River basins as urban water infrastructure at the IWA congress

23 November 2011 | News story

As more than 700 international water experts gather in Kuala Lumpur for the IWA congress, IUCN shifts the focus from cities to their basins, and the key role natural infrastructure plays in the expansion of urban centres worldwide.

Organized by the International Water Association (IWA), the congress provides a critical platform for water professionals and development organisations to work in partnership to find water resource solutions to challenges posed by urbanisation and population growth.

The role of natural infrastructure that IUCN promotes, was a key focus at the IUCN co-convened workshop ‘Optimising water use beyond urban boundaries’, which gathered an audience ranging from government officials to wastewater engineers. Mark Smith, Director of the IUCN Global Water Programme, expanded on the role of natural infrastructure, highlighting successful examples of cities that benefit from natural infrastructure.

Infrastructure can be defined as the facilities, services and equipment needed for the economy and society to function properly. Ecosystem services are the benefits people derive from nature, thus the idea of natural infrastructure is that services provided by nature perform infrastructure functions. For example, upland watersheds store water, wetlands store and clean water, floodplains buffer floods, rivers provide water conveyance, mangroves and coral reefs reduce disaster risk for coastal communities.

Dr Smith explained that “ecosystems are an integral part of the water infrastructure necessary for urban and peri-urban development. By including natural infrastructure as options for meeting the water needs of cities and urban areas, there will be benefits for conservation, development and cost-effectiveness.”

Beijing, a city of almost 20 million people, saves US$1.9billion per year in water supply and water filtration functions by protecting the forests of the city’s upstream Miyun watershed. In Uganda, waste water management benefits worth US$1.8 million per year are provided bye th Kampala wetlands. The Napa Valley in California is using floodplain restoration to avoid potential flood damage valued at US$1.6 billion.

The workshop ‘Optimising water use beyond urban boundaries’, organized by IUCN, WWF (World Wildlife Fund), TNC (the Nature Conservancy), SIWI (Stockholm International Water Institute), and IWA (International Water Association), further looked at wastewater management and city water stewardship, followed by a panel discussion where the audience questioned issues such as the water footprint, water and energy efficiencies, and new scientific and technological innovations.

From IUCN’s Water and Nature Initiative (WANI) project portfolio, the Komadugu Yobe Basin (KYB), upstream from Lake Chad, stands out as an example of protecting upstream natural infrastructure. Here, engineers had built dams to supply freshwater to the expanding urban population of Nigeria’s 2nd largest city, Kano. Without considering the impact on the ecosystems from the dams, and the subsequent loss of income to subsistence farmers downstream, leaving natural systems out of the urban planning process was a costly mistake.

To overcome this ecological imbalance, IUCN’s KYB Project started with a water audit, identifying water availability and needs. Convinced that river restoration would pay dividends, Nigeria’s President set up a US$125 million Trust Fund for the KYB. Investment in the natural infrastructure of the basin now means that river channels are being cleared, wetlands restored for fisheries and navigation once again possible. With the support of IUCN, Members and partners, the KYB Trust Fund today continues its investment in sustainable water management, benefitting both urban and rural communities.

Further information on sessions and workshops at the IWA Congress, please visit the website: www.iwa2011kl.org

For more information on IUCN’s work, please contact water@iucn.org