Return to the UEM Homepage

An Integrated Urban Water Strategy

Hari Srinivas
Policy Analysis Series E-043. June 2015.

Clean, safe water can be brought to the 1.4 billion people around the world without it for as little as $50 per person, which can prevent many of the 3.35 billion cases of illness and 5.3 million deaths caused each year by unsafe water, says a United Nations analysis. At any given time, an estimated one half of people in developing countries are suffering from diseases caused either directly by infection through the consumption of contaminated water or food, or indirectly by disease-carrying organisms (vectors), such as mosquitoes, that breed in water. These diseases include diarrhea, schistosomiasis, dengue fever, infection by intestinal worms, malaria, river blindness (onchocerciasis) and trachoma (which alone causes almost six million cases of blindness or severe complications annually).

In many countries, water shortages stem from inefficient use, degradation of the available water by pollution and the unsustainable use of underground water in aquifers, the UN says. For example, 40 to 60 per cent of water used by utilities is lost to leakage, theft and poor accounting.

How bad is the water crisis?

  • Every 8 seconds, a child dies from a water-related disease
  • 50 percent of people in developing countries suffer from one or more water-related diseases
  • 80 percent of diseases in the developing world are caused by contaminated water
  • 50 percent of people on earth lack adequate sanitation
  • 20 percent of freshwater fish species have been pushed to the edge of extinction from contaminated water.
Not only is the toll a human tragedy, but it means these people are less able to carry on productive lives, and this undermines social and economic development," says Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Dr. Töpfer notes women and girls in developing countries spend more than 10 million person-years in aggregate each year fetching water from distant, often polluted sources. Water can be provided in rural and low-income urban areas through the utilization of low-cost technologies that include handpumps, gravity-fed systems and rainwater collection, which would be built to serve entire rural villages or urban neighborhoods, rather than bringing indoor plumbing to individual houses. The provisions would include pumps, pipes, the training of workers, and the development and strengthening of water management practices.

Urbanization and the Water Crisis

The consequences of the increasing global water scarcity will largely be felt in the arid and semi-arid areas, in rapidly growing coastal regions and in the megacities of the developing world. Water scientists predict that many of these cities already are, or will be, unable to provide safe, clean water and adequate sanitation facilities for their citizens -- two fundamental requirements for human well being and dignity.

The problem will be magnified by rapid urban growth. In 1950, there were less than 100 cities with a population in excess of 1 million; by 2025, that number is expected to rise to 650. By the year 2000, some 23 cities -- 18 of them in the developing world -- will have populations exceeding 10 million. On a global scale, half of the world's people will live in urban areas.

Some of the world's largest cities, including Beijing, Buenos Aires, Dhaka, Lima and Mexico City, depend heavily on groundwater for their water supply, but it is unlikely that dependence on aquifers, which take many years to recharge, will be sustainable. Groundwater from aquifers beneath or close to Mexico City, for example, provides it with more than 3.2 billion liters per day, but already water shortages occur in many parts of the capital.

As urban populations grow, water use will need to shift from agriculture to municipal and industrial uses, making decisions about allocating between different sectors difficult. Water scarcity is aggravated by four principal human failures

Water scarcity is aggravated by six principal factors:

  • Reluctance to treat water as an economic as well as a public good resulting in inefficient water use practices by households, industries and agriculture - Farmers pay too little to cover the whole cost of water resources development; very often in developing countries households pay a lumpsum tariff for their water use.
  • Excessive reliance in many places on inefficient institutions for water and wastewater services. There is no incentive to improve their efficiency and reliability under the current organizations.
  • Fragmented management of water between sectors and institutions, with little regard for conflicts between social, economic and environmental objectives; and
  • Inadequate recognition of the health and environmental concerns associated with current practices. Lack of trained engineers, data on water quality, and information dissemination systems further aggravates this problem. International agencies still do not have comprehensive understandings of water quality issues in developing countries as most of the experts are trained in developed, often temperate, countries.
  • Environmental degradation of water sources, in particular, reduced water quality and quantity due to pollution from urban or land-based activities. Too little money and attention are paid to improve such basic infrastructures as water and wastewater systems, while more money is spent for economic growth. Lack of consensus on "who should pay for water and wastewater" very often makes it difficult to build sustainable water and wastewater systems. One of the examples is the sewage treatment systems in Thailand; municipalities often refuse to manage and operate sewage treatment plants because people do not want to pay for their wastewater.
  • Inadequate use of alternative water sources. Alternative water sources other than groundwater and surface water are rarely explored. Desalination is too expensive; and rainwater harvesting is only good for small communities in remote areas. Wastewater reuse may be a future alternative but it requires a better understanding on the risks and benefits of water reuse.
Instead, we must adopt a new approach to water resources management in the new millennium so as to overcome these failures, reduce poverty and conserve the environment -- all within the framework of sustainable development.

The Urban Water Strategy

Quite clearly, a concerted strategy for management of water resources in urban areas need to be put in place in order to avoid the crisis outlined above. Developing a framework for urban water management can draw inspiration and guidance from several global agreements and norms, including Agenda 21 itself, and the World Water Vision.

Preparatory work will have to map out the progress achieved vis-ā-vis objectives outlined in Agenda 21, as well as the recommendations made in the World Water Vision. A 'situation report' on the status will have to be developed - urban water quality, usage and the policy and programme/project environment within which water is managed. Trends of water use and disposal at the community and urban levels will have to be monitored and comparative analyses made to understand the dimensions of the problem. Water issues will clearly have to be linked with other pressing urban problems including health, food security, poverty, education and other issues.

An integrated urban water resource management plan, for example, will have to move towards empowering communities to decide on the level of access to safe water and hygienic living conditions. It will have to produce more food, create more sustainable livelihoods per unit of water applied, and ensure access for all to food required for healthy and productive lives. It will also have to manage human water use to conserve the quantity and quality of freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems that provide services to humans and all living things. Some of the key themes to develop a coherent water strategy for urban areas will clearly have to move towards, and revolve around, the following issues:

    • Water Audits: How can water audits be performed? Who and why should it be done? How will such audits help in developing a more integrated water management plan? Water audits provide a comprehensive appraisal of natural and urban water resource base. It assists in water policy assessment and development, investment decisions, monitoring and evaluating program and policy performance; and direct resource management, particularly by local government.
    • Demand Management: Clearly, the way forward in effective mitigation of the water crisis is demand management - in understanding water usage in urban areas, in developing tools and strategies for a deeper and broader reduction, reuse/recycle of water for different purposes. Community education and awareness-building is a critical component in water demand management, as is effective stakeholder participation in decision-making and policy development. Water pricing issues are also included here.
    • Integrated urban water resource management (IUWRM): IUWRM is an emerging concept that covers the entire urban water cycle, including rainwater, desalination, ground and surface water, etc., as well as storage and distribution, treatment, recycling and disposal, and the protection, conservation and exploitation of water resources at their origin. It also covers empowering local communities to decide on the level of access to safe water and hygienic living conditions, the need to produce more food, and the need to create more sustainable livelihoods per unit of water, and the need to manage human water use to conserve the quantity and quality of freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems that provide services to humans and all living things.
    • Urban watersheds: The issues of managing urban water supply, wastewater and stormwater can be viewed in an integrative manner by looking at urban areas as watersheds. Such perspectives incorporate issues such as pollution of water resources, surface run-off, rainwater harvesting from urban structures, etc. It includes the perspective of cities as 'metabolic units' that can be defined in terms of inputs/outputs and material balance as well as life cycle cost.

Creative Commons License
This work by GDRC is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
. You are free to share and adapt this piece of work for your own purposes, as long as it is appropriately cited.
More info:


Return to Water Resources
Contact: Hari Srinivas -