What is a water resilient city?

Have you noticed that as we built ourselves closer to necessities like roads, we have detached ourselves from water? It’s not uncommon for cities that suffer from water shortages, to also suffer from floods. People might see rain fall outside their windows, but not have enough coming from their taps. Often, people are surrounded by water, but are unable to use it.

Rain in Mabul.
Water, water everywhere, but not enough to drink?

I will explain.

Many cities are permeated by water. Underground, kilometers of pipes are transporting water to and fro. Yet the quality of the water is not good enough for the purpose of the specific system that the water is in. Instead, the water is channeled out of the city again. The water becomes a lost opportunity washed away to the sea or perhaps a waiting river.

Seoul, South Korea
Do you know there is water down there?

In the process, the very environment that we depend on to provide us with clean water is polluted. The result? Even less water available for us to use, and for the system to keep functioning.

This is where a so-called “water resilient city” is different. To be resilient means to be tough or flexible, and to be able to bounce back from hardship. It implies that recovery is quick. New thoughts about how cities should develop to be like that (more resilient in the face of water stress) started to take shape in Australia the early nineties.

Re-thinking how our cities can become resilient

Around the time, professionals that worked with urban drainage started thinking about their jobs differently. They wanted to take water above and below ground in mind. They also wanted to maintain and even improve water quality and conserve it at the same time. People should still enjoy water, they thought. And, they wanted to keep the environment that it flows in safe.

They called this new approach water sensitive urban design (WSUD). In the beginning, the concept focused on managing stormwater. This developed into a vision for cities that consider the entire urban water cycle as a system. This includes stormwater, greywater and wastewater.

Looking for water in unexpected places

From this new perspective, managers suddenly have more water sources to choose from. Taps can also run from waste and greywater, groundwater, stormwater, seawater and even treated sewage. Within this system, water can be recycled and reused for various purposes, depending on the quality of water (fit-for-purpose water).

A future water resilient city water source
Will our taps run from here in future?

The concept can be applied from household to catchment scale. In homes, there are opportunities to use rainwater and used water (this is how you can do this, safely). Neighbourhoods can be designed to use local water (like streams) or groundwater. This water can then be recycled through the use of nature-based systems (more about this next week). At a city scale, roads can be manipulated to become water catchments, for example. (Singapore is an excellent example of this theory in practice.)

A water resilient place is about more than water supply

WSUD promises water security, but also goes further to consider the impact of doing this on the environment. Development takes place hand-in-hand with the development of the watershed that the city is located in. Changes upstream, such as a new mine or deforestation, might change the amount of water, and how clean it is. This must thus also be considered.

At the same time, the amount and quality of the water that comes from the city must be considered. This will affect users downstream.

Jason Mingo, a water specialist and project manager for the Western Cape government (South Africa) says WSUD is about water security. This includes having enough water that is of a suitable quality for economic growth and development.

Jason Mingo talks about what a water resilient city is.
Jason Mingo talks about what a water resilient city is.

However, the concept goes even further, beyond these fundamentals, he says. New questions must be asked. For example, how do you connect communities within cities to water?

Jason points out that spaces should be multi-functional. A space can serve both to manage floods, and create enjoyment for people. The city itself must improve the living conditions of the people that call it home. Then, you have to ask how the functions of the space can be improved while restoring the natural water cycle.

This is how we are get to what we call a water resilient city. If WSUD is applied, it leads to the creation of one.

Depending on where you are on the globe, this development can also be referred to as low impact development (in the United States of America), leading edge technologies (China), cities of the future, resilient cities, livable cities and sponge cities. However, all of these refer to the vision of city that is at once resilient, livable, productive, and sustainable.

What is a vision for a water resilient place?

Both WSUD and water resilient cities represent big shifts away from the traditional planning and design of cities. Instead, it’s about places where water is integral to almost every feature of the built landscape. (Did you read that article about Singapore?)

“It’s a different way of living,” says Kirsty Carden, coordinator for the Future Water Institute at the University of Cape Town. “It’s about how you can modify your environment so that you are still living the way that you want, even when you are faced with severe restrictions. It’s about knowing that you can do, with much less.”

Kirsty Carden talks about water resilient cities.
Kirsty Carden, coordinator for the Future Water Institute at the University of Cape Town.

According to the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities (CRCWSC), a vision for a water sensitive city of the future is, simply put, a place where people want to live and work. The place itself can be a water catchment, and provide many different water sources at different scales, for many different uses.

This place is a healthy place for people to live, and offers many social, ecological, and economic benefits. The people that live there have the knowledge and desire to make wise choices about water. They engage in decision making, and they take care of water. These residents conserve water at home and don’t unnecessarily make pollute it.

This vision cannot become a reality overnight. It takes time and effort, and is achieved in stages. Perhaps most important, it calls for a change in the very thought process behind how an urban area should develop.

How cities can evolve towards water resilient places

“Though WSUD came out of stormwater management, the idea has developed into one where the urban area moves through different states, to one where water is integral to its design; where water is top of mind,” says Kirsty.

Commonly, the evolution of cities towards water resilient places is presented as a continuum of different stages. It starts as a city that provides clean and sufficient water supplies; then, a sewered city for better public health; and then, a drained city that keeps people safe from floods.

The next three stages looks at damage being caused to the environment and threats to water supply. Partners (including residents) now help to manage the entire water cycle.

A successful strategy thus builds water-wise citizens, decision-makers, and professionals. It’s not just about technology, but about people working towards a shared goal. The way the buildings and neighbourhoods are designed are re-looked. People use less water, but still enjoy a great quality of life.

Still, this is obviously a massive undertaking. And, its not without challenges.

A vision with challenges to overcome

Cities and other places where people live are complex. And, so are the expectations of the variety of people that live there about what exactly ‘livability’ means. For some, it can include simply accessing safe drinking water, or toilets. Others might have ideas about water security or good public transport systems. Perhaps personal safety, recreational opportunities and community spirit come in play for others.

Then, some of these might be more or less important for different communities living in the same city.

What does the place where you want to live look like?

Tackling a change such as this involves cost and risk. Unrelenting work is required to maintain external partnerships. Furthermore, changing regulations and policies are significant undertakings. This takes commitment, even though a positive outcome cannot always be guaranteed.

Making these changes will take time, but the time to start is here.

Already, there is a lot that can be done to start delivering some of the mentioned benefits. It does not have to be a complete overhaul. “Incremental changes can make a difference,” says Kirsty, and many cities have started to make this transition already.

Many would even say that it’s key to the question of how some places can solve water scarcity problems. Furthermore, in the process, countless, diverse benefits will ripple out far beyond the act of simply providing water.

Can you mention any examples of how the place where you live is water resilient? I’ve already showed you Singapore, and some of Copenhagen, but in the coming weeks I’ll tell you more about how places like Durban, Johannesburg, and other smaller and more informal settlements are tackling this process. Until then, it’s your turn. Has your city got any features that makes is more water resilient? Please share your experiences in the comments. What can we learn from you?


*This article is from chapter two in the book Water Resilient Cities, published by the Water Research Commission. The book contains more details on the steps that cities can take towards becoming livable and resilient places. If you are here, you should already have a copy of this book. If not, I’ll send it to you if you click here.


• A water sensitive urban design framework for South Africa by Lloyd Fisher-Jeffes, Kirsty Carden & Neil Armitage
• The IWA principles for Water Wise cities
• Urban water management in cities: Historical, current and future regimes, Water Science and Technology, DOI: 10.2166/ wst.2009.029 by RR Brown, N Keath and THF Wong.
• SUDS, LID, BMPs, WSUD and more – The evolution and application of terminology surrounding urban drainage, Urban Water Journal, DOI: 10.1080/1573062X.2014.916314 by Tim D. Fletcher, William Shuster, William F. Hunt, Richard Ashley, David Butler, Scott Arthur, Sam Trowsdale, Sylvie Barraud, Annette Semadeni-Davies, Jean-Luc Bertrand-Krajewski, Peter Steen Mikkelsen, Gilles Rivard, Mathias Uhl, Danielle Dagenais & Maria
Viklander (2014)
• Water Sensitive Urban Design in the UK – Ideas for built environment practitioners, published by the construction industry research and information association (CIRIA)
• Water Utilities of the Future – Australia’s experience in starting the transition – a publication of the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities ThinkTank

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