Why it’s Time to Rethink Water Management

Genevieve Donnellon-May | Climate Change Fellow

Image credit: u_nnjglrk13q via Pixabay

In the era of climate crisis, countless droughts and floods, and increasing demand creating pressures on existing water supplies, more sustainable urban water practices are essential.


What we are witnessing worldwide are the consequences of poor water management due to factors like bureaucratic inertia, absence of investment funds, and inappropriate institutional arrangements. Given these circumstances, governments should rethink their approaches to water management to meet increased demand and avoid further concerns of water crises.


While poor water management is occurring worldwide, it is often more noticeable in developing countries. Estimates from the World Bank suggest that approximately 45 million cubic metres of water are ‘lost’ (e.g. through leaks) daily in developing countries, costing more than US$3 billion annually. As a result, water utilities find it difficult to provide reliable coverage to consumers at affordable prices.


If the water losses in developing countries could be halved, the saved water would supply around 90 million people. For this to happen, governments must recognise that improving water management practices is necessary to decrease demand and provide consumers with more sustainable water supplies.


Water Demand Management Measures


One way of addressing these issues is for governments, water utilities, public policymakers, and other stakeholders to implement water demand management (WDM) measures in urban areas.


While governments have traditionally sought to achieve greater water security through supply expansion, there is growing interest worldwide in WDM. WDM seeks to increase water consumption efficiency by providing users with more sustainable and cost-effective supplies while improving water quality. Furthermore, it is key for water-scarce countries and countries aiming to improve their domestic water security in the long term.


To improve water consumption efficiency, various measures can be used, including technical measures (e.g. leakage detection technology and smart water meters), economic incentives (e.g. tariff schemes and metering), and non-price mechanisms (e.g. water conservation campaigns and consumer education). These practices are already used worldwide to some extent, including in Australia, Cambodia, Namibia, the European Union (EU), and the United States of America (US).


Alternative Water Supply Systems


Alternative water supply systems – such as desalination, rainwater harvesting (RWH) systems, and highly treated wastewater – are additional WDM measures which governments should consider. As these alternative water supply systems can be treated to the World Health Organisation’s drinking standards, they can also enable governments to improve water security on various scales (national, regional, and local).


Alternative water supplies are already in place in countries like Israel, a water-insecure country known for its frequent droughts and water shortages. For instance, 55 per cent of Israel’s domestic water is sourced from desalination. As a result, Israel is now estimated to produce 20 per cent more water than it needs. Furthermore, within the next few years, Israel expects the desalinated water from its seven desalination plants to produce up to 90 per cent of its annual municipal and industrial water consumption.


Elsewhere, in Singapore, the country’s ‘Four National Taps’ strategy is in place to ensure Singapore’s continued sustainable and diversified water supply. The four different sources of water are as follows: water from local catchments, imported water from Malaysia, NEWater (high-grade reclaimed water), and desalinated water. The varied water sources have enabled Singapore to meet growing water demand and become more resilient towards weather variability. By 2060, NEWater and desalination are expected to meet up to 85 per cent of Singapore’s water demand.


Challenges


The implementation of WDM measures, however, is not without challenges. A major challenge to consider is the cost of implementing WDM measures, particularly alternative water supply systems. For instance, desalination plants, although climate-resilient, are considered expensive and energy-intensive. Additionally, concerns have been raised over their environmental impacts.


Another challenge to consider is dependence on the reliability of rainfall and climate. In cities where there are no water shortages or restrictions, installing RWH systems (e.g. rainwater tanks) can be expensive. This means that RWH may not be cost-effective or considered necessary, given the abundance of rain.


Furthermore, public attitudes towards WDM measures is an additional key factor as they can have the power to determine if certain projects go ahead as planned. In the case of wastewater being treated to drinking water quality standard, for instance, the visceral image of “toilet to tap” could be off-putting to water consumers, despite research demonstrating that reclaimed wastewater is reliable and safe to drink.


Despite the challenges presented by WDM, from a long-term perspective, governments should aim to improve water management by increasing water use efficiency through multisectoral WDM measures which are both climate resilient and can improve water quality. While alternative water source systems like desalination and treated wastewater may be considered more controversial WDM measures given public attitudes and the associated concerns over environmental impacts, they undoubtedly have a role to play in reducing water scarcity fears and achieving water security in urban areas. In order for WDM measures to be successfully implemented and abided by, governments could create public information campaigns to both raise awareness of the importance of sustainable urban water supplies and promote behaviour change. By doing so, countries can avoid further fears of global water crises and achieve water security.


Genevieve Donnellon-May is the Climate Change Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.