Acting beyond boundaries to address urban water challenge

You cannot optimize water in cities without looking at the natural water basin or catchment areas which are serving them” said Dr Mark Smith, Director of the IUCN Water Programme during a recent workshop at the UN World Water Day conference in Cape Town.

Water and Cities

From 20 to 22 March experts and scientists met in Cape Town, South Africa on the occasion of World Water Day to discuss solutions addressing the global urban water challenge. During the workshop, participants explored an integrated approach to providing access to water and sanitation in urban areas. In particular they focused on the urban connection with surrounding ecosystems, agriculture and industrial services, climate change and the role of business.

Cities, business and agriculture need to act beyond their own boundaries, to address shared risks and opportunities to optimize urban water and invest in building more resilient basins” said Joppe Cramwinckel from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). A range of stakeholders and perspectives were brought together, including water, energy, food, land use, social equity, climate change, utility management, ecosystem services and job creation. Several examples of innovations and good practices were demonstrated.

Basins also need investment. In terms of factors like risk reduction and investment, we have to ask: what is the best mix of natural and built infrastructure? And we need to see shifts towards building the resilience of basins”, said Dr Mark Smith. This was echoed by Jack Moss from AquaFed who commented that "the cost of ignoring the true economics of water is far greater than the costs of managing water properly" .

The real number of people without access to adequate water and sanitation is increasing rapidly, and this is causing disease, loss of economic productivity and environmental damage.

The challenge is not only an economic one. More taps and toilets are desperately needed. In addition to more infrastructure ‘hardware’, there is also a significant requirement for ‘software’ infrastructure. Ownership needs to be created among all sectors across the value chain, and effective management and financing tools are needed.

Martin Ginster from Sasol, a petrochemical company, said that “there is a growing realization that water is a core business, not just an add-on. We are moving beyond the factory fence to see how we can contribute to better management of water across the catchments within which we operate”.  Marius van Aardt, from private water operator Senbcorp Silulumanzi urged that “business and water managers should innovate, but always start with community involvement”, highlighting the need for different stakeholders to collaborate.

There is scope for the involvement of small and medium-sized enterprises. Kevin Wall from South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) stated that “given the need for maintenance and jobs, it’s a no-brainer that small businesses involvement- if appropriately enabled and managed- could be an ideal vehicle. Construction jobs are short-term, but maintenance jobs are for life.”

The workshop was convened by the WBCSD, AquaFed, the International Water Association (IWA) and the South African National Business Initiative (NBI)

Key messages emerging from the session include:
• The complexity is vast and the numbers related to urbanization and the urban water challenge staggering. But there are significant opportunities for business to help transform urban water, improve bio-capacity, manage ecosystems and find innovative sustainable solutions.

• Planning for providing energy, water and food should be integrated as early as possible, from top to bottom, and ‘silo’ thinking must be broken.

• All parties -government, business, academics, communities and different sectors - must learn to speak the same language and commit to sharing information.

• Leading cities are already thinking ‘out of the box’ and looking for up-stream and down-stream solutions e.g. investing in eco-system services is usually more cost-effective than built infrastructure equivalents.

• Leading businesses are thinking in innovative ways, and investing ‘outside the factory fence’ across the catchment to ensure security of supply and shared benefits of water services e.g. in agriculture, ecosystems and urban water management.

• There are great opportunities for job creation, provided that enabling environments are created e.g. the role of small and medium sized enterprises in urban infrastructure maintenance.

For more detail, a report on the workshop event will be available early April 2011.

What businesses can do:

• Conduct a ‘Water Footprint Assessment

• Use the WBCSD’s ‘Global Water Tool’ to map water use and assess risks.

• Encourage leadership to join the UN’s CEO Water Mandate.

For more information, please contact:

Mark Smith, Director IUCN Water Programme

Work area: 
Climate Change
Climate Change
Environmental Law
East and Southern Africa
West and Central Africa
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