Can Water Help Our Cities Cope with Rapid Urbanisation and Climate Change?

Jordan. Aqaba. Glass boats

The impacts of rapid urbanisation and climate change mean our cities are at risk of becoming “unliveable” unless we dramatically change the way we plan and design our cities – with water as a central focus. This is not idle speculation, it is a reality that we are starting to see play out in many cities around the world.

The IWA Principles for Water Wise Cities, currently being drafted through the consultation of water professionals provides a framework to develop a shared vision amongst urban stakeholders and act to implement this vision for sustainable urban water in our cities, now and in the future. Four levels of action are identified: 1) Water wise urban communities, 2) basin connected cities, 3) water sensitive urban design, 4) regenerative water services for all.

What does that mean in practice?

Designing cites in a water sensitive way – cities that are liveable and resilient – means that:

  • Citizens and governments work together from the outset to develop a common vision of the liveability for their city
  • Water for consumption by residents and industry is supplied from a range of diverse sources (not just one centralised source), to provide water security in times of drought
  • Urban areas are more resilient to flooding
  • Streets and open spaces are greener, and therefore cooler, and provide for community “connectedness”
  • The ecological values of waterways and surrounding areas are protected
  • The city has a much lower carbon footprint, because the management of resources, such as water, sewage, energy and food, are fully integrated.

Achieving these water sensitive city outcomes requires city urban planners and water system planners to work together from the beginning of the planning process.

Traditionally this has not been the case – water planners have been invited to design their systems after all the other planning professions (transport, industry, energy, telecommunications, etc) have set in concrete the shape and form of the city.

Where in the world are there water sensitive cities?

Unfortunately there are no cities in the world that are yet to fulfill all the criteria of a water sensitive city (as summarized above). According to a UNESCO–IHE Institute for Water Education survey of 27 cities in 2011, a number of cities have advanced towards achieving that state, including Melbourne, Hamburg, Lodz, Zaragoza and Beijing – although all of these cities still have a considerable way to go.

Getting ideas to move forward

The Future Learn platform offers a second edition of their free online course, “Water for Liveable and Resilient Cities,” exploring the concepts of “liveability” and “resilience” of cities and their water systems in some detail.

Drawing on case studies from Melbourne and around the world, the learners are asked to apply the principles that underpin water sensitive cities in the context of the towns and cities where they live, no matter where that is in the world.

The ultimate question of the institutional, regulatory and cultural preconditions required to ensure successful transitions to water sensitive cities is also tackled in the course.

The answers to these questions have a lot to do with leadership at all levels of government and society – involving a shared commitment to developing a common vision of the type of cities we want to leave for our grandchildren.

The “IWA Principles for Water Wise Cities” – in drafting – will help provide us, professionals, communicate widely to all urban stakeholders on a sustainable urban water vision. This will be a particularly useful tool to engage with those favourably disposed to this water wise vision, yet unable to follow an on-line course.

Also save the date for the upcoming “Embrace the Water – Cities of the Future Conference” in Gothenburg, Sweden, June 10-12, 2017.


Documents and reports attached to this page

Robert Skinner

Professorial Fellow and Director of Monash University's Water For Livability Centre