Global South water-sensitive cities: Here is how to make our urban areas water secure in a just and inclusive way

 Neo-liberal capital and builder-led urban development are splitting our cities into unequal parts

By Depinder Kapur
Published: Thursday 23 February 2023
Close to 50 per cent and sometimes more of the population lives in congested unplanned settlements. Representative photo: iStock.
Close to 50 per cent and sometimes more of the population lives in congested unplanned settlements. Representative photo: iStock.

 Close to 50 per cent and sometimes more of the population lives in congested unplanned settlements. Representative photo: iStock.

This is the second of a two-part series 

There is an urgent need to address the emerging crisis of urban water supply, wastewater and stormwater management — from an inclusion, rights and justice perspective.

Recognising inequity in urban settlements and identifying priority actions are needed to address gaps in water supply, wastewater and drainage for unserved areas and populations of a city or rural area.

Also read: Global South water-sensitive cities: Framing the discourse

Investments in these areas are a requirement for any meaningful framing of urban water management, discourse and frameworks.

Unfortunately, a normative techno-managerial discourse dominates mainstream thinking about urban water, wastewater and drainage challenges and their application in developing southern countries. They are often borrowed from research and discourse from Europe and Australia.

While there is nothing wrong with a normative approach for addressing urban water and wastewater challenges — the interventions have to be contextualised to cities of the global south.

If this is not done, not only are the outcomes likely to fall short of expectations but there is also a risk that the interventions may inflict more damage than good.

The ‘water-sensitive cities’ discourse and frameworks emerging from global north countries (Europe and Australia) have their foundations in cities with planned urban development with a statutory legal entitlement to housing and basic infrastructure (including water, wastewater and drainage management) for all residents of their cities.

Here, the core aims of urban planning have been substantially achieved and access to water and sanitation is realised as a de facto human right of all residents.

Also read: India is not producing enough town planners to make our cities more livable

A water-sensitive city, in the developed country context, aims to achieve second-generation outcomes — higher standards and more effective water conservation and wastewater management standards.

These outcomes include nutrient removal, carbon sequestration, energy extraction, methane reduction and adaptation to water stress and/or urban flooding accruing from climate change impact.

The planned environment with functional grey infrastructure is at the core of a water-sensitive city. Does this condition exist in the cities of the global south?

Water-sensitive cities

A water-sensitive cities framework for the global south should aim to achieve outcomes and impacts relevant to the context. Cities in India and the global south are marked by rising inequity in urban settlement/housing, translating into inequity in access to basic infrastructure and services (including water supply and sanitation, drainage and wastewater management).

In many instances, close to 50 per cent and sometimes more of the population lives in congested unplanned settlements(unauthorised or authorised but congested living areas, slums and other informal habitations).

A builder and real estate development-based urbanisation thrust is creating a crisis in providing basic infrastructure and has negative social impacts.

Our cities have been living beyond the availability and supply of water from rivers and groundwater. Built-up areas in cities have been flouting urban planning norms.

Heavy infrastructure development in cities, including underground parking and metros, also destroys aquifers and the water recharge potential of groundwater.

Also read: How our detergent footprint is polluting aquatic ecosystems

Small and medium-sized cities lack sanitation and drainage infrastructure. Combined sewers that also drain stormwater overflow in monsoons.

There is hardly any city with a 24x7 water supply. No Indian city has 100 per cent sewage or septage treatment. The functionality of existing sanitation infrastructure (sewered and/or non-sewered systems) remains challenging for India and the global south.

For various reasons, essentially centring on the political economy of our water and wastewater management, water is a contested domain.

We have a range of water conflicts, including inter-city, intra-city, rural-urban and agriculture-industry-domestic water priorities. As a long-term goal, reducing the city’s water and wastewater footprint can reduce water conflicts.

Water conservation, groundwater recharge and decentralised non-sewered septage treatment systems need to be prioritised in planned settlements in a city with more open common facilities like parks, institutional buildings, footpaths and wider roads. And the benefits need to be shared with the less privileged.

Our large and growing cities now constitute a large watershed/catchment, generating its own runoff and increasing the risk of urban flooding during climate events of high-intensity rainfall spells (where existing stormwater drains are not designed to capture the increased runoff).

This was witnessed in Bengaluru and Lucknow in 2022 and in Chennai and several other cities in the last decade. We need groundwater recharge, more grey infrastructure and enhanced drainage norms to address urban flooding.

Global south water-sensitive cities framework envisages cities commit to a “Just and Equitable Access, Use, Re use” of water supply to sewerage/septage and stormwater management.

The framework recognises inequity in urban settlements as the basis of planning and designing interventions for water-sensitive cities. There is no ‘leapfrogging’ possible without addressing infrastructure deficiencies, especially for the less privileged residents of our cities.

Climate change impacts everyone, yet the less privileged may get affected more severely. Hence, we need to strengthen urban planning and not look for only design interventions, placemaking and beautification as outcomes of water-sensitive cities. CSE is developing this framework to serve as a guide for policy and programming guidance.

Design thinking & urban planning

‘Design thinking’ assumes that cities need more green-blue infrastructure and not grey infrastructure, coupled with smart urban design elements — that will leapfrog our cities to a higher stage of water and wastewater management, making our cities more liveable.

Cities of developed countries can accommodate incremental improvements in urban design to cater to higher water conservation and recharge, wastewater and stormwater management as part of their well-planned urbanisation.

This option of incremental recharge as well as improved drainage is, at best, limited for cities of the global south because of the large informal dense urban settlements.

Unless we substantially open up the already dense informal settlements and conform to a basic level of urban planning norms to ensure service outreach for all.

Urban planning for cities of the global south provides a legislative entitlement to basic services. It is being dismantled under the logic that urban planning is outdated and you cannot have a twenty-year plan for a city.

The fact is that a neo-liberal capital and builder-led urban development wants free reign and is splitting our cities into unequal parts. One is gated cities with unlimited amenities of leisure and water use; here, no restrictions are in place on how many properties an individual can own.

And the other part includes informal settlements and slums. The approach of Water Sensitive Urban Design and Planning(WSUDP), therefore, needs to reflect the primacy of Urban Planning for global south cities.

The global south water-sensitive cities framework places the dense urbanisation context of our cities, the inequity in access to basic infrastructure and the impact of climate change resulting in consecutive linear events of water stress and urban flooding unique to our climate. The framework prioritises what should be done to make our cities water secure in a just and inclusive way.

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