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Water Strategy Key to Cities of the Future

Beatrice Paez

MONTREAL, Canada, Sep 23 2010 (IPS) - A diverse group of more than 4,500 professionals from the water industry gathered here to send a resounding message: a sharp break from past practices of water distribution and wastewater management is needed to cope with the burgeoning population growth in cities and impending water scarcity.

However, the unanimity in their vision for cities of the future ends there.

With Asian cities in the midst of a water crisis, a corporate outlook is needed to salvage wasted water resources, said the World Water Congress’s keynote speaker, Arjun Thapan of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

In developing countries, an estimated 90 percent of wastewater is leached directly into bodies of open water. Lack of resources directed toward water and environmental sanitation has cost governments in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam about two percent of their GDP, equivalent to approximately $9 billion, according to the ADB.

The path to a more efficient management of water resources lies in the formation of more public-private partnerships to significantly increase the role of the private sector in the delivery and treatment of water, Thapan argued at the conference, convened by the International Water Association (IWA).

This calls for attaching an economic value to water to encourage industry, agriculture and energy to shrink their usage. Allocation of water to each sector should be based on efficiency, said Thapan. “Groundwater has been seen as a birthright, and over withdrawals are the norm. This dependence must be reduced to maintain the ecological balance,” he said.

IWA has pioneered its own initiative, the Cities of the Future programme, to help cities adopt new models – from reconfiguring the design of cities to changing the mode of water delivery to enable them to deal with climate change and resource constraints.

Whether the forces behind a shift towards better management practices come from the private or public sector is irrelevant, Steve Moddemeyer, manager of the Cities of the Future programme, told IPS. “We’re really agnostic on that issue. I think both can work in a lot of different scenarios,” he said. “We take a step back from all that and ask, who’s doing really good stuff?”

The issue is convincing regulators and political leaders to adopt new approaches. They “need to recognise that what we’re doing is riskier now than what we’re proposing,” said Moddemeyer.

He stressed greater collaboration with city planners, noting that, “Land use can make a difference, it was determined that how a neighbourhood is designed can reduce water usage by 30 percent.”

The problems of unplanned urban sprawl in Asian cities threaten to reverse and jeopardise economic gains, said Thapan. “Asia’s urbanisation is inexorable. Managed properly it will result in equitable prosperity, but if left to its current ways it will cripple socio-economic growth.”

Among Asian nations, Singapore stands out as a model in overcoming water scarcity despite its lack of natural water resources. It is promoting itself as a global platform for water solutions. Services such as the collection, production, distribution and reclamation of water remain under the umbrella of PUB, a national water agency.

PUB emphasises the need for the involvement of communities, arguing that their participation in the planning process helps instill a sense of ownership and responsibility for the city’s resources.

Michael Toh, organiser of Singapore’s International Water Week, told IPS that Singapore has sought to harmonise relations between the community, the private and public sectors, and requires a multifaceted approach that engages every stakeholder.

On Monday, a group of protesters from the Council of Canadians, an organisation that identifies itself as a social justice group, staged a demonstration against the IWA. They accused conference organisers of propagating a corporatist agenda, charging that its sponsors are private multinational water companies such as Veolia Water and Suez Environment.

The president of IWA, David Garman, insists that the programme has participants from across the spectrum. He said funds received from the sponsorships were used to help delegates from developing countries with their traveling costs.

The protesters, who convened outside the conference venue, said they wanted to make delegates aware that the conference advocates for private solutions to address water scarcity. Garman said that this was the IWA’s first encounter with demonstrators.

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