“Adequate water and sanitation in cities is essential if cites are to be sustainable and engines of economic growth and social development”
Andre Dzikus is Chief of the Water and Sanitation Section II Water, Sanitation and Infrastructure Branch of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT).
Despite an overall increase in the numbers of people who have gained access to water and sanitation, the numbers of urban dwellers without access to these basic services has been increasing. The lack of these services severely constrains the economic and social potential of cities and basically, cities cannot thrive if these services remain poor or inadequate.
The lack of safe and adequate water supplies forces people, particularly the poor, to spend a large portion of their income on purchasing water. In addition, women and girls spend a lot of time collecting and managing water. This erodes the capacity of poor to participate in economic and other activities including education. The lack of sanitation causes disease and death and huge economic losses- the countries of Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam, for example, together lose approximately 2 per cent of their combined GDP due to poor sanitation.
Cities due to their concentrated populations can become epicenters of disease outbreaks if water supply and sanitation are poor. Cities are the main contributors to national income and improving water and sanitation in cities not only improves their economic performance but contributes also towards the growth of national economies. Investments in water and sanitation improvements in cities can also create decent and green jobs.
In pursuit of sustainable urbanisation, UN-HABITAT therefore gives very high priority to ‘water in the green economy’.
The global water and sanitation deficit is concentrated in Asia despite the fact some countries in this region have been experiencing very high rates of economic growth. There is a need for this growth to be ‘greened’. UN-HABITAT’s water and sanitation programme in Asia – which I am responsible for – has demonstrated a number of options that support ‘greener growth’. These include improved water demand management, reuse of wastewater, creation of decent jobs such as water bottling enterprises for the poor, plumbing and artisan jobs, and community based financing. I believe that there is a need for scaling up and replicating these approaches and attaining a level of standardisation in the various innovations that have been tried out.
Why are ‘cities’ an important issue when talking about the green economy? And how can cities contribute to realising a green economy?
Cities, which are now home to half of the world’s population, currently generate more than 80% of the Global GDP – a proportion that will only grow. Thus clearly any effort towards greening the global economy must give prime consideration to cities. Cities are also where close interactions between individuals learning centres and business entities take place – interactions that lead to innovations and efficiencies that are necessary for green growth.
Urban areas also account for 60-80% of energy consumption and 75% of carbon emissions. Rapid urbanisation exerts huge pressure on freshwater supplies and the environment in general. To realise the green economy, the nature of urban development has to be transformed and planned densification, which facilitates more optimal use of resources and results in a smaller carbon foot print should replace the tendency towards urban sprawl. Consumption patterns and the production of waste have a major influence on ‘green performance’. There is a need to promote more sustainable patterns of production and consumption. Education can play a vital role in this regard. Building standards and codes which promote conservation of all resources including water and energy should be adopted to reduce the carbon foot-print of cities.
Which change is essential to bring about in cities (e.g. in urban water management) in order to achieve a truly green economy?
(i) Improved urban water management, comprising reduced losses and demand combined with adequate and affordable access for all to reliable and safe water supplies;
(ii) Universal access to adequate sanitation;
(iii) Reduced consumption, Waste Prevention, Reduction, Reuse, Recycling, Resource Recovery and safe disposal of all urban waste ( The three Rs);
(iv) Increased densification; avoidance of sprawl and better management of mobility;
(v) More resource efficient design of buildings – minimising the use of all resources including water and energy.
What are the most persistent barriers or challenges in cities that inhibit this process of change towards a green economy?
(i) The lack of incentives or in-appropriate incentives. For example, water tariffs are often not cost-reflective and often due to ‘free water’ policies, cities can’t sustain water supply operations forcing the poor (the intended beneficiaries) to purchase water at much higher costs. Perverse incentives and corruption also play a major role.
(ii) The lack of capacities. City officials and service providers often lack the knowledge and skills related to new urban planning and urban water and sanitation management.
(iii) Lack of investments. Large investments are required for replacing or rehabilitating aging assets or for new assets such as basic water supply and sewage infrastructure in cities which lack them. The returns from the green economy are expected to provide a good return on such investments. But there is a need to build wide social and political commitment for the ‘up-front’ investments.
Which tool is most effective to overcome these barriers?
A variety of tools are needed. These are not mutually exclusive. In our experience useful results have been achieved through building capacity for better water and sanitation management and by bringing together local governments and communities in community driven initiatives to improve access to water and sanitation and innovative approaches such as the Human Values Based Approach to Water Sanitation and Hygiene Education, Water Demand Management and Rain Harvesting.
How can we make sure that the transition towards a green economy is ‘inclusive’; contributing to poverty alleviation instead of aggravating inequalities?
Improving access to safe water and adequate sanitation particularly for the urban poor lies at the heart of the effort in addressing such inequalities. It should be recognised that the lack of access to such basic services are amongst the main causes of poverty and social deprivation.
What message would you like to deliver for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012?
The number of urban dwellers without access to water supply and sanitation has increased. Adequate water and sanitation in cities is essential if cites are to be sustainable and engines of economic growth and social development. Investments in water and sanitation leads to green growth and can contribute towards addressing global economic and environmental challenges. The international community must make a greater commitment in terms of actual resources towards ensuring universal access to water and sanitation specifically in urban areas.