Over the next ten years our waterways and other water sources will continue to suffer from over-extraction. This will continue to compromise the quality of the environment and the organisms it supports. In particular mining and other activities will continue to move into our water supply catchments affecting water quality and altering inflows. This will mean that we may be obliged to move water long distances in times of drought to services existing cities. In turn this could lead to increased GHG emissions at the very time when we are trying to reduce these.

We need to change this trajectory.   In doing so it is important that we reconnect ourselves with water in its pure elemental form. We should all be able to enjoy access to clean water, not just for drinking, but also for recreation and connection to nature. Putting water at the centre of the urban design process and re designing our cities and towns to respond positively to water is fundamental to ensuring a better understanding of the water cycle.  We need to develop better Green infrastructures – the networks of green and blue spaces such as parks, agriculture, woods, rivers and ponds in and around cities systems – that replicate nature and enable communities to connect with water.  The benefits include the reduction of flood risk, improved health and well being as well as providing a habitat for wildlife. Extensive green networks can be formed over time to create encompassing city ecosystems that can support the sustainable movement of people, rebuild biodiversity and provide substantial climate change adaption and resilience.

The focus should extend to solutions that do more with less: irrigation efficiency, automated farming techniques and demand management in our cities.  Smart infrastructure will help responding intelligently to changes in its environment to improve performance. Smart water networks could save the industry USD12.5bn a year.  In Israel, data analytic company TaKaDu takes information supplied by sensors and meters dotted around a water company’s supply network to build a sophisticated picture of how the network is performing.  It can spot anomalies in its behaviour from a small leak to a burst water main.

We should also start to re-think our traditional approach to drainage.  Working with natural site conditions for example, water, wastewater and storm water could be combined into one cycle. The AJ Lewis Centre for Environmental Studies ecologically treats and recycles wastewater within its buildings, integrating processes of wetland ecosystems with conventional procedures and in so doing recycling wastewater into reusable grey water.  While conventionally supplied water is used for drinking and hand washing, the recycled non-potable water is used in the Centre’s toilets and for landscape irrigation and recharging the wetland pond. Others should and are following suit.

A multitude of new tools are available to help us.  Alongside smart technology there are new biodegradable materials made from natural fibres that can provide greater resilience at less energy and lower cost. Beyond this, innovations will transform wastewater into a resource for energy generation and humidity into a source of drinking water.  We can see the beginnings of this already; consider, for example, the Israeli company, Water Gen, which has developed a device for extracting drinking water from air. Other advances including fog catchers, thick mesh nets that collect the water contained in fog, will soon be more widely adopted.[1]

We need increased investment in basic water and sanitation services both in new and the renewal of existing services.  Water treatment can come at a high price. The OECD has estimated that around USD50 trillion would be needed worldwide in the period to 2030 to satisfy the global demand for infrastructure[2]. However, accessing funding is an ever-present challenge.  In the US alone, if current trends continue, the investment needed by 2040 will amount to USD195bn and the funding gap will be USD144bn[3].  While most infrastructure investments are local, the sources of finance are increasingly global.

Beyond everything we must improve public understanding about the value of water and the services it provides. Globally public opinion still varies on the issue of climate change.  Better engagement with customers including education and information will have a large effect on calls to action around water. Education is fundamental to help the public to accept the need to reduce overall water use and to increase the use of wastewater for potable purposes. In particular city dwellers must learn to conserve more or utilize different sources of water such as storm water to provide for their needs, allowing potable water to be freed up to feed a growing population. Small adaptions by multiple individuals will make a difference.

[1] National Geographic. Fog Catchers Bring Water to Parched Villages. 2009; Available from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/07/090709-fog-catchers-peru-water-missions.html
[2] OECD. Infrastructure to 2030: Telecom, Land Transport, Water and Electricity. 2006; Available from: http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-AssetManagement/oecd/economics/infrastructure-to-2030_9789264023994-en#page4
[3] American Society of Civil Engineers. Failure to act: the economic impact of current investment trends in water and wastewater treatment infrastructure. 2011; Available from: http://www.asce.org/uploadedfiles/infrastructure/failure_to_act/asce%20water%20report%20final.pdf