Asian, African cities rank low on water sustainability

Poor quality of water and inability to withstand natural disasters are affecting sustainability index of cities

By Srilakshmi Nambiar
Published: Tuesday 21 June 2016
Ensuring clean and sustained water supply is a major challenge for some cities Credit: Joe Jungmann / Flicker
Ensuring clean and sustained water supply is a major challenge for some cities Credit: Joe Jungmann / Flicker Ensuring clean and sustained water supply is a major challenge for some cities Credit: Joe Jungmann / Flicker

Water remains a critical strategic issue today and leaders are prioritising to provide their citizens access to clean water, disposal of wastewater as well as protecting them from natural disasters and extreme weather conditions. Cities are overburdened (with water) or stressed (without water). The global community has recognised this and included it in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals with an objective of making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

European nations score higher than the rest

Arcadis, a US-based environmental consulting firm, released 2016 Arcadis Sustainable Cities Water Index in collaboration with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR). It assesses water index in 50 cities across the globe and ranks them across issues impacting resiliency of the water system, efficiency of water use and the quality of water use. These three elements were used as the base of the index calculation.

The report finds that European cities lead the way on overall sustainability of their water systems and management, holding seven of the top 10 places, with Rotterdam, Copenhagen and Amsterdam featuring in top three. It places Mumbai on the 49th place and New Delhi in the last position out of 50 cities.

Asian and African cities are far from being water-resilient

A water-resilient city is able to withstand natural disasters, unforeseen shortages and vulnerabilities. The Index highlights a significant gap between the top performers and the rest of the world. Floods, sea level rise and coastal erosion risks are growing concerns for many of these cities with lower rank.

Efficiency shows how effectively a city is able to manage its water supply and sources. The third index, quality of water use addresses areas like water quality, sanitation and pollution. The report shows that European cities have high water quality through well-established drinking water supply, sanitation and wastewater treatment systems.

However, cities such as London (21st) and Rome (28th) lag behind in efficiency, hence requiring additional investment.

In North America, Toronto (6th), Washington DC (13th) and New York (14th) perform well. Among the cities in developed countries, the US cities are most susceptible to floods due to natural disasters and extreme weather conditions.

The report indicates a mixed picture for Asian cities when it comes to sustainability. Four cities – Jakarta (47th), Manila (48th), Mumbai (49th) and New Delhi (50th) – find last four positions, while other countries in Asia fare better. New Delhi and Mumbai constantly score in the bottom percentile in the three indices.

African cities, too, rank relatively low on the index. Nairobi ranks 46th and Johannesburg is at 45th position owing to inefficiency and poor water quality. The South American cities of Rio de Janeiro, Santiago and Buenos Aires perform poorly largely due to water quality, lack of improved wastewater treatment and sanitation, the report says.

Water crisis: third highest global risk to economy and environment

John Batten, Global Director of Water and Cities at Arcadis, says, “The World Economic Forum named water crises as one of the top three highest global risks to economies, environments and people in terms of impact in 2016 [after climate change and use of weapons of mass destruction]. Water demand issues and climate change risks are happening right here and right now. The cities that best understand this and act first will be the ones that not only help save the planet from an impending water crisis, but will also be the first to attract investment and improve their competitive position.”

Arcadis explains that for water to be used in a sustainable way, “countries need to focus on opportunities that a healthy natural aquatic and municipal water system offers, and find answers to major challenges. The good news is that there are inspirational efforts currently in place to improve provision of water. Clearly, the appetite is there to make things better; we just need to prioritise greater investment and move faster from the strategising and goal setting into actions that improve the water sustainability”.

The environmental consulting firm explains that the gap between developed and developing nations can be bridged only when we understand that sustainability is not only a matter of water but “also about the social, economic and governmental challenges that interconnect with each other”. To make a city truly sustainable, all these aspects must be taken into account.

According to the authors of the report, the index is not intended to be a ‘report card’ but a tool to help inform future improvement and long-term water sustainability.

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