Water - its role in a Cleanleap

Source: WOHA Architects

Water is one of the great human challenges of our time. As an essential resource for human life, it is staggering that so much of the world should exist without the basic potable water and sanitation services that we know in the developed world. 2.5 billion people in the world do not have access to adequate sanitation, one in three of the world's population. Pressure on water resources in the developing world is growing due to the increasing migration of the rural to urban centers. This rapid growth has resulted in the majority of these migrants living in unplanned settlements, including slums, which have no infrastructure to meet the needs of the population living there.

In the developed world, we have enjoyed growth at a more sustainable rate and have been able to adequately service our population’s water and wastewater needs though traditional engineering infrastructure. However, we are now learning that these traditional approaches have unintended consequences such as emissions intensity, environmental degradation and urban flooding. These issues have seen the rise of movements such as Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD), Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS), Integrated Water Management (IWM) and the advancement towards water sensitive cities.

These approaches fundamentally shift our relationship with water infrastructure. They propose multiple benefits rather than single-purpose solutions. They are often decentralized and smaller than traditional infrastructure and rely on green aspects such as plants and natural filtration processes rather than hard engineering solutions. Most of all, they challenge our assumptions about what water is for and what it does. Stormwater, for example, has moved from a waste product to be carried away from cities as efficiently as possible (damaging urban waterways in the process) to a resource to be captured and used as an alternative source.

Cities around the world are benefiting from these approaches through increased urban amenity, green infrastructure, reduced heat island impacts, and other successes. In Rotterdam, The Netherlands, water storage is integrated in the urban environment wherever possible to reduce risks of urban flood and provide additional green urban spaces. In Portland, USA, these approaches are used to reduce urban water pollution and reduce load on sewers which defers the need for costly upgrades. So what potential does this hold for the developing world?

Making a Cleanleap in urban water management practices could facilitate greater access to water for millions of existing city dwellers in developing countries in the short term by providing cheaper, decentralized solutions that do not rely on large government interventions or planning requirements. Rather than digging up settlements to install hard, subterranean pipes, smaller stormwater harvesting and water recycling solutions could be installed. Some countries have already begun lot-scale rainwater harvesting programs in rural and urban areas.

In the longer term, as new cities and suburbs are developed and planned, innovative approaches to infrastructure can avoid the systematic degradation of urban waterways and pressures on potable supply by embedding these in planning and building regulations from the start. One problem, however, is that often strategic and operational planning documents as well as legal and regulatory frameworks for urban the urban water sector do not exist. As we are learning in Australia and other developed countries, changes to the existing operating environment are slow and the cost of retrofit is a major barrier. By overcoming these regulatory hurdles at the beginning, future communities can enjoy the benefits of smarter urban water systems without a drawn out change process and the associated inertia.

Source: Shutterstock

Improved urban water management has further benefits such as maintaining the economic and social values of urban waterways for developing communities as a source of income and recreation. If these spaces are not protected through better urban drainage practices, they will eventually degrade to the point of no return.

If developing countries could adopt these practices, particularly in new urban areas, then we could see a Cleanleap to more sustainable urban water management with the benefits of better water and sanitation services for the long term. This would, in turn, impact on health and economic opportunities, changing the lives of millions in the developing world.