction and spreading awareness about water issues.

With cities around the world at risk of water insecurity, water utilities can implement a variety of demand management strategies to achieve urban water security. For instance, water utilities can:

  • Develop pricing systems that encourage the wise use of water
  • Mandate or encourage large non-domestic customers to develop water efficiency plans that not only reduce demand for scarce water but also increase efficiency of the business
  • Encourage young people to save water as a way of life

Robert Brears is the author of Urban Water Security (Wiley). He is the founder of both Mitidaption and Mark and Focus and a Director on the International Board of the Indo Global Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture.

Robert provides expert advice on the impacts of climate change and environmental risks to business, governance and society and solutions to mitigate these risks.

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