Water solutions for the 21st century

Local challenges

Nick Clark, Environmental Editor at Al Jazeera English started this discussion by asking each panelist to describe some of the main urban water challenges in each of their local contexts. Carla May Berina-Kim, the Executive Director of the Manila Water Foundation, explained that in Manila, illegal water connections lead to quality issues, and that while water coverage is fairly good, only a third of the city has coverage when it comes to sewage. Lack of sewage infrastructure — the result of poor urban planning — is a main cause. Koen Broersma, a Consultant of Urban Water Management at Royal HaskoningDHV described the situation here in Jakarta: water supply is lacking, causing residents to use wells and pumps, which then causes subsidence (land sinking) and flooding. Untreated wastewater flooding to the sea is another major concern. Roch Cheroux, the CEO South East Asia at Suez Environnement explained that in Australia, the driest continent, lack of water is a challenge, as is affordability — utilities are not run efficiently, so costs are high. Also, Australia’s water infrastructure is old, and renewing it would be costly. Finally, Aziza Chaouni, Founding Principal at Aziza Chaouni Projects, indicated that in Morocco, too, lack of water is an issue — especially since agriculture, a major source of income for Moroccans, requires heavy water use.

Rethinking traditional infrastructure

Ms. Chaouni argued that the paradigm of water infrastructure needs to be changed. In the United States, old infrastructure is being replaced with newer versions of the same technologies instead of being rethought. Her Fez river project is an example of rethinking traditional water system silos, since the river is used both as infrastructure and as public space. Other ideas include a dual water quality system separating grey water and black water. Currently, we use potable water for all of our water needs, which is unnecessary. Mr. Broersma mentioned that the dual water system has been tried before unsuccessfully, and that it doesn’t necessarily reduce costs very much (the treatment of water is relatively inexpensive). Mr. Broersma and Mr. Cheroux agreed that while the technical solutions do exist, the challenge is changing people’s behavior — for example, convincing them that treated wastewater is safe to reuse.

Water pricing

The session concluded with a discussion of water pricing. Mr. Broersma noted that while tariffs can help limit the use of water, so can government regulation, as in the case of Singapore. Mr. Cheroux gave the example of Estonia, where high water tariffs led to a dramatic decrease in water consumption; Mr. Broersma countered with the case of Amsterdam, where water tariffs did not help lower consumption, noting that the relationship depends on the local context. Ms. Chaouni argued that money is not always the main issue, giving the example of Isla Urbana, an NGO that developed a low-cost rainwater harvesting system installed in individual households in Mexico City. The organization has been very successful; although the financial investment is small, their solution creates a big impact.

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