One definition of a resilient, smart city is a city that harnesses all resources at its disposal to cope with multiple challenges. Yet we find that existing water sector investments currently favour ‘built infrastructure’ to pipe, store, and filter water, writes David Schaub-Jones, Water Funds Programme Manager at The Nature Conservancy and an African Utility Week Advisory Board member.
Urban water utilities in sub-Saharan Africa source at least half of their public water supply from surface water (3.5 billion cubic meters annually), while the rest of the supply comes primarily from groundwater.
The conditions of river drainage basins are important for maintaining a reliable and high-quality water supply. In places where drainage basins have been affected by poorly managed land development (e.g. deforestation, drained wetlands, invasive plants, conversion to crop and pasture, and urban construction), runoff accelerates and carries sediment and pollutants into water sources. The affected drainage basins increase costs for utilities in sourcing water to supply their customers. Furthermore, climate change will exacerbate this already deteriorating situation, acting as a ‘magnifying glass’ on current patterns of water variability.
Dry areas are likely to become drier (making water scarcity worse) and wet areas wetter (making floods more frequent and sediment loads higher). ‘Green infrastructure’ can offer a cheaper and more sustainable alternative or help increase the robustness of the system when used in conjunction with such ‘grey’ solutions. However, the option of green infrastructure (e.g. protecting the sources of water) is not yet commonly used or understood, and there are few regulatory frameworks in place that encourage such environmental considerations.
Given the expected magnitude of water-sector investments over the coming decade, there is a clear opportunity to amend policies and regulations in order to better take into account such nature-based solutions – a move that is being seen in Europe and elsewhere.
The Nature Conservancy is engaging with this issue: working with organisations such as the International Water Association (IWA) to better understand the concerns of regulators and utilities globally and, in Africa, institutions and initiatives such as the Africa Water Association and the African Development Bank. The vision is that donors, lenders and water sector professionals get behind grey-green approaches, so that water utilities are encouraged to consider the role of green infrastructure in plans for dams or bulk transfer schemes.
The Nature Conservancy has pioneered ‘Water Funds’ – a mechanism for managing and financing nature-based watershed protection. There are currently 35 Water Funds in action around the world and a recent study (Beyond the Source, TNC, 2017) showcased analysis that suggests that one in six cities globally can more than recoup the cost of protecting their upstream catchment area in reduced water treatment costs alone.
In 2018 TNC launched Africa’s second such initiative, the Greater Cape Town Water Fund, which is expected to produce two months of Cape Town’s water needs over the next 30 years at one-tenth of the cost. Given the experience of Latin America and the strong headway that water funds are making in Nairobi, Cape Town and now Morocco, I believe that policies and regulation should encourage water utilities to go beyond their traditional ‘grey approaches’ to more closely consider the benefits that nature-based solutions offer. This could be new regulatory requirements to assess specific green infrastructure options alongside the usual water resource planning exercises, or specific funds or financial incentives from lenders to further drive the sector forward.
Nature-based solutions not only ensure the long-term health of freshwater ecosystems, but permit the water sector to more sustainably and cost-effectively meet human development objectives. These solutions can contribute to making cities more resilient and, given the common-sense financial, practical and ethical considerations, meaningfully contribute to a city’s ‘smart’ status. ESI
Join the Water conference sessions at African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa on 14-16 May in Cape Town where technologies, wastewater management, and water security solutions will be covered.