Drought – a global challenge in cities

Recently, on 26 January 2018, an article on ‘thirsty cities’ appeared in ‘ het Algemeen Dagblad’ (AD), a major Dutch newspaper. This article was prompted by the disturbing news about water scarcity in Cape Town. KWR was asked to provide insight on this issue, and I provided AD with answers. In this blog I want to provide some further data on the assessment of Cape Town and other cities that experience water stress, in order to provide additional background information on this important issue that has a lot of implications all over the world.

KWR has performed baseline assessments of many cities, mainly in Europe, but also in other parts of the world. For this we developed the City Blueprint® Approach which consists of three indicator assessments: (1) the Trends and Pressures Framework (TPF), (2) the City Blueprint Framework (CBF) and (3) the water Governance Capacity Framework (GCF). The TPF summarizes the main social, environmental and financial pressures that may impede water management. The CBF provides an integrated overview of the management performances within the urban water cycle. Finally, the GCF provides a framework to identify key barriers and opportunities to develop governance capacity to address these water challenges.

Cape Town (South-Africa)

In 2017 we assessed Cape Town in South Africa together with Boipelo Mandela and Kirsty Carden from the University of Cape Town. Boipelo Mandela, together with Stef Koop (KWR), completed a full City Blueprint assessment of Cape Town. This is our major conclusion: “ In Cape Town, consideration of the uncertainty and complexity in the governance of water scarcity has been lacking over the years. This is revealed by the city’s last minute sense of urgency in attempting to adequately address issues of water scarcity during the current water crisis. Our study has also revealed that information transparency and access to information for the public plays an important role in educating the public about water challenges and can be used as a tool to encourage behavioural change”. Recently, the full paper has been submitted for publication.

Melbourne (Australia)

Melbourne is the capital and most populous city in the state of Victoria, and the second most populous city in Australia. Melbourne has a moderate rainfall pattern and receives on average approximately 600 mm of rainfall per year. In the decade known as the ‘Millennium Drought’, between 1998 and 2007, Victoria experienced rainfall 14 per cent below average. This was a major concern for the city. In 2013 KWR received an invitation from Victoria to perform a City Blueprint assessment of the city as part of their plan to transform Melbourne into a water-sensitive city. More on this story can be found in our publication in the Urban Water Journal.

Los Angeles (U.S.)

Los Angeles is another example of a city dealing with extreme drought. This is true not only for LA, but for the entire State of  California (and many other States in the U.S.).  Cities need to protect their citizens against water-related disasters (e.g., droughts and floods), to guarantee freshwater availability and high-quality groundwater, surface water and drinking water. Cities also need to have adequate infrastructure in response to climate, demographic and economic trends and pressures. This can be viewed as a lesson on managing water in a warmer, more densely populated world. One of the conclusions of our analysis of LA and 5 other cities in the U.S. is that current political emphasis on improving U.S. infrastructure should not be limited to aboveground infrastructure. Water infrastructure (drinking water networks, sewers and sewage treatment plants) and green space in cities are major challenges in the U.S. The full paper has been published recently in Environmental Management.

Ahmedabad  (India)

Gujarat state earns a substantial share of approximately 15% of India’s total GDP and Ahmedabad is the largest city of Gujarat. The city suffers from drought and heat waves during the dry season and water nuisance during the monsoon period. Ahmedabad is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. The European Commission has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Republic of India and the European Union (EU) on water cooperation and research projects are about to start. The objective  is to strengthen the technological, scientific and management capabilities of India and the EU in the field of water management. The publication can be found here.

Quito (Ecuador)

An assessment of the challenges of water, waste and climate change in the city of Quito has been performed as Quito was the host of the Habitat III conference. Our results show that poor wastewater treatment and long-term drinking water security are Quito’s main water challenges that may be jeopardized given the city’s rapid urbanization and economic pressure. The GCF analysis reveals that cooperation between stakeholders, implementing capacity and citizens’ awareness are the most important conditions for further development to find adequate solutions for Quito’s long-term drinking water security. Our publication is available here.

Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

Ho Chi Minh City is an example of a city that receives a lot of rain, but most of its water is still not treated adequately, which may lead to water scarcity in the very near future. The analysis has been published in Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management in 2015.

Istanbul (Turkey)

Istanbul has always faced water scarcity in its history due to its distant location to drinking water resources. This Turkish city kept growing, and the need for water increased accordingly, and the city started to build cisternae, underground chambers to store water (see picture). In recent years, Istanbul has been suffering from drought, especially in 2006, with the lowest rainfall being recorded in the last 50 years. It is estimated that the frequency of extreme events, such as droughts and intense rainfalls, will be increased due to the climate change. It is expected that one of the main impacts of climate change will be water scarcity in the Mediterranean Region. Therefore, effective strategies and adaptation plans have been developed including water saving campaigns, transfer of water from adjacent basins and reuse of treated wastewater. Our big review on Istanbul has been published in the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability.

Porto (Portugal)

Porto is the second largest metropolitan area in Portugal, with a population of around 1.8 million people. It’s known as the “capital of the north”. The city is located along the Douro river estuary in Northern Portugal. Porto is one of the oldest European centres, and its historical core was proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996. This is one of the reasons why Porto receives over 500,000 tourists per year.

The ‘Porto, a Water Sensitive City’-programme promotes the incorporation of the best water management practices in order to improve the population’s quality of life and to contribute to sustainable economic development and regional competitiveness, fulfilling the vision for the future of the ‘Europe 2020’ Strategy. Furthermore, ‘Porto without Water Losses’ project, which consists of a drastic reduction of water purchased but which does not reach consumers taps. With effective management measures, almost without investment, Águas do Porto has reduced water loss by half in just eight months (56,000 m³ to 28,000 m³ per day). The city of Porto, has become a case study at national and international level, promoting the benchmarking with similar organisations and the transferability of this model. New initiatives are also taking place to increase green space in the city. Our recent presentation can be found here.


During the last seven years we have assessed many cities in and outside Europe on their challenges of water, waste and climate change. The conclusion is that many proactive cities are actually reactive cities as they have experienced major accidents in the recent past. Water – and climate adaptation in general – is a major challenge and cities should start to act before these severe wake-up calls. We have improved our methodology and added a Governance Capacity Framework too, as water governance is a bottleneck in implementation of best practices in cities. Recently, we have published a compendium of best practices to deal with these challenges. A review of our work was specifically written for non-experts and assessments of more than 40 cities have been included in the Urban Water Atlas for Europe published by the European Commission. In this way, KWR Watercycle Research Institute contributes to improve urban water scarcity and resilience. My colleague Stef Koop and I welcome your questions and reactions on this important issue.