City slickers and water security: governments getting their hands dirty

Today’s post is from Xavier Leflaive of the OECD Environment DirectorateWater meme

If you’ve just visited the room with no windows and enjoyed the effortless push of the “deposit disposal button” followed by a stream of fresh, clean tap water to wash your hands, you could well be in an OECD city. Count your blessings too if your basement or street has avoided flooding from heavy rain or if your lawn and plants are still in vibrant colour because they are well hydrated during the dry summer. This urban providence doesn’t mean you’re not exposed to the risk of flooding, water scarcity or pollution. It probably means that your city is rolling up its sleeves and getting equipped to manage these risks and minimise their consequences in a way that you and your fellow city slickers can afford.

Water security is providential: globally 1 billion people have no clean drinking water (that’s double the population of the EU) and 2.5 billion lack access to basic sanitation. 20 million people in the São Paulo region don’t know if they’ll have a reliable water supply in the coming months. The number of people at risk from floods is projected to rise from 1.2 billion today to around 1.6 billion in 2050 (nearly 20% of the world’s population). The economic value of assets at risk is expected to be around $45 trillion by 2050, a growth of over 340% from 2010. From a global perspective, the level of water risk protection that OECD city dwellers enjoy is remarkable. The question is, can it last?

Water infrastructure (particularly piping) in our cities is old, cracking and needs to be upgraded. In some cities, leakage from distribution networks is as much as 40%. This is not only a waste of water, but a monumental waste of energy in pumping, treating and channelling this water. It also represents lost opportunities for economic development and equity as this water could have been put to more valuable uses, depriving others of this vital resource.

Deteriorating water quality and increasing competition among water users indicates that many cities in OECD countries have outgrown their water supplies. We are witnessing an unprecedented rate of urbanisation: 86% of the OECD population will be living in urban areas by 2050 with a concentration in cities with over 1 million inhabitants. Climate change generates more uncertainty on how much water will be available and when. It puts cities in coastal zones at greater risk as sea level rises. It gets one asking “does my city have a viable plan to ensure a sustainable water future?”

The upcoming OECD report “Water and Cities: Ensuring Sustainable Futures” warns that managing urban water in the future will need to combine new perspectives on financing, the diffusion of innovative techniques and practices, co-operation between cities and their rural environment, and governance.

Cities in developing countries need to build new infrastructures to secure access and protect against water risks.

Cities in OECD countries face a distinctive challenge: how to renew existing infrastructures and adapt them to a new context, characterised by more variable rain, declining consumption in city centres, and new expectations from city dwellers? This requires additional finance to upgrade existing infrastructures.

We need to explore ways to jumpstart and leverage private investment from groups like financiers, property developers, as well as small entrepreneurs. In France, a new urban water tax is raising revenue that contributes to long-term urban rainwater management by incentivising property owners to manage rainwater close to the source to limit stormwater run-off.

Beyond financing, we are seeing new methods in managing change and retrofitting maladapted infrastructures, architectures and business models. Combining a long-term strategy with a pragmatic approach to renewing the stock of buildings and assets can prove worthwhile. In Tokyo and San Francisco, water recycling is reducing dependence on surface water as well as raising public awareness of the importance of saving water.

Civil society can’t tackle future water challenges on its own. Smart partnerships and better governance can contribute to sustainable urban water management. The “Greenways” programme in Auckland aligns city council actions and investment across a range of policy and operational units, with the aim of delivering multiple freshwater, biodiversity, transport, urban design and stormwater-related outcomes from the same investment. Future water management in OECD cities will also largely depend on the capacities of different tiers of government to work together along a coherent pathway, as well as engage with, and make the best use of, initiatives by local entrepreneurs and stakeholders.

You may now be able to better appreciate the “privilege” of sporting clean hands and dry feet. The OECD is helping governments get their hands dirty in the transition from an era of exploiting existing infrastructures to one of building new assets and retrofitting infrastructure to adapt to changing future conditions. This action is both critical and pressing, to ensure city slickers’ health, economy and environment remain intact.

Useful links

OECD work on water

Managing Future Water for Cities

World Water Forum in Korea, 12-17 April


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