The UN’s Water Scarce Cities initiative

The Water Scarce Cities (WSC) initiative by the UN aims to transform cities suffering from water scarcity through collaboration.

The issues
With rapid population growth, economic expansion, a breakneck speed of urbanisation, and to a lesser extent, climate change, water is set to become scarcer, even in regions where water scarcity has taken hold. The Water Scarce Cities (WSC) initiative from the United Nations (UN) aims to transform cities stricken with water scarcity through collaboration.

Presently, the UN estimates that a quarter of humanity live in nations afflicted with physical water scarcity, and this number has the potential to double in the coming twenty years. While water demand in cities has been estimated to rise 50 to 70 per cent over the next thirty years, the reduced availability of freshwater, along with competition with other uses for the resource will place constraints on municipal water consumption.

On a whole, the number of urban residents around the world living with seasonal water shortages has been projected to increase to 1.9 billion in 2050. Additionally, water pollution will also contaminate and serve to diminish the supply of fresh water that can be utilised for by the environment, human consumption, and production.

Water management
In spite of clear evidence pointing to shrinking resources and rising urban water demand, metropolises around the globe continue to depend on conventional solutions relying on bountiful resources and storeroom and granary based engineering approaches to increase water supplies.

This particular model, however, treats urban water management with a linear, narrow, and segmented focus, extracting water from groundwater and surface sources with little collaboration with other water users and understanding of sustainability limits. In that vein, stormwater and wastewater are quickly funnelled out of cities and into water bodies.

According to the UN, effective management of water resources continues to be vital in order to sustain inclusive and urban water services across regions with water scarcity. Sustainable and affordable water services make a large contribution to the inclusive growth and political stability of nations, especially as they are at the centre of social contexts and a failure to provide water to a country can result in social tensions, and increased social fragility and instability.


Physical water scarcity
Water aquifers play a crucial role in areas stricken by water scarcity, supporting water security in urban places. While not under every city, where they are located, the aquifers are quickly coming up as the key to developing an integrated approach to managing water scarcity. However, over time, these resources have been either over-exploited or polluted, or both, and in the case of coastal settlements, subjected to sea intrusion.

Thus, many metropolises have become reliant on water important from distant bodies of water through massive conveyance infrastructure. Recently, a growing number of cities have begun to comprehend the threats external supplies of water are vulnerable to, ranging from competition during times of drought, to destruction of conveyance infrastructure due to natural and man-made disasters, beginning to concentrate on restoring their aquifers.

These aquifers serve multiple purposes: Safe water storage; and being part of the water treatment and reuse cycle when utilised jointly with wastewater treatment infrastructure, at which they also become an indicator of the “health” of the water management system.

However, numerous metropolises and states much like Los Angeles, Perth, Malta, and Singapore, just to name a few, can boast of substantial success addressing physical water scarcity. They have either diversified their water resources and supply portfolio to tackle risks associated with water pollution or deficiency; or managed to close the urban water cycle to raise its resilience against external factors.

They realised their goals by capturing rainwater or stormwater for either use on-site or to refill aquifers; managing treated wastewater or desalinating seawater as alternative resources; and treating or using brackish groundwater, to name a few.

The urban water cycle is a system where efficiencies can be realised on all levels, even through water leakage, according to the UN. Often seen in concepts of integrated water cycle management (IWCM) or integrated urban water management (IUWM), the management model requires integrated planning and management mechanisms along with various institutional and technical solutions.


Unfortunately, these practices are frequently complex and come up against existing institutional arrangements, and while there has been progress bringing the integrated water paradigm into the mainstream, it is limited. In order for the management practices that Los Angeles, Perth, Malta, and Singapore boast can work, they need vertical collaboration between water agencies and management, as well as beyond, and horizontal cooperation between water agencies, drainage and sanitation services, and urban development, along with solid waste management on occasion.

Despite an emerging agreement that traditional methods of water management is not suited to addressing water stress in urbanised regions, bygone water management practices are still practiced due to either weak and fragmented governance in the sector, or a lack of awareness concerning alternative and more economic solutions, as well as a limited ability to implement them.

Still, when regions characterised by common water scarcity issues afflicted with water scarcity are studied, a surprising spectrum of achievements and responses come to light. There is a formidable range of practical knowledge and information that can be shared, so that integrated water management need not remain isolated projects with a limited scope of success, but instead the prevailing approach that is implemented across regions.


Objectives of the initiative
In response to growing issues mentioned above, the UN’s aim of introducing this initiative is to raise awareness regarding integrated approaches to managing global water resources and service cities hurt by water scarcity as a way to bring about water security and climate resilience.

Generating and collecting knowledge on improved and enhanced approaches to water management in the context of water scarcity, and reviewing the experiences of cities tackling water scarcity around the globe.

Facilitating the flow of knowledge and encouraging collaboration by establishing a global network of practitioners and experts on urban water management in areas with water scarcity with direct experience in dealing with water scarcity issues, or with an interest in exploring new approaches; and academics who are fostering the facilitation of knowledge to bring it to those who need it the most.

Supporting cities afflicted with water scarcity through engagement, and facilitating technical assistance in interested metropolises. This support includes assessing the current water resources management practice; identifying opportunities; and applying innovative approaches, among others.