Despite the best intentions, talk from the top hasn’t sufficiently trickled down to widespread actions. A water initiative is trying to help change that.
Attend any United Nations conference tackling climate or sustainable development and it’s in the air: a palpable sense of urgency. In July 2023, at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, the UN Headquarters in New York was abuzz with delegates eager to accelerate progress on the lagging Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
But their ambitious statements and frameworks to address what needs to be done are still largely disconnected from what individual nations can do to put it all into action in the mainstream.
The UN knows that climate change is “one of the greatest challenges of our time”. Following the 2023 SDG Summit, the General Assembly affirmed that “mitigation of and adaptation to climate change represent an immediate and urgent priority”. But, as we pass the midpoint of ‘Agenda 2030‘, a global initiative for peace and prosperity, the reality is sobering. All nations are falling short of their SDG targets. Progress on most SDGs are either moving too slowly or are regressing below the baseline set in 2015. There is only seven years left to deliver transformational change.
The water sector has an important leadership role to play in climate adaptation efforts. Water is essential to life. The effects of climate change often manifest through water-related extreme events, like floods and droughts.
Instead of tackling water challenges in isolation, it would help to embrace the complexity. Many past efforts to address issues such as water security have time and time again yielded unintended consequences and suboptimal solutions. The operating rules around projects like dams can drastically change downstream waterways, wetlands and floodplains.
Water-sensitive cities like Kunshan in China and Singapore integrate water supply, sanitation, flood protection and environmental protection through urban design. This creates a roadmap to transform cities and towns and strengthen their climate resilience.
To put into action climate initiatives that resonate at a range of scales, cities have to be reimagined. Land has to be used better, investments have to be made in infrastructure with diverse water sources, using recycled water, stormwater and rainwater. Reimagining cities means managing them as water supply catchments.
One of the biggest gaps to close is between the high-level statements at forums like the UN and actual execution of those ideas in cities, towns and rural areas.
Cities are complex systems and magnify many of the key challenges captured in the 17 SDGs.
They are also constantly transforming through urban renewal and new greenfield development. Investment in city-shaping infrastructure provides the chance to meet the challenges of climate change and the aspirations of Agenda 2030.
Yet governments continue to plan cities and infrastructure with fragmented operation and governance, perpetuated by outdated institutional structures and practices. Sometimes, water management is spread across many government departments of agencies, splitting responsibility and adding bureaucratic red tape.
Cities could be designed or retrofitted to provide ecosystem services, like water treatment, biodiversity, habitat and urban heat mitigation for the built and adjoining natural environments. Cities do this by integrating urban landscape design with sustainable urban water management, like using parks and gardens as sites for floodwater storage to mitigate the flood risk of the surrounding urban environment.
To foster sustainability and resilience in cities, governments can create enabling policies, build professional capacity and nurture community awareness and empowerment to support innovation.
Poor and vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected by climate change, especially those in informal settlements. Addressing their plight is not easy or built into existing development action.
A key value of Agenda 2030 is to ensure no one is left behind, but the concerted focus on accelerating progress on the SDGs risks widening an already-large inequality gap.
One could argue conventional approaches in the past have explicitly excluded informal settlements, such as slums, from the beneficial health and environmental outcomes of mainstream urbanisation, due to the challenges and cost of rolling out infrastructure.
Field-based research program RISE (Revitalising Informal Settlements and their Environment) is an effort to address this. RISE is developing a viable and cost-effective way to use decentralised sanitation. The program seeks to improve living conditions in urban informal settlements, situations where traditional approaches haven’t worked.
RISE’s water-sensitive approach combines engineering with nature-based technology to provide tailored solutions to water management.
Some initiatives address issues at its source: safely managing sanitation — such as preserving water spaces for bathing or recreation — and improving drainage to protect low-lying settlements from flood risks.
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Other initiatives help diversify water sources: many developed economies are harnessing more water sources like rainwater, stormwater and recycled water to build greater supply resilience.
Changing behaviours through education and awareness can help strengthen water-sensitive cities. Poor hygiene can be a key transmission pathway for disease. Good hygiene practices to reduce exposure include handwashing with soap, safe water storage, good food handling practices and solid waste management.
RISE’s initiatives yield return on investment in ways that go beyond the traditional metrics used to measure water and sewerage, flood mitigation and drainage. Instead, it reaches wider — climate mitigation, climate adaptation and community livability — to take an interconnected approach to a multi-faceted environmental challenge.
Tony Wong is Professor of Sustainable Development at Monash University, Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (FTSE) and 2018 IWA Global Water laureate. He will be attending COP28, serving as Australia Water Envoy, connecting climate and water actions.
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