How did cities develop?

How did cities develop, and what went wrong?

A trickling stream runs invitingly over a smooth, brown pebble bed, calling thirsty passers-by in its wake. But to those that can still hear it, the sound is a cruel reminder of better times gone by. It’s been a long time since the water was clean enough to drink.

Not far away, there is a tap, connected to a row of houses by a queue of restless people. In earshot of the stream trickling away, they are waiting for water.

Like a fairy tale with an unhappy ending, water scarcity has been tailing too many of our stories of development. More often, these tales are coming from our cities. Why is this? How did cities develop to get us here?

Many factors are contributing, but the problem is aggravated by the ways that our homes developed, and our cities were designed. Unbeknownst to us, we set ourselves up for disaster.

How we built our cities

Traditionally, engineers are given the job of managing water in cities. First, they have to ensure that people have enough water to use every day, for everyday stuff. So, they build pipes to get water to people through taps.

Then, to keep the places where people live clean and hygienic, they build systems that flush our dirty water away again. That’s why we have sewage systems, for example. In cities, water can also be dangerous. Engineers also take care of that. That’s why rain is channeled down drains instead of letting it cascade down streets, sidewalks and pavement. In this way, the rain doesn’t form floods.

To do this, water has to be located, treated, transported, distributed, collected, treated again and disposed of. Water is often pumped to cities from far away, traveling through intricate treatment plants and long pipelines. Once in the city, the dirty water, and the dangerous water (stormwater) are swiftly guided out again, often back to systems like rivers and wetlands.

How did city stormwater systems develop?
Under there, is where the water goes.

Most people that live in cities don’t even realise that the water they use has made such an elaborate journey to get to them, and to get away from them again. In fact, the engineers that make this happen are so good, that people just assume there will be water when the tap is opened. Of course, we also assume the dirty water will disappear down the drain once we pull the plug, or into the sewage system when we flush the toilet. Where water comes from, or goes, are questions rarely asked.

These assumptions are common in places all over the world. In fact, the act of providing water has many similarities, irrespective of where you are.

Different places, same systems

The establishments responsible for delivering water, are also quite similar across the planet. Often, governments own them. Most of them depend on big pieces of infrastructure, located at a central place.

The supply of water, sewage and stormwater are generally managed independently from each other. These sources of water also often run through separate pipes and treatment plants.

Decisions on how the water should be supplied to a community are made by these management authorities. The people that received the water don’t often have a say in this. Because of this, and because people are mostly unaware of the complexities involved in getting their water to their taps, they often think of water as something that is available in endless supply.

Save water on the road
Do you know where your tap water comes from or, where it goes?

To build a system like that is truly impressive. The engineering behind water supply is quite astounding. Empires have been built as a result! However, cracks are starting to show in our tried-and-tested beliefs of how to develop cities.

How cities developed away from water

Once, a place could probably get water from local rivers that are easy to access, and refilled by rain that fell in the catchment. However, as cities expand, more water is necessary. In reply, the people that supply water are looking for it further and further away from where the water is needed. Mostly, the water is pumped there. Importing water from outside the city’s catchment area is common nowadays.

The Berg River Dam supplies water to Cape Town
The Berg River Dam now supplies water to Cape Town, located many kilometres away.

The rain that falls on the city, again, is now immediately led underground to stormwater systems, out of the city.

As for those original sources of water – the ones that have throughout history been the reasons for people to settle? It’s not uncommon for these to become the receiving ends of the dirty water that cities have to get rid of.

This setup can lead to various problems. As cities become disconnected from their local watersheds, dwindling water supplies can become a source of competition, both between all the people that need to use it, and the different management authorities involved. This adds more layers of complexity to the provision of a basic need such as water.

Additionally, more and larger infrastructure must be built to transport the water to where people want it. Now, there is added cost. That system must be maintained. Many of you who are reading this would have experienced the impact of crumbling water infrastructure. This results in enormous bills that has to be footed by government, business and household coffers. We have to – we have become dreadfully dependent on these systems for survival.

Unfortunately, the picture is much bleaker than that. Our traditional methods to provide water is rarely sustainable. While we are using more water, we are polluting the very systems that we rely on to provide us with it.

Development of cities has led to rampant water pollution
As development hurtles ahead, pollution of our water has become rampant.

In fact, in some places, we are using water beyond the natural system’s capacity to survive. International reports tell of strategic water sources in many of the world’s major water basins being depleted. Groundwater aquifers are being tapped empty and surface water supplies are running dry.

Yet, the price is not paid equally by everyone. In some countries, the water itself has come to represent social inequality.

Water – the great divider

Poor areas often suffer greater water stress and health risks in comparison to neighbours that are better off. When water shortages hit, this situation is ripe for the birth of perceptions that governments have failed the people, and do not care for their plight. This can lead to deep resentment, tension and mistrust.

Water supply at Langrug
While not having a running tap at home is a crises for some, it’s an everyday reality for many others.

We are already seeing this happen, and the situation is set to become worse in future.

A future certain to bring uncertainty

A number of issues will further widen the proverbial cracks in the legacy of how cities developed. For one, the world’s population is increasing, and the brunt of this will be felt in cities. More than half of us (55%) already choose to live there and by 2050, 68% of us will choose to make our homes in urban areas.

Translated into numbers, the amount of people on the move towards cities are staggering. According to the United Nations’ (UN’s) World Urbanization Prospects Report for 2018, the world’s cities have grown from 751 million people in 1950, to 4.2 billion in 2018. And, 2.5 billion people will be there by 2050. Almost 90% of this growth is taking place in Asia and Africa.

Our cities will develop even more in future.
Our cities are exploding, and more people are moving in each year.

The growth in the amount of people, and their migration to urban areas, are taking place hand in hand with a key problem. We are running out of water that’s easily available and clean enough. The number of urban dwellers living with seasonable water shortages is expected to grow from close to 500 million people in 2000 to 1.9 billion in 2050.

We are thus hurtling towards a future where water security is anything but guaranteed. Yet, there is more. The climate is changing. Forecasts paint a picture of worsening droughts and more severe floods becoming more common, as will extreme temperatures. It’s already happening.

The water crisis isn’t coming; it’s here

International media have listed Tokyo (Japan), Bangalore (India), Beijing (China), Cairo (Egypt), Jakarta (Indonesia), Moscow (Russia), Istanbul (Turkey), Mexico City (Mexico), London (United Kingdom) and Miami (United States) as some of the large cities that will face extreme water shortfalls in future.

In Australia the 2001 to 2009 Millennium drought devastated industries, the environment and communities, striking right in the populous southeast heartland of the country. Big cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide all paid the price.

In 2015, São Paulo had less than 20 days of water left. One of the 10 largest metropolitan areas on the planet, almost 22 million people could have been left without water.

Cape Town made international headlines in 2018. Why? Officials announced that they were running out of water. The crisis was fueled by an unprecedented three-year drought. The next year, cyclone Idai unleashed hurricane-force winds and heavy rains. Much of the centre of Mozambique flooded, and eastern Zimbabwe and Malawi were battered in its wake.

Cape Town announced that it was close to running out of water in 2019
Cape Town famously announced that it could run out of water in 2018.

So, the scene is set for an uncertain and challenging future. How will we live? And, how can we prosper?

To change the future, change your mind

Consensus is that we need to think differently about how we supply water to people. Many are now making a call for an entire review of how cities develop. This is necessary not only for us to survive, but for the environment itself to survive us.

Instead of being pushed out of view, calls are being made for water, our most vital resource, to be returned to its rightful place at the epicenter of development. Instead of building it out of view, it must be used as the force to catapult us towards places where people can, and want to, live.

Is this how a city with water in it’s heart could look like?

This vision is not entirely new, though many challenges remain to achieve it. Yet, more people are agreeing. The development of cities and places must achieve a new goal – that of a place where people can live and thrive. To achieve this, it must place water at the heart of development.

Next week, I will tell you what that vision could look like, and how some cities are progressing towards achieving it.


NOTE: This article is from a chapter of the book, Water Resilient Cities, published by the Water Research Commission in South Africa. Without their support, this content would never have been possible.

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