Blog Post

Dr Lisa Guppy
Project Officer, UNU-INWEH

That urbanisation may open the door for innovations in the water sector and help drive sustainable water management was one of many far-sighted ideas emerging from Korean International Water Week.

“Water Partnerships for Sustainable Development” was the theme of the KIWW, which attracted 12,300 participants from 62 countries, including Ministers and representatives from cities, private companies and international organizations. Sessions explored topics relevant to developed and developing countries in the new era of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

A timely session in which I took part explored urbanisation, water and sustainability, a discussion taking place against this backdrop:

* By 2050, two-thirds – 6.5 billion – of the world’s population will live in urban areas; and 95% of urban expansion in the next decades will take place in low and middle income countries
* 828 million people live in slums today and the number keeps rising, and finally
* Cities occupy just 3% of the Earth’s land but account for 60-80% of energy consumption and 75% of carbon emissions

Two international initiatives may impact urbanisation, water management and sustainability in the next decade. The Sustainable Development Goals offer an ambitious agenda for urban areas under SDG 11, which aims to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. SDG 11 links to SDG 6, which aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Overlapping both of these is the New Urban Agenda, which is the output of the third Habitat conference that took place this month in Quito, Ecuador.

The SDGs and the New Urban Agenda capture new paradigms. As written in Nature recently, “A few decades ago, cities were seen as sustainability problems rather than solutions” (Wachsmuth, Cohen and Angelo, 2016). However, there are as yet few concrete examples of urbanisation being a solution to the many water-related problems faced particularly in low and middle-income countries.

The reason for that, I would argue, in part is that in many countries sustainable urban water technology and solutions are not yet managed holistically, in a city-wide context; nor are they framed well in social, environmental or economic policy. Bringing urbanized solutions out of the realm of international aspiration and into national and municipal policy will challenge many countries and many municipalities.

At this stage, Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda must be considered by national and municipal governments critically before being encapsulated in policy that can be implemented feasibly. Clear enabling policy frameworks have not been developed for national or municipal governments.

This gap between aspiration, policy and change at scale needs to be addressed urgently before innovations in urban water technology and policy will make an impact on the ground.