Capitalising on the Urban Water Opportunity

Jordan. Aqaba. Glass boats

Moving from Risk to Opportunity

Across the world, leaders are consider water to be a risk of high impact and high likelihood, one that will negatively affect global supply chains, regional stability and economic performance. Yet, water is a tremendous opportunity to invest in and to further economic growth, societal well-being and environmental sustainability. The way we manage water will determine how economic development, human well-being and environmental sustainability will be achieved.

To move beyond water as ‘risk’ we need to focus on fostering responsibility, capturing opportunities, and promoting new solutions to water challenges. In doing so I propose to focus on 3 key areas:

  • Promoting the Blue and Green Revolution
  • Implementing the 5 Rs of new water management
  • Building ecosystem inspired urban areas

Using these approaches can help turn water scarcity from a risk into an opportunity. For example with investments in water solutions that promote efficiency, water re-use and desalination. These sort of solutions are all pillars of a blue and green revolution that drives the closing of urban, industrial and agricultural water loops. The risk is not “water”, it is the lack of actions to manage water wisely. Actions come at many levels, by industry, government, civil society and the agricultural sector alike.

Poor and Rich – Infrastructure

Let’s take a step back. The future we are shaping will take place in a world with fewer divisions between poor and rich nations. By 2050 the world will be more homogeneous. The vast majority of people will live in Asia in middle income countries, with access to basic water and sanitation services. However, a tremendous effort will be required to ensure water efficiency and water quality is where it needs to be. This will require major investments to reduce water loss, increase wastewater treatment and reduce industrial pollution of surface and ground waters. With roughly 60% of the urban infrastructure existing in 2050 still to be built, there is an enormous opportunity to get it right. To do so we need to revolutionize our thinking and action: a true blue and green revolution.

Focusing on urban areas can be an important starting point for turning water from a ‘risk’ into an ‘opportunity’. The world is continuing to urbanize rapidly with over 60% of world population to live in urban areas by 2030. Urban areas today already account for about 70 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product. Cities are the engines of economic growth and social development. They attract people, resources and inspiration to thrive. Because they bring so many strands together, they present a great opportunity to drive the green and blue revolution. To do so we have to work at different levels, from the individual to neighborhood to city, and further to area and country level.

Citizens and Consumers

Let’s start with citizens and consumers. A significant change in consumer behaviour will happen in coming years. The new energy consumers not only consume energy, they ‘produce’ energy through, for example, efficiency and home-based solar power. This move from consumers to prosumers is enabled, amongst others, by new actors in the sector such as Google (-Nest) and IKEA Solar that offer consumer products that change energy behaviour. This development is important for urban water as the majority of household energy is being used for heating water. It exemplifies how important it is, and increasinly will be, for water utilities to become a stimulus for change: becoming true service companies that understand end-users, and offer new services and products to galvanize the urban blue and green revolution.


Leading cities and their utilities have a tremendous opportunity to contribute to turning the tide and move from ‘risk’ to ‘opportunity’. In my view, utilities have to lead in setting operational standards and practices on urban water management to a higher level. This could be done across the water source, supply and consumption value chain by focusing on the 5 R’s of new water management:

re-duce, re-use, re-cover, re-cycle and re-plenish

Reducing loss of water and increasing water efficiency provides opportunities for many industries to reduce costs and lower water stress in their operating area. Re-using water, both within its own operations and in cooperation with neighbouring industries, towns and farmers can unlock gridlocks between stakeholders and truly be transformative for entire regions. Recovering water, energy, nutrients and other materials from wastewater and industrial water is becoming more economically viable and forms to basis of recycling precious nutrients and other materials. Finally, the future of water management is already here in the form of many successful pilots and large scale applications to replenish the environment through restoring watersheds, lakes and groundwater reserves. Leading cities and utilities can be instrumental on all 5 R’s to showcase and up-scale sustainable water solutions.

Beyond Urban

Of course, cities do not exist in isolation. They use resources from surrounding areas, even faraway places, which contribute to their economies. The water footprint of cities and their inhabitants will increase in importance, as city leaders start to review how both city and citizens are part of the solution to local and not so local water challenges. For example, some cities are investing in maintaining upper watershed ecosystems critical to guarantee water security and safety; others invest in farmer level water efficiency to help increase downstream water security. Yet other urban areas bring the ecosystem into the city and base their water management on ecological principles and practices.

Ecosystems inspired city

Adopting an urban water agenda that uses the 5 Rs management framework, focusing on creating an ecosystems inspired city, enables better planning for a healthy, liveable, risk-resilient and regenerative city, all at once. The drive to realize this approach will come from rapidly growing cities, facing major resource limitations yet needing to provide for human health and an attractive economic environment. Creating ecosystems inspired cities goes beyond water and addresses all urban disciplines. It recognizes how water shapes urban landscapes both through natural water ways, including storm and flood management, but also because risk-resilient and regenerative urban water services are only fully implementable if integrated in urban landscapes at the building, district and metro scales.

The ecosystems inspired city is planned holistically. It is connected to its catchment to embrace the Water-Food-Energy nexus in its urban planning. It plans its water supply and sanitation, waste management, transport, energy supply and production, as well as economic activities for the metropolis by identifying cross sector synergies at the district and building scale.

Water is only one element of urban planning, and water professionals can no longer work sequentially with other disciplines. We need to work together in trans-disciplinary teams inspiring each other and be the drivers of a blue and green revolution. Taking on the 5Rs framework of water management provides a hands-on approach to having short term benefits and investing for the future. Step-by-step we can then develop a more ecosystems inspired urban water management that can be truly sustainable and resilient.

But don’t forget: people are at the center of city development and its water management. This implies we need to engage with citizens, understand their needs and support behavior change that benefits all. In this way we can help make citizens truly the drivers of the blue and green revolution and co-create the ecosystem inspired cities of the future.

Ger Bergkamp

Past IWA Executive Director
Ger Bergkamp is the former Executive Director of the International Water Association. He held the post between the years, 2012 and 2017. Connect with Ger Bergkamp on IWA Connect.   Read full biography