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Water security in large cities

  • Water security in large cities
  • The news on droughts and water vulnerability have not only affected the agricultural sector in the past years; rather, they threat water security in cities head on.

About the entity

An international group within the Alternative Stock Market, dedicated to the water engineering and climate change sector. Thanks to its expansion, it has offices in Latin America and the Caribbean, Spain, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

In 2015, different areas of Brazil suffered the worst drought recorded in 80 years, an event that put 14 cities in the country to the test. Among them was the large city of São Paulo, which had water supply restrictions, and where shortages affected the productivity of industry and services. Towards the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, La Paz and another five cities in Bolivia endured the worst drought recorded in the country in the past 25 years, where the water supply was reduced to a few hours every three days in entire neighbourhoods. In 2016, some neighbourhoods in the city of Lima, in Peru, had water supply cuts that lasted a week. In this case, an El Niño phenomenon caused floods and landslides that led to a failure at the main water abstraction point of the city's drinking water treatment plant. In 2018, a drought that depleted the resources of the main hydropower plants in Venezuela resulted in power outages that affected the pumps in the urban water networks of several regions, including the city of Caracas. We could add many other significant cases in Africa, such as the intense drought that seriously impacted the economy of Cape Town, in South Africa, in 2018; and in Asia, the severe droughts in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and in Singapore in 2014.

Preserving the production of water and its quality is key for the sustainability of the resource and to control costs

In the next 40 years, world cities are expected to receive 800,000 new inhabitants every week. Since 2011, and for the first time in human history, most of the world's population live in cities. Latin America is one of the worlds' regions with most people living in urban areas, some 80%.

In 2010, 51% of the world's population was living in cities, and by 2050 that per cent is expected to climb to 70%. At the time the per cent in America was already 80%, and it is expected to reach 90%.

There is, therefore, great concern about safeguarding urban water systems in the future. Overall, the problems and challenges detected can be grouped into three categories:

  • (1) The data from almost every country show that, for water management to be effective, it has to extend beyond the urban boundaries and include the basins that provide water to urban areas.
  • (2) Groundwater or alternative systems are as important as surface waters. Let us not forget that preserving the production of water and its quality is key for the sustainability of the resource and to control costs.
  • (3) Urban areas are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events. We need resilient cities that can adapt by managing their demand, not only the supply, and can adapt to flood events.

The key word is vulnerability. A large city that grows very rapid is very vulnerable, basically because of the gap between planning infrastructure and solutions, and putting them in practice. That vulnerability leads to risks, that can be classified into three different types: (1) areas with water scarcity where variability and climate change regularly challenge the resources available; (2) areas where the quantity of resources is not an issue, but they may be polluted; and (3) areas where management and infrastructure do not meet the needs. Unfortunately, these threats often coexist. As a result of water scarcity and structural deficit, most cities have experienced extreme droughts in the last decade. In the second group we see the case of Lima in 2016; the city also presents weaknesses in terms of infrastructure which do not help when it comes to overcoming these events.

As a result of water scarcity and structural deficit, most cities have experienced extreme droughts in the last decade

The good news is that cities continue to be at the centre of economic power; and, as they grow in population, they are also at the centre of political power. Hopefully, in the future water-related risks that affect urban growth and sustainability will have a positive response, leading to funding, regulation and leadership with regard to improvements in basin governance and preservation of water resources. In places of Latin America or Asia with strong urban growth, they are already taking action, with mixed results, but with great impetus.  Some examples of leadership follow.

  • Preserving water sources. Encompassing different actions, including improving the amount of groundwater recharged, attenuation of run-off and improving river base flows, projects such as the Preservation of the Andean Moorland — which affects Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru — study the hydrology of that specific environment and establish management recommendations that ensure the production of water into the future. But preserving water sources is a social issue. Good practices in existing communities and among users in upstream areas ensure the production of water and prevent the deterioration of water quality. The latter has a significant impact on infrastructure investment, since it affects water treatment, and on drinking water. Some service providers in Peru have introduced an ecosystem services fee in their urban water tariff, that enables investments in Andean communities, ensuring good agricultural and water treatment practices. It is clearly a way of returning the wealth that water generates to the keepers — not owners — of the resource.
  • Increasing the robustness of infrastructure. In Europe and the United States, where environmental awareness is high, we question certain traditional solutions, such as dams and interbasin transfers, that cannot and should not be disregarded in other, quickly developing, settings, although they must be planned with a modern vision.

This is the case in La Paz, where the competent ministry, through the service provider, has set up a very complete programme of measures to ensure water security in the city. The programme includes micro-reservoirs and transfers between four different basins, plant expansions and improvements, and actions on the distribution network to the user. Within a plan where every element counts, each project is not an absolute solution to water supply problems in the city, but the sum of all actions represents a substantial improvement in water security.

  • Towards a water use efficiency model. Efficiency is a complex concept with several components. Surely, infrastructure measures to avoid 'losing' water are key, and usually are the most effective ones, though costly. Many cities have been working in this area, with projects that we would classify under the concept of optimisation. But efficiency also entails a water use culture, either persuading people with awareness campaigns, or through metering and tariffs that discourage high consumption. The great challenge in this field is empowering institutions and water and sanitation service providers so they can be strict when it comes to controlling users and charging for the service. The per cent of non revenue water in rapidly growing cities can be 50% or more.
  • Living with risk. This may be the most complex point, because people migrating to cities seek basic services which were not guaranteed in their rural environment. We have to avoid a message of 100% guarantee or zero risks at the social and political level, because the economic consequences can be impossible to accept. The same as in other areas of water resource management, especially those related to flood risk, water supply systems have to do an analysis of potential threats and risks, establishing structural and management mechanisms to reduce, mitigate or temporarily adapt. That adaptability is what makes new cities robust.

Extracted from the book “World’s Cities in 2018”, United Nations

Currently, the big difference when it comes to facing those risks is the technology linked to big data and models that allow us to simulate events and the effect of our measures. Current models can use huge amounts of data in real time and include non-traditional calculation models, as well as connect to infrastructure operation and telemetry equipment. Smart water is starting to be a key element for water security in the cities of the future, and part of the smart ecosystem that all cities tend to become.

At INCLAM we want to note that water governance can be increasingly more cooperative, transparent and close to real time thanks to the information technologies and smart systems we are working on. From online basin management, to thorough monitoring of domestic consumption, in an environment with high water-energy efficiency, where every drop counts.

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