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Water security in cities: why governance matters

About the blog

Oriana Romano
Head of Unit, Water Governance and Circular Economy at OECD.
  • Water security in cities: why governance matters

Water & cities: A challenging future ahead

Several cities around the world face water security issues, whether related to droughts or flood. The future paints a dire picture: globally, by 2050, water demand will increase by 55%; 4 billion people will be living in water-stressed areas and more people will be at risk from floods, from 1.2 billion today to 1.6 billion in 2050.

Recently, the City of Cape Town (South Africa) was close to Day Zero, the risk of running out of water, due to persistent drought and external factors such as climate change and rapid population growth; in 2016, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (Brazil) were hit by the worst drought in 84 years. Water shortages are not new for the 21 million inhabitants of Mexico City, Mexico, where two-thirds of the country are affected by drought. The situation is worrisome in Europe as well: according to the Greater London Authority (United Kingdom), the city is likely to have supply problems by 2025 and “serious shortages” by 2040; the City of Venice (Italy) has been under water and suffered from the worst flood since 1966. In Spain, drought hit the southern part; however, in 2008 the City of Barcelona confronted with a very severe drought, triggered a reflection on Climate Change Adaptation Plans.

The SDG 11 calls for inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities. This is not achievable without acceptable levels of water security. The urgency of the challenges in cities calls for innovative practices, and long-term vision that makes the best use (and re-use) of available resources.

The key question is then how to make this happen? While there is no doubt that technical solutions play a fundamental role, they represent only part of the solution. Achieving greater water resilience and security in cities means to manage water in a sustainable, integrated and inclusive way, at an acceptable cost, and in a reasonable timeframe.

Therefore, beyond the what to do, it is important to know who does what, at which level and how. In other words, it is about putting in practice the governance frameworks that can help cities to adapt to changing circumstances, while maintaining their central role in local, national and global contexts. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has argued that current levels of service delivery and water security should not be taken for granted in cities from OECD countries and emerging economies: cities must ensure that the institutional frameworks in place are “fit” to “fix” the pipes, from accessible information to adequate capacity, from sufficient funding to transparency and integrity, and from meaningful stakeholder engagement to coherence across sectoral policies.

Photo: Pablo González-Cebrián.

Three key messages

Vulnerability to water‐related risks is not only due to variations in climate and hydrology, but equally or more so to poor governance in the water sector. As such, drawing from the OECD Principles on Water Governance, there messages are key to enhance water security in cities: adopt a systemic approach; shift from crisis to risk management and engage stakeholders from planning to policy implementation.

  • Adopt a systemic approach: The water sector has many externalities with other policy areas that have different objectives, motivations and agendas (e.g. from transport to spatial planning). A systemic approach is needed to better cope with risks and ensure water secure cities. Often, problems faced within the water sector are caused by decisions made in other sectors, while many of the solutions to water problems can also be found within these sectors. More integrated decision-making process regarding water security management can help in achieving win-win outcomes across various sectors.
  • Shift from crisis to risk management: This would help to move from reactive to proactive responses to such challenges and fit for the future. Dealing with emergencies is different from preventing them: in order to adopt strategic measures and planned actions, such as supply increase infrastructure or modifications of laws and institutions, resilient and responsive institutions, coordinated decision-making across level of government, better transparency and accountability are needed. There can be no water security without sound safety regulation, enforcement and compliance mechanisms, accurate and consistent data (meteorological, hydrological, demographic, etc.), better disclosure of information to the public regarding safety measures, levels of risks.
  • Engage stakeholders: Seeking input, guidance and leadership on projects and plans through participatory decision making with community members, can enhance overall resilience in coastal areas, while also supporting community ownership and buy-in. It can also empower specific groups (women, youth, etc.) during recovery. If properly engaged, some stakeholders can be key sources of information or provide new sources of finance. For example, property developers are key stakeholder group for flood management, as spatial development can generate long-term liabilities and financial implications. On the other hand, vulnerable stakeholder groups (women, youth, indigenous groups etc.) are often not engaged in decision-making processes relevant for resilience and disaster risk reduction, even though they tend to be disproportionately exposed to climate risks. The same holds true for the post disaster phase.

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