How can local governments and urban planning mechanisms help tackle the water crisis?

By Flavia G.

Water is a finite resource and it must be used and managed as such. Unfortunately, today that is not the common understanding. There is waste related to people’s behavior and due to poor infrastructure and maintenance. Water sources get contaminated because there is not enough control or punishment on those who pollute them. These are some of the key challenges to be addressed immediately.

The earlier we are able to convey the urgency and the limitations of water availability and get people to change their mindset and behavior, the better. In certain regions the quantity of water being drawn from nature and consumed by human activity already exceeds the natural recharge capacity. Such pattern creates system imbalances and stresses the water cycle further jeopardizing future water supply.

It also causes problems we don’t even foresee or know the actual extension of. The City of Mexico case we discussed is one example of such impacts where the entire city is literally sinking. The implications of such phenomenon (physically sinking) range from damage to buildings’ safety and increased maintenance costs, to disruptions in public infrastructure and transportation systems, exposing all citizens to risk and uncertainty.

From my experience working with local governments on urban planning in Brazil, I believe there is an important role policy makers and regulators can play in this landscape to prevent the extreme negative impacts and improve current standards. From construction and land use parameters, to investment in urban infrastructure and financial incentives to private contractors; there is a set of tools policy makers can deploy to foster new strategies and solutions.

I envision three categories of interventions.

The first targets improving existing management and distribution systems of potable water. Worldwide, water distribution networks are estimated to loose from 30% to 50% of the clean water pumped into them due to leeks, poor infrastructure conditions and theft. In my opinion, these figures are unacceptable and there should be a strong push to improve performance. Governments and concessionaries need to work together to establish ambitious goals and more rigorous parameters to lower loss and waste levels.

A second realm of policy action is to incentivize and enforce the adoption of water reuse mechanisms. One possibility is to require more permeable surface in buildings and public spaces, such as the adoption of green rooftops where rainfall can be filtered and captured. Another possibility is to require new buildings to incorporate greywater (from showers and sinks) usage mechanisms, again substituting potable water. The water captured through these mechanisms can be used for watering gardens and flushing toilets, thus optimizing the use of our precious and finite resource.

The third category of interventions tackles sewage management and treatment, enforcing higher standards and better control. In developing nations, 90% of the water used is not treated before being sent back into nature. There is certainly room to improve this statistic and I believe there are levers local governments can pull to push for investments in treatment and compliance to higher environmental standards.

Action is urgent and if the current challenges are not addressed it will become increasingly difficult to guarantee stable and reliable water supply for future generations. Water is a vital resource for human life, for our continuous development and ultimately for safety and peace. Local governments can play a key role engaging their constituencies and stakeholders in solutions towards a more sustainable water usage.

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About macomberjohnd

HBS Finance faculty interested in sustainability in the built environment including devices, structures, townships, and cities.

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