Cities and water: some lessons from very water-scarce places

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  • Article by Chris Heymans, World Bank[i]

At a time when Capetonians fear that their city’s water shortage could soon leave their taps dry, knowing that they’re not alone probably does not offer much comfort. However, the experience of other cities in South Africa and elsewhere – in both industrialised and developing economies – provides useful material for learning. The World Bank’s Water Scarce Cities Initiative contains extensive information on a wealth of experience across the world of cities and states addressing extreme water scarcity head-on. This has been made accessible to mostly local-minded water managers through publications; a vibrant global network of utility managers, government officials, academics and others; and knowledge exchanges. 

Let’s look at how two very water-stressed urban complexes – the island of Malta and Las Vegas – have been working to mitigate these challenges. First, though, an overview of trends and a few reflections on the scale of the problem …

Water shocks have become less predictable and more severe

“The new normal” for water experts nowadays includes the knowledge that not only are water shocks seasonal, as they have often been, but also that seasonal shocks like droughts and floods have become both more severe and less predictable. Aside from natural changes, in cities and towns across the world populations are growing rapidly and water consumption keeps on rising.

A San Francisco official told the New York Times in 2009[ii] that this unpredictability has been “… a game changer for water managers” that “… takes the variability that we understand, and can live with, and amplifies it by an order of magnitude”. For planners who are used to planning for expensive infrastructure that's expected to last 30, 40, 50 years, or even longer, climate change is changing their rules and introducing new less definable risk.

These challenges have been very pronounced in sub-Saharan Africa, already water-stressed and confronted by high levels of poverty and economic malaise, and with ageing, inadequate infrastructure and watersheds unable to channel water from springs and mountains to rivers, streams and other storage or outflow points. Mostly, the institutions supposedly managing transboundary or interbasin flows or water supply and irrigation systems lack the finance, technical capacity and political drivers to identify and address these challenges proactively and effectively.

The numbers sound overwhelming

An estimated four billion people now live in regions that experience severe water stress. Globally, over one billion lack access to water, and another 2,7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year. The United Nations projects that global demand for fresh water will exceed supply by 40 percent in 2030. A recent BBC report identifies 11 cities – including Cape Town – that may “run out of water” in the next decade or so. Almost unthinkably, this even includes London, so widely associated with continuously rainy weather. The list also includes Cairo, alongside Sao Paolo, Mexico City, Bangalore, Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, Miami and Jakarta. Most of the 21 million residents of Mexico City only have running water intermittently. Jakarta is running so dry that the city is sinking faster than seas are rising, as residents suck up groundwater from below the surface.

Other cities are often in the news for similar reasons, including Las Vegas, Nevada and the Orange County region in California, as well as the Australian cities of Perth – which was feared to be on the verge of a total breakdown in services just a few years ago and remains on the high-risk list – and Melbourne, where there are fears that the city could run out of water in little more than a decade.

Experiences – from Malta and Las Vegas – show crises can be mitigated

Anyone who has experienced a water shortage of the severity that has been seen lately would be unwise to rest on their laurels ever again. Instead, getting through a crisis is one step in a long road to sustainability, and further shocks have not been uncommon. Nonetheless, let’s look today at how two very dry urban complexes – Las Vegas and Malta – have shown that such crises can at least be mitigated, even if foolproof long-term water security is contingent on continued attention to the challenges and developing new modes for doing so.

The Las Vegas story: infrastructure and technology alone are not the answers

One lesson is that no amount of investment in water infrastructure, by itself, can root out water shortage. The dramatic growth in Las Vegas’s population and tourism industry over recent decades has stretched the city’s allocation from the Colorado River – which it shares with several states and other cities – as well as its available groundwater reserves. It remains vulnerable, but drastic changes in its approach to water management have helped the city avoid running out of water. World Bank water security expert Richard Abdulnour observed in a recent blog that “Southern Nevada water managers face water scarcity with a sheer force of will, looking to maximize every available water drop both within and outside the state”. They have mobilised diverse approaches, from new investment to strict enforcement of rules for saving water, and innovative trading and borrowing of water. One of the outcomes of this determination and creativity has been that today, 70 percent of Nevada’s economy uses only five percent of its water.

Since 2002, Las Vegas has cut its per capita water consumption by about 40 percent, according to  the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). New infrastructure investment formed part of their approach, indeed, including an emergency underground intake pipe tunnel that would ensure the utility could siphon off water if the largest source – Lake Mead – ever dropped to unmanageably low levels.

Yet, a former general manager of the SNWA told the Brookings Institution that the critical factor for a sustainable answer is to “identify ourselves as citizens of the watershed”, who “help defray those infrastructure and operating costs”. This meant mobilising the public to pay their water bills, of course, but also to use water more sparingly and change wasteful behaviour. The Water Authority took severe measures to drive down residential use, such as declaring a “war on grass”, which has included a cash-for-grass programme that pays customers to replace lawns with desert landscaping, banning grass lawns in front yards, and promoting less sprinkling on golf courses, parks and lawns. It has also imposed strict penalties on households and businesses that waste water, and introduced a rigid watering schedule, stepping up reuse of wastewater generally, and especially of that from Las Vegas’s many hotels. These may not be the perfect solutions in greening a city, but they demonstrate a newly found willingness to make sacrifices, enforce water conservation more assertively, and inculcate a new awareness and commitment among the public to contribute actively to the strategy towards greater water security. Even then, continued vigilance remains crucial; for instance, although Las Vegas has reduced water consumption by 40 percent, consumption remains quite high compared with international standards – at least three times the European average. It’s therefore not a problem fully solved, but one that has been mitigated with considerable determination.

Water banking has been another innovation under the Colorado River Compact. It has enabled Las Vegas to obtain water on loan or through exchange from the allocations made under the compact to other states and cities. By accounting for its treated wastewater reflows, it has been able to expand its allocation by 75 percent. Across the western USA, the number of transactions has been increasing, especially in the form of sales of seasonal water deliveries. Prices paid by agricultural users tend to be lower than those paid by urban users, mainly because of the differing levels of utility for a unit volume of water. These efforts have made it possible to increase available resources for specific users.

Water banking in the Colorado basin has been possible because of a strong legalistic culture and regulation by a recognised central authority (the Bureau of Reclamation), considered to be applying rules fairly and equitably among all who participate in the market, able to ensure smooth trading at the right time and rapidly, and protecting third parties that are not involved in the trading from negative impacts. 

The wider lesson is that such systems that give users the right to “sell” or “rent” the water that is available to them could provide a win-win outcome, if structured such that the buyer and seller can reap a benefit from the transaction. This is only possible if the legal and institutional arrangements have credibility. There is no universal formula for water exchanges, but if developed with due sensitivity to local, competing and possibly collaborative interests, and with clear recognition of water rights, they could add considerable push to sustainable availability and use of water where it is needed most at a given time. Because water transfers in large quantities and across vast surfaces will mostly likely alter the flows within and out of a river basin, the practice will be sustainable only if there are clear limits to the volumes of water that are consumed and withdrawn from the water source, and if flows are regulated in terms of clear, understandable and quantifiable standards. Like all markets, water trading systems will only be sustainable if they are competitive, and inclusive of and affordable to many buyers and sellers. This also demands that a water market enjoys legitimacy, so that it should be developed with sensitivity to social norms and the political dynamics that affect water flows. Finally, such initiatives could be time-consuming and tough to negotiate. In the western USA, for example, water agreements take decades of lobbying and legal wrangling to be completed.

Malta, coping with perennial drought and lack of water

For the semi-arid Mediterranean island of Malta, low rainfall and lack of surface water are facts of life. The impact is at its most severe in summer, the driest season, when a tourist influx increases the island’s population sixfold. For many years, groundwater and rainwater harvesting helped Malta to sustain its water resources and services, but by the 1970s, this was no longer enough. For the next two decades, the island only retained some water availability by imposing severe water rationing and intermittent supply. The latter – as always – added to the maintenance costs, as intermittent supply and water pressure put additional strain on pipes.

Its dry climate means that Malta will never have an abundance of water, but the Malta Water Services Corporation has managed water demand and water resources such that the pressure on groundwater aquifers has been significantly reduced. Part of achieving this has been the development of desalination capacity, but since this remains an expensive option, the corporation has also found that less far-reaching changes have a place in mitigating water shortages. Service providers can achieve a lot by getting back to the basics of efficient network management and savings. Water losses are still a far too common occurrence, which means that leakages go undetected or unattended to. In textbook water management, such so-called “non-revenue water” is a common area for service providers to focus on, yet it remains vastly untapped. In Malta, the service provider’s reduction of water losses has been at the heart of taking on excessive consumption – a cornerstone of its resilience plan – cutting network leakages, and bringing down water demand to less than 60 percent, to what it was in 1994. Since this has retained water earlier lost to the system, it has not jeopardised the quality of life, even though some behaviour changes were required of officials and residents.

Since such changes influence costs, access and lifestyle, more generally, the Malta Water Services Corporation has worked closely with the authorities to engage stakeholders involved in various points of the water cycle. They believe that dealing with water shortages would simply not have been possible if they hadn’t reached out to citizens, keeping them informed proactively, and seeking their input when new initiatives were being planned and undertaken.

A future article will consider other experiences, but what Malta and Las Vegas – far apart and in very different settings, yet both deeply affected by water scarcity – show is that addressing a water crisis is unlikely to be possible if a city puts all its eggs in one basket. No single solution is likely to be sustainable, unless a city is prepared to diversify its water sources through measures such as rainwater harvesting, seawater desalination, wastewater reuse, aquifer management, cross-sectoral water trading, leakage reduction and conservation. Getting it right technically, with the right infrastructure, is most certainly necessary. However, far more important is to confront and work with the possible in a political, institutional and fiscal sense.

For most water-scarce complexes, like Malta, Las Vegas and many others, seemingly intractable political, institutional and fiscal barriers may stand firmly in the way of water security. Malta and Las Vegas, as well as many other global urban centres, offer valuable firsthand experience in overcoming these challenges, specific to context and not solely concerned with new infrastructure and technology.

[i] The author wishes to acknowledge the growing body of work produced in the World Bank and by others, such as the Brookings Institution’s write-ups on the Lake Mead water crisis, near Las Vegas. Excellent contributions by Richard Abdulnour, Amal Talbi and Stephane Dahan, who lead the work on the Water Scarce Cities Initiative (see World Bank water blog and the WSC website); a growing literature of reports and newspaper articles; and the World Bank’s 2017 report, Unchartered waters, provided a substantial analytical resource base for this piece.

[ii] “Las Vegas gambles with an uncertain water future” by Lauren Morello, New York Times, 10 November 2009.

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  • Water is die lewensaar van enige beskawing. Maar water, die voorsiening, berging en bestuur daarvan moet NOOIT verpolitiseer word nie. In Kaapstad het water 'n politieke speelbal geword. Pleks dat die plaaslike owerhede en die verskillende politieke partye saamwerk om 'n langtermyn-oplossing vir die gebied te kry, is daar wedywering en tweespalt.
    Die waterkrisis in die Kaap en elders in die land benodig 'n inklusiewe, nie-partypolitieke en wetenskaplike oplossing vir waterskaarste.

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