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“Our research shows that water-related challenges can be surmounted; the crises can be averted”

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The first edition of the City Water Optimisation Index, launched in November 2021, assesses to what extent 51 urban areas across the globe have policies and infrastructure to optimise their water supply, distribution and treatment networks.

Cities around the world are increasingly facing challenges related to water scarcity and the risks derived from climate change driven phenomena. Through thorough planning, sound governance, and the integration of technology, decision-makers can ensure urban water systems are optimised. Developed by Economist Impact and sponsored by Dupont Water Solutions, the City Water Optimisation Index focuses on indicators of reliability, accessibility and sustainability, and can be used to develop and refine water strategies, and prioritise projects and policies. In this interview, Eve Labalme, Senior Analyst and programme manager for the City Water Optimisation Index at Economist impact, explains the rationale behind this project, its objectives and major findings.

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your organisation, Economist Impact?

My name is Eve Labalme, and I’m a Senior Analyst with the Policy and Insights practice at Economist Impact, and programme manager for the City Water Optimisation Index. Economist Impact is the division of The Economist Group, publisher of the Economist newspaper, dedicated to using original, independent research and analysis to raise awareness and enable action on the biggest issues facing our global community.

Published in SWM Bimonthly 13 - June 2022
SWM Bimonthly 13

At Economist Impact, I work to design and execute evidence-based economic and public policy-oriented research programmes ranging from benchmarking indexes and economic impact analysis to historical research and trend forecasting. At present, my research focuses on sustainable and inclusive economic development and innovative management techniques for natural resources in a changing climate.

How did the idea for the City Water Optimisation Index come about?

The idea for the Index came from a desire to use data-driven, actionable research to shift the global discourse on water scarcity from one of “doom and gloom’’ toward practical solutions, actionable investments, and creative, sustainable paths forward.

The idea for the Index came from a desire to use data-driven, actionable research to shift the global discourse on water scarcity

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is difficult to overestimate the magnitude of water-related challenges cities face today and will continue to face in the future. Continued urbanisation and population growth in cities, climate change and economic development are placing pressure on water systems across the globe. A quarter of the world’s population faces extremely high levels of water stress, with the prospect of taps running out — which has been dubbed “day zero” — has loomed dangerously close in cities from Cape Town to São Paolo. At the same time, rising sea levels place a growing number of geographies, particularly in East and Southeast Asia, at a higher risk of flooding, which can overwhelm sanitation systems and increase pollution of drinkable water sources.

Our research shows, however, that these challenges can be surmounted; the crises can be averted. We knew from experience that providing decision-makers with data-driven research, in the form of a benchmarking index tool, can help us identify gaps and best practices, which informs investment, collaboration, and action. However, while several existing water-related indices contributed great information to these conversations with metrics such as supply and demand, water risk and stress, and scarcity of resources, there was no existing index that focused on the actions, investments, policies, and solutions available to cities right now to improve their water systems.

There was no existing index that focused on the actions, investments, policies, and solutions available to cities right now

That is the crux of why we built the City Water Optimisation Index, with the support of DuPont Water Solutions: to foment dialogue on how technological advancements and best practices can be leveraged to not only ensure access to clean, safe water for all who need it today, but also to safeguard the sustainability and resilience of that access in light of future challenges and shocks. Ultimately, we hope that the City Water Optimisation Index will play a part in paving the way for a future where water is abundant, accessible and affordable for all, both now and in the future.

The 2021 City Water Optimisation Index was launched in November 2021. Who are the potential users, and are you aware of any cities contemplating its use already?

The index was designed to be useful to a wide range of stakeholders and users in cities across the globe -- to raise awareness, build a body of evidence, and share data on how cities are optimising their water systems and ensuring access to water for all, both now and in the future.

For example, governments can use the index as a policy check and a diagnostic tool for targeting investment. NGOs can use the index dataset, which is fully available to the public, as an ongoing research tool to highlight cities for their water optimisation efforts, test academic hypotheses, and foment discussion. The private sector can use the index as a launch pad to explore strategic decision-making, and as a tool to inform planning and investment.

All in all, a broad range of stakeholders across the water sector can leverage the index research and data to develop and refine their water strategies, learn from other cities’ successes and setbacks, and prioritise projects and policies that will have the biggest impact on water optimization, and thus water security, in the long-term. We intend to update the index regularly going forward so that cities can highlight key investments and policy changes made toward water optimisation and track their progress toward international benchmarks such as UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Would the index be a tool intended mainly for high-income urban areas, or can all cities benefit from using it?

The index is very much intended to apply to any city, regardless of income. We selected the 51 cities for the first iteration of the Index with the express goal of including a distribution across income levels, geographies, and environmental contexts. Cities in developing or lower-income contexts are an integral part of the conversation around water access and the future sustainability of water systems, as these contexts can afford unique opportunities to implement innovative, sustainable systems and technologies. Out of the 51 index cities, 16 are low-and middle-income cities — this spread enables the Index to provide a broad range of actionable solutions to cities independent of their income or wealth.

A broad range of stakeholders across the water sector can leverage the index research and data to develop and refine water strategies

Though we knew it was conceptually important to expand the scope of the index beyond high-income cities, the index data itself proved the importance of including these cities: the research suggests that national income is not as important in the pursuit of water systems optimisation as one might assume, and that the levers of change towards successful water policies are available at the city level in all socioeconomic contexts. Low- and middle-income cities frequently found themselves among the top performers in at least one of the main categories. City-dwellers in developing contexts also showed a greater eagerness to adopt future-facing water management practices than their high-income counterparts: two-thirds (67%) of respondents to our opinion survey from low-to-middle income cities reported being highly favourable to using reclaimed water, compared with 55% in high-income cities.

This strong public support for innovative water management and future-facing technologies is reflected in action on the ground in many of these cities: for example, Dakar is working on several new projects including the Janicki Omni Processor (JOP) to treat wastewater into drinkable distilled water (current in its pilot stage) and the Mamelles seawater desalination plant. Similarly, São Paulo’s efforts to diversify its natural water portfolio and treat wastewater for direct industrial use as a first step toward more widespread use of treated water has boosted the city’s score in the index rankings and serves as an example of a high-impact solution available to many cities.

Overall, it’s clear that many practices are being implemented today in low- and middle-income cities that all other cities, regardless of income or geographic context, can look to and learn from as examples of paths forward that are well within reach.

What aspects of water management need the most improvement in cities? Is this a global trend, or does it depend on the region, or other factors such as the level of water stress?

One of the main areas for improvement we see reflected in the index data, independent of location or environmental factors, is the need to ensure the long-term sustainability of urban water systems alongside present-day water access and quality. Across the globe, city water systems face heightening temperatures, rising sea levels, population growth, and increasing urbanisation. The precise combination of threats to future water security naturally varies from city to city, but the magnitude of future challenges and the urgency with which we must address them applies everywhere.

These concerns are of utmost importance to city-dwellers: three-quarters of survey respondents in the index cities have growing concerns about the safety and security of their drinking water. This is particularly acute in developing regions, where 82% of people surveyed shared such concerns.

What the index shows us, however, is that there is a clear path forward: survey data also revealed significant public support for investments to ensure urban water supplies both today and tomorrow. One of the most important components of a circular approach to urban water management is the treatment and reuse of water, which is already being implemented to great effect in several index cities. Reclaimed water is often considered a hard sell due to the so-called “yuck factor,” but survey data shows that the opposite is the case, and the public is ready to take the leap toward reuse.

We intend to update the index regularly so that cities can highlight key investments and policy changes and track their progress​

There’s no doubt that these large-scale, systems-level changes will ultimately be necessary in all contexts, but the index also identifies numerous low-cost, high-impact policies to improve the sustainability of urban water systems. These include modifying building codes to encourage and enforce water conservation, providing public education around conservation and waste reduction, and facilitating cooperation between the public and private sectors on water use and reuse.

Could you highlight some concrete opportunities to optimise water systems in cities?

The index highlights a number of concrete opportunities, ranging from easy fixes to longer-term, larger-scale changes. One example of a low-cost, high-impact opportunity is addressing overconsumption: 20 index cities do not have any provisions for water conservation in their building codes, while an additional 18 cities merely encourage water conservation rather than mandate it. Enacting water-oriented building codes is an example of a regulatory change that cements water’s seat at the table in conversations around the sustainability of the built environment-- essential as cities grow, and as they revise existing infrastructure.

The research suggests that national income is not as important in the pursuit of water systems optimisation as one might assume

Another area that offers an important return on investment is reducing non-revenue water (NRW) — the percentage of water lost in the distribution system. Around half of the index cities had water losses equal to or greater than 25% (and in a dozen, it was 40% or more). The majority of these were lower- to medium-income cities and, worryingly, many were among the most water-stressed cities. However, several high-income cities were also among these, notably Miami, Florida, Naples, Italy, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Despite the initial costs of reducing NRW, the efficiency gains can soon outweigh the up-front costs, making it one of the most impactful ways that cities can improve the sustainability of their water systems.

You conducted a public perception survey exploring how well cities are managing their water systems. What are some of the findings?

We did: in addition to a robust desk research programme, we surveyed 5,119 city-dwellers across all index cities on the state of water and sewerage services. The survey explored perceptions on urban water and wastewater systems management, including the cleanliness, quality and adequacy of service provision, awareness of risks, and other indicators of optimised water systems.

One of the main areas for improvement we see is the need to ensure the long-term sustainability of urban water systems

One key finding from the survey is that ready access to water and sanitation services lies at the heart of what makes cities liveable. The public opinion survey conducted as part of the index research programme revealed that up to two-thirds (67%) of city-dwellers would consider leaving their cities if they did not have access to reliable, safe water. These types of findings may not come as a surprise, but the hard data demonstrating this reality can be a useful tool in advocating for stronger policy, more investment, and other concrete action toward protecting and ensuring water access in cities.

The survey also found that across the globe — in vastly differing geographic and economic contexts — city dwellers are worried about their future access to water and are ready to make the necessary behavioural changes and large-scale investments necessary to ensure their supply of clean, safe water in the face of climate change and other water challenges: 61% of survey respondents reported that they would be happy to drink treated reclaimed water. Overall, it is clear that the majority of the public understands the challenges and is supportive of large-scale, long-term collaborative projects and investments toward achieving urban water optimisation.

What does the City Water Optimiser Tool involve, and how can it enable action to improve water sustainability?

At the core of what we do here at Economist Impact is ensuring that our research reaches as wide an audience as possible. For this programme, we’ve developed an online index hub that houses everything related to the project — all data, analysis, presentations, events, and reports. Perhaps most importantly, however, the site directs visitors to the online City Water Optimiser tool, which takes the full repository of index data and puts it in a format that is easily accessible by a variety of users, visually engaging, and intuitive to use and explore.

The tool enables action in several ways: decision-makers can explore the index rankings to see how their city compares to other cities in the region, or cities across the globe with similar income levels or population sizes and identify opportunities for peer-to-peer learning. Users can also click on individual cities to explore their results in depth. We’ve also built in the ability to create an “optimised” version of a city in any given domain, enabling users to explore how their city’s score and ranking might change if they made a certain investment, or enacted a particular policy.

We’ve also built the optimiser tool so that each configuration creates a unique web link — you can copy the web address directly from your browser bar and send it to anyone you think might be interested in seeing the progress your city could make with a few targeted investments or policy changes. And this, ultimately, is what the Index is designed to do: to start conversations, highlight key action areas, and identify solutions to enabling water access for all – today and tomorrow.