If we are all going to live in cities, there has to be water

Ten years of research in 200 cities worldwide

More than half of the global population live in cities, and that percentage is still increasing. All those people need water but the outlook is not particularly bright, warns an international group of environmental scientists led by Utrecht University and KWR. They studied water management in 200 cities throughout the world. Of those cities, only Amsterdam and Singapore can be classified as “water wise”. The research has been in progress for more than a decade and it was conducted mainly by students at the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development in Utrecht.

According to Stef Koop, a researcher at KWR and the Copernicus Institute, there are only a few water-wise cities worldwide. “That means they are largely circular and therefore water self-sufficient. They recover materials and energy from their waste and waste water. Their infrastructure is multifunctional and adaptive, and they include water in their urban planning.” However, around the world, people are at risk of falling victim to governance failures when it comes to water in cities, Koop warns. “With enormous consequences: from flooding to heat stress and severe water shortages. Or large-scale health risks and loss of biodiversity due to inadequate sanitation, wastewater treatment and drinking-water supplies.”

Sustainable development goals

The researchers looked at how cities perform in terms of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 6 (Healthy Water and Sanitation) and SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities). “Effective governance would seem decisive to achieve those SDGs,” clarifies Chloé Grison, a former Master’s student at the Copernicus Institute and KWR, and currently working as manager of public infrastructure at Invest International. “The World Bank has set the criteria for that level of efficacy. It turns out that, in cities with effective governance, water management is also good. Or, as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, says: ‘If you want to fix the water pipes, start with the institutions.’”


Of the 200 cities studied, 145 underperformed in the areas of wastewater treatment, energy recovery and climate adaptation. “Not only in Asia, Latin America and Africa, but also in North America and Eastern Europe.” Many cities in Africa and Asia come up short with respect to sound drinking water supplies and sanitation. “The latter is also a factor in Latin America.”

Political choice

Achieving the SDGs is a political choice, stresses Kees van Leeuwen, professor of Water Management and Urban Development at the Copernicus Institute. “You only merit your water if you actually care about it. And since most of us live in cities, achieving SDG 6 and SDG 11 is crucial for humanity.” But the resources needed are general lacking at present. “Gaps in the data stand in the way. You can’t steer a process if progress isn’t properly monitored. So cities and countries can’t be held accountable in good time for their limited progress. This is a major impediment to achieving SDGs 6 and 11. Our analysis indicates that it is highly likely that SDGs 6 and 11 will not be met by 2030. This also has major implications for achieving the other SDGs because water often plays a central role in them.” This is a message that cannot be stated clearly enough on World Water Day and at the UN Water Conference from 22-24 March in New York.


In addition to the Master’s students from Utrecht University and KWR, the University of Bath (United Kingdom), the Free University of Brussels, the Universities of Inner Mongolia and Nankai (both in the People’s Republic of China) and UNESCO made important contributions to the research.


Chloé Grison, Stef Koop, Steven Eisenreich, Jan Hofman, I-Shin Chang, Jing Wu, Dragan Savic, Kees van Leeuwen, ‘Integrated Water Resources Management in Cities in the World: Global Challenges’, Water Resources Management,