Water is neither inexhaustible nor invulnerable. But the intensity with which it is used today tends to ignore these facts, as we increasingly exploit and pollute this gift of nature that is so essential for life. If we do not want to have to dig for our own water in future, we must think co-operatively, decentralize, and establish autonomous systems for water use at a local level.
There is no other natural resource on which mankind makes such heavy and complex demands as it does on water. Although it is not renewable in part, we neglect it far more than other resources – just remember how oil exploitation was co-ordinated internationally. In contrast with this, we treat water as though it were inexhaustible. Philosophy, science and technology have contributed to this mistaken assessment.
On the whole, people prefer and have always preferred to establish towns near water. It can then be exploited directly, it is a transport medium that promotes trade, and it contributes to the well-being of the inhabitants. Water in a town fulfils cultural, architectural and social functions. The urban hydrologist Murray McPherson was emphatically pushing for planning of the water economy to meet social and ecological requirements as early as 1970.
Water was comprehensively studied and managed even in ancient cites like Miletus. This requires creativity that can combine art and design, social perceptions, insights into handling water and technical innovation. It was probably this universal appeal that inspired so many scholars to occupy themselves with water. Thales of Miletus (624-545 BC) reflected on the water cycle, Plato (427-347 BC) later philosophized about it and Palissy (1510-1590) provided scientific justifications. Annually recurring precipitation or springs and rivers that never dry up give people the feeling that water is limit-lessly available – which is often reflected today in senseless use of water in precisely those cities where there is a drought. In recent times, despite all the insights and knowledge about it, water has become a utility whose origins we do not think about, that we simply use and throw away.
Towns have always been the heaviest water users. If local supplies were not sufficient, water was brought from near and far – according to the technology available. Thus the resource was exploited beyond the extent to which it could be renewed, and the natural water cycle was permanently damaged. The devastating effects of urban growth and user behaviour were simply not seen at first. Increasingly more efficient technologies opened up new supplies like deep groundwater, for example, that could not be regenerated. Large dams on rivers in arid areas, often the life-arteries for many different peoples,
may show the life-giving attributes of water, but they can also be a threat to peace. Low water charges, well below its market value, have also led to errors of judgement about the availability of water. Thus users remain unaware of the price they are really paying for water, and this leads to careless handling of the resource. For example, in an Indian community in which there was a major drought, water was brought in at great expense and distributed free of charge. This meant that users were not able to recognize the true value of water and left the taps running night and day even when no water was being used. This was justified by pointing out that the water did not cost anything.
There has been a failure to take precautions when dealing with water in the past. Problems arising from excessive consumption were often not recognized in time. And then when the problems were recognized they did not all generate appropriate pressure leading to political action, not all the solutions that were determined politically led to decisions that could be implemented, and those decisions did not all lead to concrete measures. Such measures were frequently consequence-driven, local case-by-case decisions that were made in response to damage, but not to causes. Here the ‘enemy approach’ was generally taken: excess or dirty water had to be removed from towns as quickly as possible. Measures were designed to meet a purpose, and not integrated into comprehensive planning appropriate to the complexity of the water cycle. Thus the groundwater level was inevitably lowered in many urban areas, flooding increased, and natural plant and animal habitats were destroyed.
The larger cities become, the more they seem to use water regardless of the consequences. For example, Peking is a city with millions of inhabitants. The groundwater level is going down annually by over 2 metres, but water is used for air conditioning plants, cleaning cars and street cleaning, huge sprinkler systems are installed for green areas and rainwater is removed from the city in large channels. A Mediterranean tourist uses a thousand litres of water a day, even though it is a particular scarce commodity in the region in the summer months. Water is wasted all over the world, in countries with rapidly growing cities that are in the early stages of industrialization, in industrialized countries growing at a moderate rate, in regions that have little water and regions that have a lot of water. At the same time there are already a billion people who do not have adequate supplies of drinking water, two billion people have no sanitary facilities and four billion people produce contaminated water that is not subsequently purified to a sufficient extent. Additionally, thoughtless introduction of harmful chemicals and bacteriologically polluted sewage into the ground and water often makes the water
unusable unless it is expensively purified. Far too little attention is paid to the hidden chemical time bombs that are lying in wait in the ground and in sediments. These harmful materials could be reactivated by changed land use or climatic changes.
Thus present-day development of cities is often at the expense of future generations, and the gravest errors of urban history are repeated: the environment is massively damaged to achieve short-term economic advantage and growth, and the profit drawn from this helps to make good the grossest of the environmental damage. Many developing countries are starting to make the same ecological mistakes as the industrialized countries. Cities often grow in developing countries before a solid economic basis exists, and above all before the necessary infrastructure is in place. There are few cities with the resources and personnel to provide their rapidly growing population with clean water and sanitation. As the majority of people will be living in cities for the first time in a few years time (an estimated 60 % by 2025; the urban population will double between 2000 and 2025 in South America, Africa and South-East Asia), the water problem will become more acute.
Mega-cities like the one in the Pearl River Delta between Hong Kong and Guangzhou or Japan’s Tokaido Corridor between Tokyo, Nagasaki and Asaka are considered to be a rela-tively new phenomenon: a number of individual cities have grown together to form regional urban landscapes. Traditional water supply and disposal techniques no longer work because of their sheer size.
All attempts to secure a social and ecological balance on the basis of traditional environment protection measures only increase the imbalance. This means that even greater problems will have to be faced in the future. Changing patterns of employment and social structure can rapidly lead to the decline of cities, to unemployment with all its social consequences and to an inability to cope with toxic industrial waste that has been improperly disposed of.
Even the responsible politicians are gradually realizing that economic development and the condition of the environment, including water availability, can no longer be treated separately. Irresponsible use of water as a resource limits growth and rapidly destroys what has been created. Thus poverty is at the same time both a principal cause and a principal effect of urban water problems.
As globalization proceeds, even today cities are caught up in world-wide economic competition. If sustainable economic development is to be secured, some rethinking is necessary: water requirements must be made dependent on the water that is available on the spot and in the immediate vicinity – water must not be brought in regardless of the environment
and expense. A distinction has to be made between the elemental basic requirement, an additional social requirement and an economic requirement. We should remember the Roman system of water distribution, as it has survived in NTmes. Here the supplies to public wells, commercial operations, baths and private houses were staggered so that water was obtainable in each case only when supplies were adequate. If water was short, only the basic public requirement was covered.
Water management can only be balanced if social and economic wishes are covered by the quantities of available and renewable water. We have to accept that urban water concepts cannot be based on prefabricated models, whether they are local or imported. Water problems must be solved specifically and within the immediate vicinity for every town, every district and even every neighbourhood. Something that works for a town can be inappropriate in a particular neighbourhood. Realizing this compels us to decentralize responsibility and action. There are many reasons for this. Large supply and disposal systems cost far more than small, autonomous systems. Small units are far less prone to faults. They bring small and middle-sized enterprises together to construct and maintain them, and thus reinforce socio-economic structures. Small, autonomous systems remain able to function because the people running and using them identify with their system and see it as their property. ‘Water neighbourhoods’ are also better able to take responsibility for preventive measures.
Decentralized water management fails only occasionally, but still does fail because of the structure of the water authorities. They are centrally organized and their responsibilities broken down independently: watering green areas, drinking water or sewage, for instance. As no distinction is made between different uses, this means high costs for water of uniform quality. As well as this, central systems are geared to peak requirements, because they have to cover end-user needs directly at every hour of the day and night. This too suggests a concept in which central water supplies meet a basic load and keep neighbourhood reservoirs full all the time, for example. This opens up new possibilities for reducing water losses, as narrower supply pipe widths can be used, meaning that cladding or smaller pipework can be introduced in existing supply systems.
So solving water problems in town requires a dual system. Technically speaking, local resources have to be used. Rainwater management is the key to the future. Water is part of a cycle in which it is used to water green areas and feed ponds that enhance the value of the immediate environment. Local people take the initiative in small-scale water-neighbourhoods. Public water supplies can then be reduced to covering
Think global, act local
a basic load, dependent on local climatic conditions. Economic responsibility is taken for a small area: the water neighbourhoods have to buy water in from central suppliers. In terms of water prices, a clear distinction has to be made between value, costs and tariffs. Here the real cost of supply and disposal has to be met by the user.
This system has a chance of success in the mega-cities because of the living conditions there: people live in a confined local environment, and spend their evenings and weekends in the immediate vicinity. They rely on local shopping facilities and leisure activities. Thus as a rule town-dwellers lead a life that is restricted to the locality, regardless of the size of their town. So the city of the future will have to be a city of neighbourhoods in which life-style and development are determined on a small scale. The central water authorities then follow the wholesale principle and sell to the neighbourhood units, who then manage their water internally.
The question remains of how long it will take to rethink in this way. Hesiod established the basic link between water pollution and the health of townspeople as early as 800 BC. At that time it took about three centuries for the Greek cities to introduce sanitary installation of the kind that already existed in the early cultures of Mesopotamia and on the Indus. We are faced with a learning process that will start in school and continue throughout our lifetimes. Whatever happens, this new way of dealing with water can only come from the inside, from the user.
Solving local problems by taking local measures does not exclude global action, especially as local water problems often have a lot in common. Hydrological and technical principles, the build-up of small water units and strategies for solutions that save expense and resources are transferable. Watersaving technologies can be used everywhere. Constantly rising demand, senseless use and mismanagement can be countered world-wide, by control through price. It is possible to lay down global requirements that all users are considered, river catchment areas are treated as hydrographic and economic units and that integrated overall water planning is set up to do this. The economic value of water is reflected in the price everywhere, and water users are involved in solving their problems, they can help to determine the course of events.
As eco-systems do not respect national boundaries, internationally agreed water management is essential. But within this global network the regulation systems must leave sufficient scope for regional and local implementation. It would be wrong to see globalization as doing everything in the same way. The basic principles must be recognized globally and implemented by regulation – then the appropriate solutions have to be found locally.
Global action should lead to solidarity in dealing with water. Here responsibility still lies with the industrialized countries. They are in a good position economically, and must therefore begin to implement the new thinking, particularly as they have dumped the cost of their growth on to nature and the environment in the past. Here making pretty declarations of intent about water protection is just as inadequate as suggesting to developing countries that they should handle their resources carefully. The development and environmental crises that the industrialized countries went through in the eighties have still not been fully overcome.
Global economic competition between cities must be transformed into global competition for the best ecological conditions, which will make cities economically competitive in the long term again.
It would be good in the year 2030 to be able to look back and say: in the last quarter of the 20th century pilot projects were started that created locally independent water concepts that secured people’s basic water needs and also used local water resources following nature’s model. And they also helped to maintain valuable eco-systems, at the same time offering people an environment that was worth living in, thus becoming a model for all new building and redevelopment models for the first decade of the 21st century. In many places, renewal went hand in hand with a change of thinking that no longer saw water as an everyday item to be used and then thrown away. Everyone recognised the true value of water. Globalization of markets and the media meant that these ideas spread quickly. The water problems that the 20th century had left behind were visibly alleviated.
In the second decade of the 21st century water neighbourhoods emerged in all towns and cities, and they took joint responsibility for designing and maintaining their immediate surroundings. Every household was geared towards economical and careful use of water. Municipal and regional privately funded institutions, linked with river catchment areas, were responsible for supplying the local water neighbourhoods and dealt with surplus water, preparing it for repeated use. A trade network was established between neighbourhoods, towns and the surrounding agricultural areas. Responsibility for water administration was completely separated from the supply and disposal infrastructure, which was geared to economic viability.
In the third decade of the 21st century, which has just ended, trade with water came to be taken for granted, with the price related to the true value of the water. State authorities retained only regulatory and controlling functions, and agreed these internationally and globally. The global network of main suppliers and locally based water neighbourhoods
worked increasingly well. The neighbourhoods met emergencies within a restricted area to as large an extent as possible or increased the amount of water they drew from suppliers outside the region. Local people took full responsibility for their immediate area, and made this more worth-while to live in. New life was breathed into the water-related cultural heritage. Nature started to play a major part in the megacities again as a lung and open space, and as a shell for emotional and physical existence. The dual system had proved its worth and led to sustainable development appropriate to the needs of the present generation and not limiting the possibilities available to future generations.
This state of affairs was achieved as a result of perceptions and farsightedness at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. Thus today the whole world has become an urban network that is capable of acting rapidly on a local basis, and thus of surviving.