The World Economic Forum (WEF) has released a paper entitled “Circular Cities: A circular water economy for cleaner, greener, healthier, more prosperous cities”. It is the first in a series that will highlight new ways of thinking about global water resources, the Imagine If Water Series.
The paper argues that in a context of economic recovery, we must see water as a catalyst to achieve a more equitable and sustainable world, linked to multiple economic, social and environmental issues. It proposes changing the linear path of most water in cities – where water is captured, used and disposed of – into a circular one.
Following our current urban development model, cities will expand in the form of concrete and grey infrastructure. The consequences are many, including not only water shortages and urban flooding, but also the challenge of cooling our cities, an industry that uses up to 30% of global electricity, with demand expected to rise by up to 50%.
Can a circular water economy protect cities from climate shocks – heatwaves, flooding, and water shortages? If cities reuse water and all materials in it, they can decouple economic growth from water use, and use water to improve natural capital in urban areas, enhancing quality of life.
Investments in improving water management result in operational savings with short payback periods, and leading to environmental benefits. For example, deploying available wastewater management technologies could save $40 billion in the US, Europe and China, and close to 50% of electricity-related emissions from the global wastewater sector could be abated. The money saved could be reinvested in water infrastructure that moves us closer to the circular economy.
The WEF calls for a global push for circular water urban initiatives, and highlights 5 areas to get started:
Support a leader group of cities committed to a percentage of circular water infrastructure by 2030. The paper cites the example of China’s Sponge City project, where 80% of urban areas should absorb and reuse at least 70% of rainwater, with 30 pilot metropolises involved. According to the WEF, the 17 countries which are home to a quarter of the world’s population and face “extremely high” water stress should be a priority.
Form a network of “100 Circular Cities” modelled after the 100 Resilient Cities or C40 Network. The city network could lead with the adoption of best practices, and may include circular economy hotspots (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Malmo and Brussels) and potentially at-risk cities that may be close to Day Zero in terms of water scarcity (London, Tokyo, Mexico City and Istanbul).
Set up “blue” circular economic zones, with tax breaks and lower tariffs like free trade zones. Such zones – industrial parks and new integrated city districts – would encourage experimentation in best circular economic models for water and attract green finance.
Escalate consumer education and awareness globally on water and circularity. We need education on the use of recycled water. Consumer attitudes must change so that for example food and beverage companies can use reclaimed treated water as an ingredient.
Fund circular city water outcomes. Blue-green bonds and other financial incentives must look at aligning environmental, social and governance (ESG) water goals. Also, real estate investors must encourage cities to adopt circular approaches, according to the WEF.