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Cities are growing at a staggering rate, changing our world beyond recognition. For the first time in history, over half the population -- 55 percent -- lives in urban areas. By 2050, that number will rise to 68 percent. This rapid urban growth has given rise to sprawling megacities, many of which are in Asia and Africa.
Perhaps no place epitomizes this trend better than Shanghai. In 1990, the city was still primarily an industrial hub with a population of 13 million. By 2016, the figure had ballooned to 24 million, making Shanghai one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world and the financial and economic hub of China.
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As the Fourth Arab Water Forum gets underway next week in Cairo, Egypt, much is at stake in the region’s water management. Armed conflict and massive numbers of refugees have put tremendous additional stress on land and water resources in MENA as well as on infrastructure in communities receiving the refugees. In Jordan alone, according to the country’s Ministry of Water and Irrigation, climate change and the refugee crisis have reduced water availability per person to 140 cubic meters, far below the globally recognized threshold of 500 cubic meters for severe water scarcity.
These recent developments compound the impact of decades of rapid population growth, urbanization and agricultural intensification. A recent World Bank report notes that more than 60% of the region’s population is concentrated in places affected by high or very high surface water stress, compared to a global average of about 35%. The report further warns that climate-related water scarcity is expected to cause economic losses estimated at 6-14% of GDP by 2050 – the highest in the world.
As governments search for solutions, two trends in particular could present game-changing opportunities to bolster water security. As captured in two recent reports by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the viability of these solutions will depend on how governments and societies respond to them.
What do casinos in the Las Vegas desert, beachside cultural sites in Malta, and palm groves around centuries-old markets in Marrakech have in common? The answer lies beneath a veneer of seemingly disparate societies and geographies: this improbable urban trio shares the same story of dwindling water resources and associated crisis management. The good news is that these fast growing, tourist-invaded, and arid urban areas are constantly writing new chapters of their water stories. We believe that these chapters, featuring a world of possibilities for innovation and learning, are worth sharing with water scarce cities around the world.
The Water Scarce Cities Initiative (WSC) is a pioneering World Bank global program that connects diverse stakeholders to share their experiences in bolstering integrated approaches for water security and climate resilience. With its sights set on collective progress, WSC partnered with the 5 + 5 group for the Water Strategy in the Western Mediterranean (WSWM) to hold a Regional Water Scarce Cities Workshop in Casablanca, Morocco from May 22-23, 2017. From Cyprus to Barcelona (Spain), the workshop inspired and motivated over 40 diverse participants from the Western Mediterranean region and beyond to explore the connections between their water security and urban resilience experiences.
. Poor source water quality, non-existent or insufficient treatment, and defects in water distribution systems and storage mean these consumers use water that often doesn’t meet the WHO’s Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality.
The crowdsourcing framework develops a strategy to engage citizens in measuring and learning about the quality of their own drinking water. Through their participation, citizens provide utilities and water supply agencies with cost-effective water quality data in near-real time. Following a typical crowdsourcing model: consumers use their mobile phones to report water quality information to a central service. That service receives the information, then repackages and shares it via mobile phone messages, websites, dashboards, and social media. Individual citizens can thus be educated about their water quality, and water management agencies and other stakeholders can use the data to improve water management; it’s a win-win.
California is suffering from its fifth year of drought, the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in India are arguing over the sharing of Cauvery river water, and food security for 36 million people is threatened due to drought in large regions of Africa. On the flip side, Bangladesh, Maldives, and other island nations are confronted with the threat of rising seas, while extreme rainfall and flooding (as experienced by Haiti just a few weeks ago) are expected to become increasingly common. Even without these extremes, almost every country is facing its own challenges in managing water resources.
As Operations Analysts in the World Bank Water Global Practice, and as water management newbies, we were excited to go to the Netherlands and Israel, respectively, to understand how these two countries have overcome their unique obstacles to become prime examples in water engineering. Upon examining the findings alongside senior specialists in the Practice and practitioners from client countries, it is clear that despite each country’s distinct topography, they share a focus on collaboration among stakeholders and an emphasis on efficiency powered by innovative technology.
Just a few months ago, the World Economic Forum’s 10th Global Risk Report ranked water crises as the top global risk in terms of impact, more than the spread of infectious diseases, weapons of mass destruction or interstate conflict. With such global implications, we face a considerable challenge to develop the appropriate response. But we have also long grappled with a simple truth: water management is a complex web of local situations and issues, dictated by hydro-climatic conditions, spatial and demographic patterns, complex political economy dynamics, and technical considerations.
One increasingly pressing issue is the widening gap between the supply of water resources and the demand for water services in rapidly growing urban areas. This is exacerbated by dwindling resources in the face of climate vulnerability, and a legacy of poor governance and wasteful uses. This gap is most extreme in arid areas, which have few contingency options, and are left with few, if any, fallback options in case of further strain on the system.
I met a young rice farmer during my recent trip to Myanmar. He has a tiny plot of land on the outskirts of the irrigation system and could harvest only one rice crop a year. Even if he worked hard, and the weather was at its best, he produced only enough rice to feed his family for 10 months. During the last two months of the rice-growing season, he would walk around his village, a small plastic cup in his hands, and ask neighbors if he could borrow some rice. This would happen year after year.
Unfortunately, this story is not uncommon. A majority of Myanmar’s laborers work in agriculture. A third of them live below the poverty line and depend on rice for survival.