Water, covering most of the Earth’s surface, is the lifeblood of our planet. Human survival depends on clean water for drinking, cooking, and washing. Water is also vital for agriculture, fishing, transportation, industry, recreation, spiritual and cultural traditions, and ecosystem maintenance. However, less than 1% of Earth’s water is available as freshwater for human use. Due to our increasing human population and its demand for water, access to clean water has become a concern across the entire world, affecting both developing and industrialized nations. Changes in the Earth’s climate exacerbate these concerns, as increasingly unpredictable precipitation and weather patterns are endangering the security of our water resources. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address these water-related challenges directly, with Goal 6 pledging to Ensure Availability and Sustainable Management of Water and Sanitation for All.
Cities play a key role in achieving this goal, as they are tasked with the development and maintenance of water supply and sanitation systems for all of their residents. Sustainable water and sanitation systems are essential to the advancement of Goal 11, Make Cities and Human Settlements Inclusive, Safe, Resilient, and Sustainable. Because development is fundamentally dependent upon access to water, every one of the SDGs, in essence, builds upon a foundation of sustainable water systems.
Cities and water
Around the world, there are a variety of water-related challenges confronting our cities. In some cities, the most pressing issue is protection from flooding events. In other cities, existing water supplies are not able to keep pace with population growth. Yet other cities have abundant water, but are challenged by contamination of their water sources. All of these problems require solutions and collaboration across sectors of government, business, and civil society. Water problems are particularly complex because of the dynamic nature of water itself. Constantly transforming between its different phases of liquid, gas, and solid, water does not respect geographic boundaries, and therefore water issues are often not contained within the boundaries of a city. Regional watersheds and global weather patterns highlight the need for innovative solutions drawn from cooperation between cities and their surrounding regions.
Sustainable water supply: quantity
Cities draw water from a variety of sources, including underground aquifers, rivers, lakes, rainwater, large reservoirs, and desalination plants. Unfortunately, many of these sources are drying up and water is becoming scarce. Drought, in some regions becoming more frequent due to the effects of climate change, can have severe negative impacts on surface water and groundwater supplies. Agriculture, accounting for the majority of water use in the world, continues to expand to feed growing populations, and demand for irrigation is putting stress on urban water supplies. These phenomena, combined with the rapid growth of urban populations and the resulting increased water demand, are putting ever-greater stresses on our cities’ water supplies and water infrastructure.
Sustainable water supply: quality
Water contamination is a major threat to public health in cities around the world. Contamination can enter waterways from a variety of entry points, including atmospheric deposition, agricultural runoff, mining operations, industrial waste streams, urban runoff, human sewage, and inadequate plumbing systems. Underground aquifers can remain contaminated for centuries because of slow rates of water recharge from the environment. In many cases, the introduction of water contaminants takes place upstream from cities, resulting from agricultural or industrial activities. In these cases, cities are the recipients of contaminated water, yet bear the burden of cities water treatment rather than source water protection. The development and maintenance of water treatment systems require substantial financial investment and political resolve from all levels and sectors of society.
Wastewater treatment and sanitation
As a result of water use, cities generate large amounts of wastewater in the form of sewage, industrial waste, and urban runoff. If left untreated, this wastewater can have devastating impacts on waterways, threatening the quality of drinking water sources and the survival of freshwater ecosystems. The UN pays particular attention and devotes considerable resources to developing improved sanitary systems, which are essential for human health. However, according to the UN, only 80% of the world’s urban population has access to improved sanitation, leaving 680 million people in our world’s cities without systems that separate human excreta from human contact.
Effects of climate change
Global climate change is causing measurable changes to precipitation patterns. Some regions of the world are experiencing their worst droughts in recorded history. Other regions are seeing increased rainfall. Across the globe, warmer air temperatures allow the atmosphere to hold more water vapor, resulting in more intense single rain events. Cities must adapt their water management strategies to account for these changing weather patterns.
Actions and Responses
The global water crisis requires contributions from all sectors of society – government, business, and civil society – to create lasting solutions for our cities. All levels of government – local, regional, and national – must plan together to protect shared waterways from overuse and contamination. Businesses can create solutions through development and deployment of water-friendly technologies.
Finally, well-informed and active urban citizens can create cultures of water stewardship, promising clean water for current and future generations.
Governments at every level play key roles in ensuring sustainable urban water supplies and in protecting urban waterways from contamination. National governments can set water quality standards and provide financing for water infrastructure projects. At the regional level, governments can create planning commissions for shared watersheds, which typically extend beyond local boundaries, spanning both rural and urban communities. City governments can adopt water-centric policies that balance water stewardship and public health with economic growth and prosperity. Stockholm and Singapore are viewed as global leaders in water management, spearheaded by government efforts. Stockholm is noted for its outstanding protection of the surrounding waterways from contamination, and Singapore has demonstrated innovative water supply solutions by sourcing 30% of its water from recycled wastewater and 20% from rainwater.
Innovation and stewardship in the private sector
The private sector, through the development of appropriate technologies and water infrastructure projects, can play an important role in solving the world’s water challenges. Innovating Global Compact Cities Jamshedpur, Milwaukee, and Leeuwarden demonstrate the power of businesses to solve complex water-related problems. Jamshedpur is a city in the Jharkhand state, India, developed in the early 20th century to serve the needs of Tata Steel, a manufacturing company. Today, the city’s water supply and sanitation services are provided by JUSCO, a subsidiary of Tata Steel, and the high quality of their water and sanitation systems serves as a benchmark for the rest of the cities in India. Milwaukee, situated on the shores of the Great Lakes of North America, has been home to many water-related businesses throughout its history. The Water Council, a local NGO, now aligns the freshwater research community with water-related industries in the region. The group has coordinated private, public, and academic efforts to establish Milwaukee as a World Water Hub for globally connected water technology, research and innovation. Leeuwarden, in the Friesland province of the Netherlands, has also created an industry cluster around water technology, led by WaterCampus, a public-private partnership effort. WaterCampus encourages cooperation between businesses, educational institutes, and governments within the water technology sector.
The role of civil society
An informed and engaged populace is crucial for the conservation of water resources. When citizens become active water stewards, they conserve water through individual actions, apply pressure to water-related political issues, and generate innovative grassroots solutions to water challenges. Our cities need school systems that teach water literacy to students at a young age, community groups that invite residents to participate in clean ups of local waterways and beaches, and higher education programs to train our next generation of water leaders.
The United Nations has prioritized water by forming UN-Water, an inter-agency coordination mechanism for all freshwater issues, including sanitation. The scope of UN-Water’s work encompasses all aspects of freshwater, including surface and groundwater resources and the interface between fresh and sea water.
Author: Jesse Blom.
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