World Built Environment Forum
22 March 2021
World Water Day raises awareness of issues including water access rights, drought and flooding. Here, we look back at some of our best writing on these topics.
Cities are thirsty places, and naturally become thirstier as their populations grow. They also wield an immense and growing political influence with which rural areas can rarely compete. Accordingly, water reallocation schemes often prioritise the needs of the city over those of the countryside. Moreover, the natural capacity of the land to accommodate rainfall is significantly lessened in heavily built upon areas. This increases urban vulnerability to flooding events. As far back as the third millennium BCE, the earth’s waterways provided the means by which otherwise disparate peoples could exchange materials and ideas. One upshot of this has been the gradual creep of cities onto flood plains. But the development of land and air transport has served to dampen the situational advantages of proximity to water; the jeopardy, meanwhile, remains. When it comes to water, cities face an unenviable triple bind.
"We work on four tracks. The first is public space – we still have work to do on public spaces. The second is the ‘new city’ – every new building in Rotterdam needs to store water and cool the surrounding area. The third is existing buildings – we want to transform them into climate adapted buildings. And the fourth track is ‘Rotterdammers’ – which is about working together with the citizens and entrepreneurs of Rotterdam to make the city climate proof.”
Rotterdam leads the world in water resilience. Local initiatives have served not only to make the city safer, but also more appealing to residents and visitors. As a result, it is a healthier, happier and more liveable place.
In his memoir, Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, recalled: "A few days after independence, the Prime Minister of Malaysia told the British High Commissioner: 'If Singapore doesn't do what I want, I'll turn off the water supply.'" The threat was credible enough to accelerate the formation of the Singaporean Army, but it was also a catalyst in the development of Singapore's "exemplary" approach to water resilience.
"It's an island state with a large population and high water usage, but they're extremely resilient to water loss,” says Olu EriOlu, Strategic Risk and Resilience Lead at Arcadis. “They capture all their wastewater in large diameter sewers, take it to reclamation plants and turn it back into new water – reclaimed water. They also have run-off capacity that captures storm waters in basins that they can then treat for use. They recognise that they have a problem and they've done something about it. Embedding water resilience has been a lifesaving pursuit."
Back in August, South Asia’s COVID-19 response was complicated by the arrival of monsoon season. Though an annual event, the intensity of the weather patterns is increasing, seemingly year-on-year. The Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, emanating from the headwaters of the Tibetan Plateau, support an estimated 700 million people in the region. But a recent study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Research suggests that climate change is stressing these great civilisational waterways. As rivers cross boundaries, the risks from upstream events are magnified downstream, exposing multiple nations to increased flood and disaster risks. Numerous river and water cooperation agreements exist between countries in the region, but the scale and magnitude of these transboundary floods has rendered them largely useless.
The old assumption that stronger, higher walls can hold back the waves is being challenged by marine geologists. They argue that building "hard" defences and removing natural barriers only causes worse flooding and an endless cycle of expensive repair and reconstruction. The price paid for trying to hold the sea back with steel and concrete is seen all along American, European and Asian coastlines. In Japan, nearly 40% of the coast is now lined with massive concrete walls to guard against tsunamis. Meanwhile, in the US, 14% of the entire coastline has been fortified with concrete.