The Future of the Global Water Crisis in Urban Areas

As population and cities grow, with 70% of the global population expected to live in urban environments by 2050, urban centers are where water problems will grow to be most pronounced.

Traditional city water and wastewater systems will increasingly struggle to meet demand, and many are likely to face difficulty in access to clean water and effective sanitation.

What are some of the water-related challenges unique to cities? Can cities continue to depend on grid-provided services? If not, as we shift to a community-focus - what defines an urban community?

@Thanku, @lpories, do you have any insight on this you can share with the community?

I can offer insight on challenges, maybe a little less on solutions. One issue is the challenge of providing networked water services in dense urban areas. Many of the densest areas are informal settlements (aka slums). The problem is that local governments often have to formally recognize these settlements before utilities can deliver water or sanitation services to them, and they have multiple reasons why they don’t want to recognize them - being required to provide services being one, wanting to sell or otherwise use the land being another…the list could go on. In areas where utility services are provided by private companies rather than public, they tend to view poor households as unreliable customers, or see more value for money by serving wealthier consumers (like industries, for example)., where I work, has been helping to build the business case for serving these low-income households, but here is a long way to go in terms of changing these deeply-ingrained perceptions. One leverage point is appealing to National Commitments for universal water and sanitation as enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal 6.1 and 6.2.

I think we are finding off-grid solutions to be a more realistic alternative to networked water and sanitation solutions in dense urban areas (as well as remote rural areas). Off-site sanitation solutions such as container-based sanitation are gaining traction within the community. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is leading the charge in terms of these innovative sanitation solutions.

I also think that many cities are grappling with the realities of climate change and investigating Smart solutions that build environmental resilience into long-term planning for water and sanitation. The International Water Association (IWA) as well as the World Water Council (WWC) are two entities that have developed such programs.

@lpories, Thank you so much for this insightful perspective.

The confluence between sanitation infrastructure, municipal or private provider services, and community self-management is something that, especially with human waste, is a challenge.

With container-based sanitation projects that you’ve engaged with, what entities are responsible for disposal and safe treatment of that waste?

I’m really glad you brought up water resilience. As we’ve explored the cases and reasoning for water reuse (like Singapore’s NEWater, Windhoek’s water reclamation plant, etc), water resilience is a major factor in driving the political will to make big investments in water recycling plants.

In line with SDG Goals 6.1 and 6.2, do you know any projects that combine treatment of human waste and water reuse on a community scale?

@lpories Thank you for your interesting comments. You raise another interesting aspect that we hope to include in the design – Net Zero, so to also address issues as energy and waste, alongside sustainability in water communities.

I’m curious about the warranted water quality (non-potable vs. potable).

While non-potable levels are useful for irrigation and agriculture (the largest users); looking at urban environments, do we risk freshwater contamination, especially as we move towards more densely populated urban areas?

Would it be then warranted to encourage potable quality, which increases the use cases and may also potentially save costs on the additional infrastructure needed to ensure health and safety?

@jordan_shapiro It is actually quite easy to design a decentralised wastewater treatment plant for each toilet, placed just outside the toilet.

So in a multi-storied building the wastewater from the say 10th floor can be treated on the 9th floor and resused on the 8th floor, and so on.

The total amount water used can be reduced and pumping cost can be minimised.

We have multi-level buildings, roads, metros, etc. but all WWTPs are single level, with large tanks at ground level. Multi-level WWTPs with small tanks is easily possible.

@bhaskarmv Are you familiar with some prime examples for such decentralized systems? and more specifically, systems that can produce potable water quality?

@bhaskarmv, in relation to @Eti’s question, I’m also curious about using gravity to purify and move water.

We require support to implement decentralised systems.
At present we just have a demo site and some on project proposals.

When wastewater is fully treated, it can be easily filtered and disinfected to get potable quality water.

I am not suggesting using gravity to purify and move water.
I said that wastewater can be treated outside each toilet, so in highrise buildings, it can be treated on each floor and reused on the floor below. So amount of water that is pumped up can be reduced.

Hi all - great insights from this conversation; I appreciate the engagement. I guess one perspective i would offer, which is more of a comment on challenges than on solutions, is how population shifts towards urban areas adds additional stress to the concepts you all have shared above. How might we help shape migration patterns to support more rural and smaller communities so people don’t feel the need to move to the city for subsistence. Of course, the climate is providing plenty of shaping migration, but wondering if there was a less destructive way that also helps to support local resilience, which in turn could help to keep populations lower in some urban areas.

I do think that a hybrid version of how we live in an urban community is on the horizon…meaning; a central or grid system as we have in the US for power, water, et al has probably run it’s course, but i am not sure we as a society (US) are mature enough to navigate as a collective the use of smaller more localized systems. Ultimately i see a hybrid version of centralized and smaller nodes working together…

Completely agree on you point of view.