How to save water in a city

Today, there are more people on the planet than ever before; most of us, in cities. The result of millions of people living so close together is pressure where we feel it most: our need for water. We can live without jobs, love and vegetables for a while, but we cannot live without water. The reports of cities running out of water worldwide are streaming in. At the same time, some cities are learning to cope.

These cities also suffer from drought, are bursting at the seams and face an uncertain climate in future. However, these cities know how to save water.

The recipe for success is no secret.

I will tell you how they do it.

First, a bit of background to how we got where we are today.

Bigger cities mean thirstier cities

According to statistics, more than half of us (55%) live in cities. By 2050, 68% of us will choose to make our homes in urban areas. Of course, if there weren’t any benefits, we won’t be doing it. People stay in cities for jobs and education. Some people enjoy things like shopping malls and zooming around in public transport. Others just like the vibe.

But masses of people together creates challenges too. People need to eat (one of the best reasons to spend time in cities). And, of course, people need water. Increasingly, the last point is becoming painfully clear. Reports of cities grappling to supply residents with enough water are streaming in from across the globe. Cities that have been listed in media as facing extreme water shortages in future include Tokyo (Japan), São Paulo (Brazil), Bangalore (India), Beijing (China), Cairo (Egypt), Jakarta (Indonesia), Moscow (Russia), Istanbul (Turkey), Mexico City (Mexico), London (United Kingdom), Cape Town (South Africa) and Miami (United States), to name a few.

The accumulation of millions of people is applying pressure where we feel it most: the water.

Many cities really are in awkward positions. Their mere reason for existence (many people living together) is endangering their futures (supplying them with enough important stuff like water). This challenge is even bigger because of climate change. The playing field that cities ‘compete’ in for resources, is more uncertain than ever.

This situation is forcing those in control of supplying city folk with water, to look for it further than ever before. Water is being piped from far away, taken from underground, recycled, or taken from the sea. It’s big business, lots of money is involved, and the stakes are high.

However, finding more water is only part of the solution. The other part is no secret: we have to use the water that we have, better. We have to make every drop count.

The not-so-secret to saving water

Using less water is crucial for any city with running taps during times of scarcity. Cities that have survived near catastrophes due to drought have all done so by using the water that they have, better. This is nothing new. Internationally, dropping the amount of water used is accepted as crucial to helping big cities from running out of water. Nowadays, this practice is seen as central to not only cities that need to survive drought, but to those that need to supply water in general. It should really be central to the plans of all cities.

The technical term for this is Water Demand Management (WDM). Once you know it, you will notice it often when reading about cities and drought. WDM has been key to the survival strategies of many that have recently experienced extreme drought. The examples are many.

Capetonians are champions at it. The folks over at San Francisco have been at it for years, and it made all the difference during the recent extreme drought that hit California. Both cities serve as examples of growing urban areas in dry climates that are grappling with water scarcity, but emerging stronger due to the successful application of WDM. Though I have not dug into the exact mechanics of WDM in São Paulo (yet), it is mentioned in this article about the mind-boggling experience that this city recently went through when they almost ran out of water.

If done correctly, WDM can allow for dramatic drops in water used in cities in short periods of time.

So, what exactly is water demand management?

First, saving water is a team effort. Really, it takes a village (or a city – the entire city). Second, it calls for change. Then, it needs action.

The result is getting more mileage (the most that you can) out of the water that you already have. It is not a quick fix. It is a long-term approach to managing water, and one that needs a combination of all of the groups of people to work together. Systems that transport the water must be fine-tuned. The political groups that get to decide where the water goes must be on the same page. The mechanics of the system must be made super-efficient.

Perhaps most importantly, to save water, a mind shift must take place.

Everybody must understand that when they use water, it has an impact on somebody else. This “somebody” includes residents, farmers and stuff like factories and businesses. Not only does your choice of how you use water have an impact on your neighbours near and far, but it has an impact on the very source of the water. The dams and rivers, and the places where they rest or flow, are all in some way connected to that tap.

You can’t see it, but when you open the tap, you make a change.

A part of WDM is being aware of that.

A more official definition would be that WDM is an integrated approach to water management that aims to conserve water by controlling use, influencing demand and promoting efficient use. The aims are many. One aim is to lose less water. A surprising amount of water gets lost in the system when it travels from the source to your tap. Another aim is to waste less water. A third aim is to protect the source of the water. And then, another is to use water efficiently and effectively once you have it.

Except for the factors already mentioned, the right policies and laws are also necessary for WDM to be successful. You also need money. The leaky pipes need to be fixed, the rest of the water supply system sharpened-up and maintained, new meters might have to be installed, old water-guzzling washing machines replaced, people need to be educated on how to do it all, and so forth.

Then, we will all have to face that water is not free. Today, water has economic value. However, at the same time and as a very baseline, the human right for access to water for everyone, in particular the poor, must be secured.

How exactly do you save water in a city?

WDM is usually split into two areas: Tweaking the water distribution system and influencing people’s demand for water.

The most common actions to tweak the distribution system include:

  • Reduce the leaks in the water distribution system: Leaks have to be found and fixed, pressure in this system can be lowered to decrease the amount of water flowing out of taps, meters can be installed to curb or cut water and illegal connections stopped.
  • Fix plumbing leaks in households
  • Use less water in the garden

To decrease the amount of water people want or use:

  • Educate and communicate!
  • Install good plumbing fittings and apply good reticulations design
  • Install prepaid meters
  • The billing system must be working well
  • Make regulations and by-laws that matter
  • Give developers incentive to build more water friendly buildings
  • Keep the system operational and maintained

More often, this also includes creating awareness that industries can use treated effluent instead of drinkable water for some tasks. Rainwater can also be stored to be used and together with greywater, can be used on your property.

These are not complicated or difficult things to do. However, it also does not happen by accident, or by itself. WDM is part of a conscious decision to start using water more wisely.

Of course, you cannot just take control of you cities’ billing system, or necessarily put a law into place. But, there are countless measures that you can take to meet your part of the deal.

This blog is a platform for working together to save water.

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