A Water-Secure Future for Cities

By Robert Brears

Robert C. Brears is the author of Urban Water Security (Wiley) and founder of both Mitidaption and Mark and Focus.

By 2030, 5 billion people will be living in urban areas with hundreds of millions living in one of the world’s 41 mega-cities, up from 28 today. At the same time, global demand for water is projected to outstrip supply by 40%. As such, cities around the world are at risk of water insecurity, which is the inability of a population to access good quality water of suf­ficient quantity necessary for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being and socio-economic development.

The costs of increasing water supply

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. However, supply-side management is costly in economic, environmental and political terms.

  • 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
  • Environmentally, large-scale diversion of water disrupts the health of waterways that support aquatic ecosystems
  • 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

Achieving urban water security through 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

There are two types of demand management instruments available to cities to achieve urban water security: economic and regulatory instruments and communication and information instruments.

Economic and regulatory instruments

Economic and regulatory instruments include the pricing of water to lower consumption levels; subsidies and rebates for the uptake of water-efficient technologies; retrofitting of new or existing developments with water meters and water efficient devices; enforcing reductions of unaccounted for water (UFW) and product labeling of household appliances’ water efficiency.

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:

  • 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
  • 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.

Communication and information instruments

Communication and information instruments include public education on the need to conserve water as well as water-related school curriculum that raises awareness on the hydrological cycle at a young age. 

Case 3: Irish schools going green and blue

Irish Water 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.

Case 4: Dubai’s push to save water (and energy)

Over the summer period, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) ran its ‘Lets make the summer green’ program to promote the rational use of water, as well as electricity during the sweltering hot months. The program, launched via social media channels as well as other audiovisual media channels, provided customers with tips on how to fix water leaks, install drip irrigation systems as well as encourage the setting of AC systems to 24°C. In addition, DEWA’s Conservation Team organized lectures and field visits to government organizations and departments, private companies, malls and union centers to raise awareness on the importance of rational use of water and electricity.

Conclusion

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
  • Develop water conservation programs that involve public outreach

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