Prevention better than cure for water utilities adapting to climate change

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ImageThe literature on climate change and water is dominated by precipitation, glacier melt and groundwater. Because urban water is responsible for such a small share of overall water use worldwide, we often think that urban water services won't be affected. Yet the floods, droughts, and extreme rainfall expected as a result of the world’s changing climate will threaten the quality and availability of water resources, and damage water infrastructure, including storm water and wastewater facilities. These events may also affect the population and settlement patterns of cities and thus the basic layout of the water systems that serve the communities.

 Most water utilities are unprepared for the effects of climate change─especially in developing countries. Climate change is too far away and too abstract given today's real and pressing problems. Yet, as my grandmother always said, “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”.

Even utilities in poor countries can take action to prepare for the effects of climate change and that action can be profitable in the short term. For example, in November 2007, Manila’s water utility (Manila Water) launched a climate change policy that places a strong emphasis on mitigation of climate change. The policy highlights commitments that the company will undertake, like developing and implementing a carbon management plan and improving in energy consumption and utilization of renewable energy. Manila Water is also looking at ways to integrate climate change in medium- and long-term operations, such as through recycling water. Manila Water signed an agreement in 2007 to provide recycled water to the technological park in Quezon City, marking the first ever wastewater effluent reuse in metro Manila. The city is also installing combined sewer-drainage systems, groundwater protection, finding new water resources, and protection of watersheds. In response to water depletion caused by excessive use of groundwater, Manila Water has fast tracked and successfully completed numerous service improvement projects to supply surface water to the rest of its service area. The company’s service expansion plans include elimination of all deep wells, providing the entire service area with 100 percent renewable surface water supply.


In the World Bank, the Water Anchor and the Water and Sanitation Program have just released a new working paper, which is the first we know of that collects examples of what water utilities in developing countries are actually doing now to prepare for climate change. The paper, Climate Change and Urban Water Utilities: Challenges & Opportunities serves as a starting point for utility managers and city government officials to develop plans that help water utilities to prepare for climate change. It shows how utilities can move towards a more strategic approach than at present, taking account of the technical, financial and institutional complexities inherent in climate change adaptation. It also offers guidance to utilities on considerations in preparing climate adaptation action plans, including monitoring systems and cost estimates of adaptation measures, essential to gain access to sources of finance. The paper cites examples of climate change mitigation actions by city utilities in Dhaka, Istanbul, Lima, Melbourne, Nairobi, New York, Rawalpindi, Singapore, Seville, Seattle, Tianjin, Windhoek.


For a copy of the full report, please visit:

For more information on the World Bank’s work in the water sector, please visit

For more information on the Water and Sanitation Program, please visit


Julia Bucknall

Director for Environment and Natural Resources

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