Connecting urban landscapes with their watersheds

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By Katharine Cross*

Rapid urbanisation is one of the defining global trends of our time, with both positive and negative impacts. Increasing concentrations of population create challenges to supply enough resources including food, energy and water. There is concern that cities will lack the capacity to cope with rising demands, while rural areas will have difficulty in dealing with the pressure on natural resources and agricultural land that growing city populations will bring.

Growing cities provide opportunities for new and innovative approaches to address these challneges, such as systems thinking, closed loop systems and retention of value. This includes through resource recovery of water, energy and nutrients from wastewater; improved water efficiency in water services, industry and domestic use; and improved stormwater management through green and blue infrastructure.

Urban stakeholders have a critical role to play in preserving the freshwater resources on which they depend. A disruption in supply of freshwater resources to cities can have significant economic, environmental and health consequences. However, managing current and future water challenges cannot be undertaken by individual entities such as utilities or even city governments. Rather, they need to engage and work with stakeholders across the catchment they rely on for water resources.

A 2016 study from The Nature Conservancy estimated watershed degradation costs global cities US$5.4 billion in water treatment annually, and many city governments are realising the importance of investing in their watersheds. In China, the Beijing and Tianjin municipalities have negotiated with farmers upstream to create the Environmental Forest Compensation Fund. This ensures water quality in the reservoir that supplies the majority of water to Beijing. There are accompanying soil and water conservation programmes driven by the central government.

In Peru, the national water regulator, SUNASS, together with utilities and end-users, are working to introduce principles and practices to create water-wise water basins. Applying policies and laws to create economic instruments and financing mechanisms that protect and share water resources across the country’s water basins. Utilities are encouraged to increase the fees for water supply and sanitation services, funds that can be used to rehabilitate and introduce management programmes in their catchment areas.

An Action Agenda for water basins

Building on these experiences, IWA is developing a Basin Action Agenda which aims to influence and activate utilities, cities and their industries to become water stewards, protecting their watersheds, water supply and water quality. This is through working with basin and catchment organisations, as well as other water management stakeholders such as agriculture and mining.

The Agenda outlines the rationale for urban stakeholders to lead the way as water stewards, and the different pathways and activities to achieve more integrated water resources management from catchment to consumer. These actions include the use of innovative science and technology for integration of green and grey infrastructure; and the application of regulatory approaches that can drive improved water management. It provides a framework for showcasing best practices to inspire cities and their stakeholders to be aware of, and respond to, what is happening in the watershed.

The Agenda builds upon the Principles for Water-Wise Cities, which aim to integrate water in planning across scales, and help city leaders ensure that everyone in their cities has access to safe water and sanitation. There are 4 levels: Regenerative Water Services; Water Sensitive Urban Design; Basin Connected Cities; and Building water-wise communities. The level of Basin Connected Cities is the entry point for the Basins Action Agenda, including securing the water resource, protecting water quality and preparing for extreme events.

How can you contribute to the Basins Action Agenda?

We are looking to urban stakeholders that are leading the way in strengthening the connection with their catchments through different actions and pathways to contribute to the development and promotion of the Basin Action Agenda:

  • Contribute a Basin Story which outlines the successes and challenges that urban stakeholders have experienced in becoming water stewards in the wider catchment;
  • Join in an online webinar will provide a shared platform to learn more and contribute to the Basin Action Agenda; and
  • Participate in one of the workshops highlighting how urban and basin stakeholders are working together on water resource management from catchment to tap.

The feedback collected from the workshop series, webinar and the basin stories will be reflected in the launch of the Basin Action Agenda at the 2018 IWA World Water Congress in Tokyo.

*Katharine Cross joined the IWA in July 2012 as a Programmes Manager and leads the Basins of the Future programme, which centres on resource optimisation within basins working with stakeholders across catchments from basin organisations to industry to utilities.