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Water and Cities: A Systems Approach

By Ellie Leaning, EcoCiv Strategic Partnerships Coordinator

In 2020, an estimated 4.2 billion people live in cities across the globe. The United Nations expects this figure to grow to 6.7 billion by 2050. The 2018 UN Water Development Report states that water scarcity is one of the most significant global risks. They estimate that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in areas of absolute water scarcity and two-thirds of the world’s population will be under water stress.

Water scarcity refers to the quantity, quality, accessibility, reliability, and affordability of water — as well as the sustainability of this finite resource. Water is valued differently depending on whom you ask: as a resource, as a commodity, or as a right. It is often contested; it crosses borders, and at its core, it is the “thing” most essential to life on earth. 

Like many issues central to 21st-century development economics, water security is complex. Given the geographic reality of large watersheds, water historically has been managed by provincial, regional decision-makers or even international agreements, not usually by city officials. However, given the dual crises of rapid migration to cities worldwide and climate change bringing stronger and more frequent storms, extreme rains (and extreme droughts), and sea level rise, water scarcity increasingly manifests as a city-specific issue that must be addressed by city leaders. 

Because this responsibility is relatively new, city governments sometimes lack the resources and training necessary to manage acute water crises, let alone chronic water scarcity (to borrow a phrase from the sphere of public health, this is often an “acute on chronic” issue). Cape Town, South Africa found itself in this scenario in 2018 when it faced the very real threat of running out of water. This was known as “Day Zero,” when the city’s taps would turn off and Capetonians would have to wait in guarded lines for their individual allocation of water. Remarkably, using a combination of demand incentives, supply management, and behavior change campaigns, Cape Town avoided this disaster. Other cities, particularly in the Global South but increasingly across the world, are either facing or are likely to face similar crises. 

We at EcoCiv and our partners from the Cape-Town based SOS NPO realized a few key reasons for the particular issue facing urban water security. One is the lack of communication about best practices and lessons learned to decision-makers in the “hot seat,” and the other with a lack of appropriate financing for water projects to make much-needed improvements. So, we set out to bring together water leaders from academia, industry, city officials, researchers, financers, consultants, civil society, and more into what has become the inaugural W12 Congress. 

W12 approaches water from different perspectives and through diverse stakeholder outlooks. The W12 team recently completed their initial two-day conference, Cities Facing Escalating Water Shortages: Lessons Learned and Strategies Moving Forward at the University of the Western Cape organized by EcoCiv, the University of the Western Cape, and SOS NPO. The managing “Executive Committee” also included representatives of the University of Cape Town Future Water Institute, the Stellenbosch University Water Institute, and the Western Cape Provincial Government. The conference welcomed over 150 water experts from 15 different countries. Conference participants were divided into six task teams. These teams covered the areas of economics, social science, politics, civil society, technical science, and natural science. They later re-divided into six integrated groups as they were guided through EcoCiv’s facilitative process, which helped them identify shared visions for water security in 2050 and “back-cast” by decade to find concrete projects for collaboration and begin to create a roadmap for change. 

The preliminary results of this conference are discussed below. 

Throughout the next few months, these results will be developed and expanded into the Major Cities Best Practice Water Protocol, or the W12 Protocol, a document and database that aims to provide useful, cutting edge information for city-level decision makers and their collaborators. The W12 Protocol provides an opportunity for city-to-city learning and best practices learned from those working on water security issues globally. It does not generate new knowledge; rather, it aggregates, organizations, and makes accessible the best knowledge across stakeholders and sectors.

Cities are at different crisis levels and face widely differing conditions in terms of water scarcity and urbanization. The W12 Protocol aims to be a useful resource to cities in crisis, cities just out of crisis and cities looking ahead to avoid crisis. It will empower decision-makers within cities who are faced with pervasive issues of climate change, water scarcity, and rapid urbanization.

At EcoCiv, we approach issues like water security from a systems perspective, analyzing the issue from an interdisciplinary lens and assessing the systems and structures that either uphold or undermine its security and sustainability. We then work with sector experts to develop and share solutions to decision-makers. The following is a basic overview of a systems or value-chain perspective of urban water security.

Water and Cities: A value-chain perspective 
In basic terms, there are two sides to urban water security: the supply side, or how much or what quality water there is, and the demand side, or how much water is needed and for what. The two sides are connected by services, maintenance, financing, and policy, which ensure rights like access and affordability. The description below attempts to paint a picture of this value chain of urban water and intentionally highlights the complexity of it.

Waterfront cities are particularly at risk for water insecurity, with vulnerable populations and limited infrastructure to manage the dual onslaught of increased urbanization and climate change-induced storms, sea-level rise, and drought. Shantytowns around the world are inherently vulnerable to climate change impacts; this is due to many justice-oriented factors including intentional placement of shantytowns in areas prone to flooding, in areas near hazardous waste sites, or generally in areas undesirable for more ‘formalized’ living. Kibera, for example, is located on the outskirts of Nairobi and is at extremely high risk for droughts and disease spreading due to increasingly high temperatures and poor solid waste management. Brazil’s favelas on the hillside are at risk for mudslides in extreme rains or storms. Refugee camps are often located in places with extremely high temperatures, little-to-no arable land, and water scarcity risks. 

The city is seldom considered a watershed in and of itself. A useful example of this is that urban stormwater runoff plans are put into place to “get the water out” efficiently and without causing flooding damage, rather than to collect stormwater for future use. There is a myriad of ways cities can become catchments themselves, by developing themselves as “Sponge Cities” as exemplified well in China and capturing water rather than quickly ushering it out. This is the first step of the supply chain: looking at a cities’ water source. Where is it? How much is there? How does it get replenished? How quickly does it replenish? What else is drawing from it?

Once we understand how much water there is for a city to use, it’s important to understand the quality of that water — principally what pollutants are evident, perhaps from agricultural runoff or poor solid waste management particularly in urban slums, areas downstream from agricultural businesses, or in transboundary water catchments. In most cases, water must be treated before it is potable. Often, many distinct users use the same body of water, from fishers making a living to households needing drinking water to agricultural uses to entrepreneurial activities, ecosystem services, energy production, and much more.

Infrastructure plays a core role in the effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery in a city. Particularly in cities in the Global South, the historical realities of colonial divides are still ever-present in the infrastructure and housing. Those typically historically European areas often have secure tenure, trunk and site infrastructure, and are fully serviced with flush toilets and treated tap water. At the same time, just on the other side of town, informality abounds. It’s important to recognize that the divide isn’t a clear “formal versus informal”; rather, there are degrees of formality in the urban setting. In South Africa, most RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) funded houses are serviced with treated water, but the informal settlements that are built on top of and next to the “formal” townships are typically un-serviced without tenure, trunk or site infrastructure, no (or few) flush toilets or taps, let alone treated water. In most of these slums in South Africa, water and sanitation services are provided by the city in the form of municipal taps and portable toilets. The management and maintenance of these is a highly contentious issue still today. 

Cities, particularly those with a colonial history and a postcolonial or neocolonial reality today often have outdated and inadequate infrastructure and a severe amount of “non-revenue water” or water lost before it reaches the consumers through leaks and other types of water loss. Solving the issue of non-revenue water or water loss is directly related to a demand side challenge of water pricing whereby investments in improving water infrastructure are typically not viable for water utilities, as the cost of water is so low that utility companies won’t recover the costs spent on an investment in improving infrastructure. This is a contentious issue, but a useful example of a complex challenge of being unable to reduce water waste in the supply chain because of a pricing and affordability constraint on the demand side. 

In what could be considered the final stage of the supply chain, cities are tasked with monitoring and managing water service provision across these varying levels of formality and varying perspectives of water (resource, commodity, right). 

On the demand side, given the reality of increased urbanization, there is a number of people needing water for different sources — household uses: cooking, drinking, cleaning; recreation: parks or swimming; economic activities: car washes or urban farming. Therefore, in most instances, demand outstrips supply at least from an access perspective if not a quantity perspective as well (again, highly debated – is there enough water for all? Is it just an allocation issue?). 

Once we have an idea of who needs water, what for, and how much, it’s important to understand the local context of the city or state’s responsibility to the people living there. The South African constitution is unique in that it provides water (and housing and other basic human needs) as a right to all people who live in the country, regardless of their legality or citizenship. Other countries and cities approach this differently. 

After understanding what the city or state is obligated to provide, the question of capacity in terms of knowledge/experience, flexibility for decision making, available funding, human resources available all come into play. As we’ve seen time and time again in South Africa, just because something is a constitutional right does not make it possible or feasible.

From a financial perspective, many improvements, particularly in terms of infrastructure upgrading, do not happen because of a lack of bankable projects. This basically means that private finance is available, but not utilized or accessed typically due to a lack of collateral, management, or corruption. Currently, private water sector finance only accounts to 2% of global investments (GWI 2017). Bringing in private sector funding can take many forms and is, yet again, contentious. It could take the shape of a typical private-public-partnership (PPP), like the relatively successful Rand Water and Johannesburg Water (private suppliers that are contracted by the city of Johannesburg) or PPPs with a stronger community component, like PROSANEAR Brazil, which later modeled the Oranji Pilot Project in Karachi, Pakistan. These are arguably good examples of private sector involvement in water service provision or water infrastructure. There are, of course, the negative examples of dams as well in places like the Three Gorges Dam in China or the Xayaburi in Laos. Dams or other human-control-oriented big investments typically improve human development in an economic sense at the expense of human dignity, long term sustainability, wildlife biodiversity, watershed health, and much more. Likewise, private investment in water can be extremely complex when viewed as a commodity. In places like Beirut, Lebanon, people pay a tariff on water, but as it is unreliable, they have to pay exorbitant rates for safe water from private providers. Governments around the world have often provided opportunities and funds for big infrastructure projects like dams or desalination, rather than investing in shantytown upgrading or service provision to the lower-class.

This brings us to pricing structure. Similar to housing, water is priced completely differently around the world, often based on the type of governance in the country. Overall, the price on water is typically understood as “what people can or will pay” on one hand, but “everything” on the other. As a vital life source, water is effectively worth everything as you cannot live without it. Nonetheless it is a scarce resource and a “commons good” that is finite and must be managed. Different providers go about this in different ways from taxes on the wealthy to subsidize the poor, to metered water, to free water to a certain amount then a set rate on top of that. Questions of consistency and reliability abound. 

Looking at this issue of water security from a systems perspective, or a value-chain perspective, enables us to look at the process of fostering a water-secure world for all. It allows us to look at the system as a whole and identify leverage points for change, whether they be in governance, technology innovation, pricing structures, or communications.

Adapting our human behavior and policies to ensure water security in cities globally is arguably the most important challenge of our time to simultaneously improve human dignity, build sustainable systems, model effective partnerships with the private sector for other issues, and build resilience and health back into our vital ecosystems. A true Ecological Civilization, one that includes the thriving symbiosis of humans and nature, is within reach; urban water security is but one of the many important pieces to that puzzle of Ecological Civilization. 

This is why W12 exists.

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