Published on The Water Blog

Las Vegas, Marrakech, Malta, Casablanca – managing dwindling resources in water scarce cities

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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.

WSC is based on the belief that building communication and connections between fast-growing urban centers impacted by water scarcity is a promising way to facilitate constructive international cooperation, push the envelope on technological innovation, and integrate lessons learned into new policymaking and practice. By bringing together actual practitioners on the front lines of water scarcity, WSC is a valuable endeavor that is leveraging water scarcity solutions through events such as the Regional Water Scarce Cities Workshop in Casablanca.

Malta Desalinates to Meet Demand and Encourages Youth Engagement

“What is interesting [from the Water Scarce Cities Workshop] is the identification of common challenges, which is not a surprise because we are dealing with the wider Mediterranean region where the challenge of water scarcity is there for each and everybody. It is interesting to know how different countries have adopted different approaches, sometimes in isolation, but actually broadly these approaches coincide...The [Water Scarce Cities] workshop is very helpful in terms of increased sharing of information for both successes and failures and it helps provide a broader outlook to water managers in different countries when developing their own approaches.”

- Mr. Manuel Sapiano, The Energy and Water Agency, Chief Technical Officer, Malta

The Mediterranean island of Malta, like most semi-arid countries in the region, is characterized by low rainfall and the country lacks perennial surface water bodies. Situated between Africa and Europe, tourism multiples the island’s population by 6 during the summer - when water is least available. After relying on groundwater and rainwater harvesting throughout its long history, the water system reached its limits in the 1970s, leading to water rationing and intermittent supply up until the early 1990s.

Malta pulled back from the brink. The Malta Water Services Corporation was put in charge of managing both water demand and water resources, with a view on reducing the pressure on its aquifers and preserving this strategic resource. Being surrounded by the sea, the country naturally began by scaling up its desalination capacity, and combined this activity with an intensive leakage reduction program to reduce losses of increasingly expensive drops of water. Today, the Malta Water Services Corporation is looking at new options, such as wastewater reuse, potentially both for agriculture and aquifer recharge, as well as rainwater harvesting.
During the workshop, Malta emphasized the importance of closer cooperation between stakeholders involved in the water cycle. In addition, Maltese representatives stressed that youth engagement is particularly critical to ensuring acceptance of water scarcity planning  and adoption of solutions by the general population. These messages of water resilience resonated with the audience of a dozen utility managers from all over Morocco, as well as representatives from Mauritania and Algeria, but none more so than a Las Vegas water utility manager.

Las Vegas Shows the Importance of Changing Mindsets

“The World Bank Group’s Regional Water Scarce Cities Workshop was an extraordinary opportunity to gain perspective on the challenges we face in Las Vegas, which is situated in North America’s driest desert,” said Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger. “Our agency has enacted a multitude of highly successful measures to effectively manage our water consumption, but speaking with my counterparts from places like North Africa, Cyprus and Spain lends new context to our efforts. There may be differences in terms of specific resource constraints or water security implementation strategies, but it quickly confirmed for me that we all share a common fundamental goal—to provide a safe, reliable water supply for the people of our respective communities. I was gratified to be able to participate and appreciated the workshop’s format, which encouraged the open exchange of insights.”

- Mr. John Entsminger, Southern Nevada Water Authority, General Manager, Las Vegas, Nevada, US

In 1905, Las Vegas began to emerge as a rest stop and railroad town between California and Salt Lake City. Although situated on the floor of the Mojave Desert with a meager average of 100 mm annual precipitation, Las Vegas saw its population and tourism-based economy mushroom into the mélange of hotels, casinos, and golf resorts that it is today. Like Marrakech in 2006, that growth was put to the test in the 1980s, when Las Vegas began to stretch its small Colorado River allocation and groundwater reserves. Were it not for a drastic change in water management approach, Las Vegas would have simply run out of water in 1992.  
Fast forward to present day: Southern Nevada water managers face water scarcity with a sheer force of will , looking to maximize every available water drop both within and outside the state. Illustrative of this effort is the fact that 70% of Nevada’s economy currently uses only 5% of its water . Combining forces under the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), they demonstrated that a mix of supply- and demand-side solutions might lead to sustainable water security. SNWA promoted aggressive water conservation practices, targeting turf irrigation and golf resorts, and including large-scale converting to drought tolerant landscaping. In addition, they creatively looked to water banking and water trading – within the framework of the Colorado River Compact – to increase available resources through measures such as channeling the water back through the Colorado River through natural streams.
Las Vegas’ water efforts have paid in spades, but importantly, the city of lights has fully embraced a new mindset of making every drop count  in such a water scarce environment. Both Malta and Las Vegas have demonstrated that resilience is achieved by diversifying resources through measures such as rainwater harvesting, seawater desalination, wastewater reuse, aquifer management, cross-sectoral water trading, leakage reduction, and conservation.
None of this is revolutionary, nor is it technically challenging. But for most water scarce cities in developing countries, seemingly intractable political, institutional, and fiscal barriers may stand firmly in the way of water security. Malta and Las Vegas, as well as Barcelona and many other global urban centers, offer valuable first-hand experience in overcoming these challenges, implementing context-appropriate solutions, and developing the technical and institutional capacity to achieve water security.
Through events such as the Regional Water Scarce Cities Workshop in Casablanca, Morocco, WSC aims to shift the mindsets of water managers and demystify available water scarcity solutions , while also offering true and tested pathways to water security. To continue this momentum, WSC is hosting a workshop in Beirut from July 10-11 for Eastern Mediterranean and Gulf countries, as well as a study tour in Malta in the fall.
We hope to mobilize a growing network to work together to inspire cities and utilities to innovate and take measures to manage their water resources more effectively. Together, global water scarce cities can help ensure that water supports, rather than blocks, inclusive economic growth, environmental progress, and societal well-being.
To learn more about how the innovative management of water scarcity in places like Malta can serve WB client countries, read more about WSC in the case of Marrakesh, Orange County, and about the overall Water Scarce Cities Initiative.


Richard Abdulnour

Water and Sanitation Specialist

Lauren Nicole Core

Special Projects, Water Global Practice, The World Bank

Stephane Dahan

Senior Water and Sanitation Specialist, Water Global Practice, The World Bank

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