Water-wise cities require a comprehensive approach

Tuesday started off really well with an interesting keynote presentation by James Lynch of the Asian Development Bank on Water security in a rapidly urbanizing world. The concentration of people and increase in living standards place great demands on the urban water system and its development, leading to water insecurity. His presentation included interesting examples from Asia, and also multiple references to the new IWA principles for Water Wise Cities, presented today at the conference.


Central in these are the sustainable and resilient design of the urban water cycle. These are familiar concepts to KWR researchers, as much work has already been done within our institute on both the evaluation (City Blueprint) and design (Water Wise Concepts) of sustainable and resilient urban water systems. It seems that our tools could fit well in this IWA framework and contribute to attaining its goals.
At least as interesting as the presentation was the entailing panel discussion. Both are actually quite nicely summarized in a set of cartoons made on the spot:

Cartoon credit: @jimmydrawsstuff,, with kind permission

Cartoon credit: @jimmydrawsstuff,, with kind permission

The first part of the panel discussion revolved around the question how to integrate water sensitive urban designs with other issues such as health and education. Important aspects include the need to work with simple concepts people can easily get behind. Also (as we as KWR are bringing into practice with the WaterShare platform) knowledge sharing is important. But effective knowledge sharing really requires consideration of the local context. What may work in one location (e.g. with a strong public sector) may fail completely in another (with, to follow up on the example, a strong private sector).
Several times, references were made to the inspiring lecture of Gunter Pauli during the opening ceremony of the conference on Sunday. He told the audience that when somebody comes to him with a problem to solve, he responds that he cannot work with a single problem. He needs multiple problems to solve simultaneously in a way that creates value. This is also what is really valid for and needed in the urban water cycle.

A second issue being discussed was a question from the audience if just planning is really enough to implement the required innovations in water wise cities, mentioning also the potential need for the ability to learn and adapt. It is essential for project owners to share not just successes but also failures. Organizations that lead and encourage may help and inspire the rest. Singapore’s PUB is a good example. Its representative in the panel discussion explained how the city state defined its “SDGs” (sustainable development goals) 50 years ago in terms of housing, jobs, education, sanitation for all, drinkable tap water and care for the living environment. Now, they have done it. Others can follow. The technology is commonplace, financing is available in sufficient quantities. It really requires a determined government, and reliable system of law and hard working bureaucrats. However, some approaches have changed in Singapore as well. In the past, canals, necessary because of the large amounts of rainfall, would be fenced off to the public. Nowadays, these are renaturized, bringing the people closer to the water, allow them to both enjoy and appreciate this scarce resource and inspiring them to keep it clean.

The advocated integrative and comprehensive approach to problems and sets of problems is becoming more commonplace within KWR. Already, projects such as Power to Protein create value by providing an integrative solution to multiple issues. But there is bound to be room for more. Our researchers, including myself, should feel challenged to apply this mode of thinking to all the issues we deal with.