Last week I asked, “can we practice water resource management in a vacuum?” I posed the question after pondering the problem of international riparian rights and the impact one country’s water resource management can have on another country’s ability to supply its people with a sustainable amount of water. We should always keep an eye on our neighbors when it comes to water—a substance that blissfully crosses borders and abuts international coastlines—but equally important is keeping an eye on how our resources are being managed within our own community: especially when that community is 10 million people strong.
I am talking about the “megacity.” With 8 million or more inhabitants, megacities can be found all over the world, including the US, which is home to Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago—all megacities in their own right. In fact, within a generation, many of us will find ourselves residing within the walls of a megacity; by some estimates, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in an urban environment by 2030. Since 28 of the 39 megacities recognized by the UN are located in developing countries where clean water is scarce, it makes sense to dedicate a significant portion of the water resource management dialogue to urban water issues.
Last week, World Water Week kicked off in Stockholm. World Water Week is an international conference organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) that “brings together experts, practitioners, decision makers, and leaders from around the globe to exchange ideas, foster new thinking, and develop solutions.” At this year’s conference, one major topic of debate and discussion was megacities and the issue of urban water supply [read more...].
Megacities amplify the issues faced by many urban communities, including pollution, dwindling groundwater supplies, aging and poorly maintained infrastructure, scarce freshwater and inefficient wastewater, and stormwater control and disposal. In Cairo for example, 40% of the population has access to drinking water only three hours out of the day, while four of the city’s largest districts receive no water at all from the municipal system. For Cairo inhabitants, that translates into interminable waits at public wells just for the chance to load up on enough water to meet basic needs.
And while some smaller cities are experiencing a decline in population—i.e., Detroit, MI—many megacities in the developing world are seeing an exponential population increase. For example, in the last decade, megacities in the developing world have seen their poorest communities expand by a total of 18 million people per year.
With tens of millions of people to serve, it’s no surprise that the state of water resources in many of these megacities leaves a lot to be desired—especially when it comes to water efficiency. For example, the UN estimates that, in megacities throughout the world, over 45 million cubic meters of drinking water are lost every day—including the 1,000 cubic meters of clean water lost every day in Manila, Philippines. For the uninitiated, “the equivalent of an Olympic-sized pool are wasted every hour.”
So when the problems heads into the almost-50-million-cubic-foot range, what’s the solution? Because megacities share many problems, it makes sense to start off with a standard set of fixes—but does “one size fits all” really make sense in light of the different environments, cultures, and challenges that exist at each locale? And taking into account the very real issues of international funding and local agendas, does it make sense to continue financing new infrastructure projects instead of first upgrading and repairing existing conveyance systems? And whether you’re talking about 100,000 people or 10 million, shouldn’t the first step be to empower the local suppliers and end-users, rather than focusing time, energy, and dollars on large international agencies that are often ill-equipped to address the small yet vital problems that exist on the ground level: a broken pipe main, a faulty pump, a deteriorating sewer-line?