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Q&A: Water Will Be Lifeblood of Smart Urban Expansion

U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen interviews ANDERS BERNTELL, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 17 2011 (IPS) - The world’s water map is being significantly redrawn due primarily to the mass migration of people into urban centres, threatening one of life’s vital resources.

Anders Berntell Credit: Courtesy of SIWI

Anders Berntell Credit: Courtesy of SIWI

By 2050, the world’s urban population is estimated to be of the same size as the total global population today: a staggering six billion plus.

“The problem is not that cities are growing, the challenge most often is where they are growing,” Anders Berntell, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), told IPS.

A majority of people migrating to and being born in cities are in regions that already are experiencing water stress, and 95 percent of urban expansion will occur in developing countries, he predicted.

Berntell, who will be presiding over the 21st annual World Water Week in the Swedish capital beginning next week, pointed out that in less than 20 years, African and Asian cities will host twice as many people as they did at the turn of the century.

The theme of this year’s conference will be: “Responding to Global Changes: Water in an Urbanising World”.

In an interview with IPS, Berntell said the traditional approach, to dig deeper and pump farther to meet increasing demand for water, will not work for most places – rather, “it will lead to devastated ecosystems and eventually, depressed economies that need water to function.”

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: How severe will be the impact of rapid urbanisation on water supplies in the next decade? A: Perhaps the more important question to address is how water will impact urban growth over the next decade and that will depend on the choices that cities make today. Cities in dry regions that plan for their immediate, mid- and long-term futures can avoid potential disasters and near certain economic disruption from shortages of water.

They can choose smarter paths where they are prepared for droughts and floods and avoid losses when they come. They can opt to generate net gains from moving, cleaning and reusing water throughout the city instead of sending pollution through the drain.

Q: What role can the United Nations play in relieving the pressure and meeting the threats of future water shortages among urban populations worldwide? A: It is important to note that the United Nations already does play a crucial role in generating knowledge and mobilising resources that helps cities across the world engage in smarter water management, improve sustainable water and sanitation coverage in developing areas, and build resilience to disaster.

Organisations such as UN-Habitat, U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISRD), U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are among the most powerful influences for local and national governments to prioritise and improve their water governance and invest in measures to help them prepare for natural disasters.

As the scale of the challenge continues to accelerate, U.N. bodies will need to expand their efforts and ensure that they continue to improve the coordination and collaboration between its organisations.

Q: What should national governments do to avoid an impending disaster? Investments in infrastructure? Sound water management? A: First, they must move from problem-solving to solution planning. Problem-solving is waiting for water shortages to arise and moving new water in to replace it.

But moving water to solve shortages as many places do today will not work for much longer it is like buying a larger a belt to confront weight gain. It is not a healthy solution, neither for cities or the environment.

Certainly, we must invest much more in water than we do today. Following current trends, demand for water could increase to as much as 40 percent above global supply within two decades. Almost all actors who use water on a large scale can do so more efficiently, and invest in technologies and processes to prevent water pollution.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) predicts that more money will need to be placed into new or improved infrastructure than any other, including electricity, transport or telecommunications.

These investments will lead to long-term growth, nicer cities, and green jobs. The best choice for technology will differ depending on local conditions but the return on investment in short, medium and long term will be positive and need to be made today.

Perhaps the greatest priority to ensure sustainable growth is improve our management of the water, energy and food. There are tremendous opportunities to increase the efficiency of water use for energy generation, generate energy from water reuse and reduce that losses and waste of food from the field on its way to the consumer.

This would not only save tremendous amounts of water, it could also improve our ability to feed growing populations and energise our towns and cities.

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