World Water Day: Acting on Urban Water Challenges

Today marks World Water Day, an annual reminder of the importance of water – a basic need to which 1 in 9 people globally still do not have access, affecting public health, livelihoods, and education.

The United Nations’ annual World Water Report highlights the need for new nature-based solutions to combat the rising challenges to water security posed by climate change and population growth. Some key figures listed in the report stress the importance of doing so:

  • The global demand for water annually increases at a rate of roughly 1% due to population growth, changes in consumption, and economic development. The main share of the growth in demand will take places in developing countries.
  • 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)
  • Nearly half the world’s population currently live in areas that are potentially water-scarce for at least one month per year. This number could increase to 4.8-5.7 billion by 2050.
  • For the past thirty years water pollution has increased in nearly all rivers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Water quality is expected to further deteriorate, posing public health risks and environmental threats.

Cities Acting on Water Challenges

In cities, these challenges can be further intensified. Over 80% of the cities in the 100RC network highlight flooding as a major threat they face, while 20% identified water insecurity or drought as one of the big challenges in the years to come. Not surprisingly, many of the resilience strategies published to date feature targeted action to address these shocks and stresses.

  • Bangkok’s Resilience Strategy has a strong focus on the cultural challenges of changing the city’s relationship with water.
  • A city surrounded by water, Santa Fe’s Resilience Strategy sets out initiatives that not only address flooding, but also endemic crime, economic divisions, and social exclusion – while embracing wetlands and rivers as assets.
  • Surat’s Resilience Strategy outlines actions to clean up the River Tapi, as well as building community and social resilience for early response to floods – leveraging its active citizen engagement.
  • Norfolk sought to understand the impact a major flood event would have on the city’s economy and infrastructure, and partnered with Sandia National Laboratories, a 100RC Platform Partner, to conduct and in-depth analysis of flood risk and its financial implications.
  • Semarang’s Resilience Strategy focusses on promoting innovation in water provision, enhancing the performance of basic water management, and promoting environmentally beneficial behaviours.
  • Actions in Mexico City’s Resilience Strategy include creating a Water Fund for the city, developing a culture of responsible water consumption, and rescuing aquifer zones.
  • The Resilience Strategies of both Pittsburgh and Rotterdam address the issue of excess water and flooding. Actions include not simply constructing more levees or storm surge barriers but also focusing on small scale and adaptive solutions behind the levees.
  • New Orleans faces the issue of soil subsidence, and the city’s Resilience Strategy includes actions to make its urban landscape more blue instead of grey

Looking Ahead: City Water Resilience Framework

Earlier this year, 100 Resilient Cities announced that Arup will collaborate with five cities to develop a set of practical tools that will help cities to better prepare for and respond to shocks and stresses to their water system. Amman, Cape Town, Mexico City, Greater Miami and the Beaches, and Hull were selected because they represent the range of water challenges facing cities around the world. With the exception of Hull, each city is a member of 100 Resilient Cities network.

  • South Africa’s Cape Town, with a population of 3.7 million, is suffering from severe drought after three years of low rainfall, threatening water supplies for its residents, businesses and tourism industry.
  • Amman, the capital of Jordan, has no sources of water nearby and regularly experiences drought, while lower-lying parts are inundated during heavy rainfall.
  • Mexico City, a mega-city of 21.3 million people, depends on depleting aquifers and risks running out of water one day. Built on land that was once a lake, it is also prone to flooding.
  • Greater Miami and the Beaches has a high groundwater table and complex canal system, making it especially vulnerable to rising sea levels and tidal flooding.
  • The British port of Hull, meanwhile, has experienced extensive floods in recent years, with 90 percent of the small city standing below the high-tide line.

The project will explore each city’s specific water concerns through field research and stakeholder interviews. Data and findings will be used to establish qualitative and quantitative indicators to measure city water resilience, for use in any city anywhere. The resulting City Water Resilience Framework will be a global standard for water resilience, which enables cities to diagnose challenges related to water and utilise that information to inform planning and investment decisions.