Water solutions can drive resilience and the sustainable growth of cities

The resilience of cities is complex and relies on many components working together. The ability to recover and thrive after a shock or a slow change, relies on the capacity to adapt and react with four interrelated components: the city’s leadership and strategies; people’s health and well-being; the organisation of society and economy; and the infrastructure and environment of the city.

Where does the water cycle fit into these components? Water contributes to all of these pillars of resilience in one way or the other and, simultaneously, all of these components of resilience contribute to making urban water sustainable.

Water is seldom a priority for investments in a city and it’s not high on households’ budgets, potentially because water was there even before the city existed. So water is understandably taken for granted, and water related risks are ignored until a disaster strikes. Our cities have grown fast in the last decades and need to reconnect to water, invest in it, in order to drive resilience and sustainable growth.

The new global sustainability agenda, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, have been agreed by national governments, but cities will be key local implementers to achieve national targets. Water has its own specific goal, but water is also recognized as being critical to achieving many of the other goals. Their implementation is either impacting or being impacted by water.

The New Urban Agenda that will emerge from the Habitat III meeting later this year, and which will guide international efforts around urbanisation for the next 20 years, provides guidance on all aspects of a city. Yet the way water is impacting or impacted by each component underpinning the resilience of cities is diluted in the outcome document.

The IWA Principles for Water-Wise Cities, by contrast, were developed to support cities in understanding what sustainable urban water means, and to develop their water-wise city vision that will contribute to resilience and sustainable growth. They are also instrumental in conveying that water is a lot more than “basic services” for a city.

The Principles provide a means to inspire each actor of the city to contribute to sustainable urban water, each in their own sphere of influence. People, “water-wise communities”, are the overarching level of action of the Principles. We need each actor of the city to be water-wise if we want to achieve sustainable urban water, an essential building block for resilience and sustainable growth.

Water-wise cities from IWA on Vimeo.

Discussing the Principles during the “Water solutions for resilience and sustainable growth of cities” workshop in  Stockholm WWW, the debate ranged from high-level goals and policy to practical implementation of sustainable urban water projects. What became clear, whether discussing the journey of a city like Stockholm to become water-wise, the link between water and climate change in Morocco, or how, in Dakar, improving fecal sludge management is helping the city towards sustainable urban water, was that urban water is, and has to be, people centered.

A city’s people – the inhabitants, the professionals, the policy makers and the leaders – all contribute to ensuring that the cross-sector and cross-scale solutions required are achievable.

It was also clear that, while cities like Stockholm inspire us to do better, the reality of our world is that we have many cities like Dakar. The Principles for water-wise cities are most useful for those cities, to drive an implementation of the global goals in a way that seizes best the opportunities water has to offer. Dakar’s success relies to a great extent on people and good governance, having clear lines of responsibility for managing the city’s water and preventing fragmented decision-making. The OECD Principles for Water Governance at City Level can assist cities in developing their ability to “water-proof” decisions made on all urban development aspects, and advance on the path to water-wise cities.

Sustainable urban water is about people making it happen. We must seize the opportunity to build water-wise people for water-wise  cities in a water-wise  world.

Join us on this journey!




Find out more about cities of the future and IWA’s Principles for Water-Wise Cities at upcoming events:

IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition 2016

The Brisbane World Water Congress will be an opportunity for professionals to share and learn throughout the thematic sessions, as well as for City Leaders to sharpen their vision on sustainable urban water through the City Leaders Forum. The Exhibition Hall will host the Cities Pavilion, powered by Arup, where City water stories will be shared.

Embrace the Water Conference 2017

Next spring, the Embrace the Water Conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, will be the place to learn, share and be inspired on this journey to water-wise cities for city staff as well as for professionals advising them or providing services in urban design, water, waste or energy management. The call for abstracts has been announced – submit yours now!


Reference documents

City Resilience Index (CRI) developed by Rockefeller Foundation/Arup, 2014

IWA Principles for Water Wise Cities, developed by International Water Association, 2016

OECD Principles for Water Governance at City Level, OECD, 2015


Documents and reports attached to this page

Dr. Mark Fletcher and Sofia Widforss

Mark Fletcher is responsible for all water and flood risk related business activity across Arup and has advised at a regional, national and trans-national level. He has delivered keynote speeches at Stockholm World Water Week, International Water We... Read full biography