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Future of Water Q1 2022

Opportunities for action on urban water

iStock / Getty Images Plus / byarnoldus

Dr Kala Vairavamoorthy

Executive Director, International Water Association

Around the world, there remains a great disparity in many people’s access to clean water and basic sanitation. World Water Day brings attention to these ever-present issues. Action is needed, but the question is, what ACTION? 

In many cities and towns worldwide, the problem is not that there is no water treatment plant or water supply network – millions of people appear to have access to clean water, but this water reaches them infrequently, if at all. This problem is known as ‘intermittent water supply’.

To make matters worse, when a utility sees no option other than to operate their supply in this way, it generally triggers a vicious cycle. Networks deteriorate if they are not operated continuously. Existing customers are then less willing to pay, making it more difficult for the utility to maintain its network. Among all of this, it is the poorest communities who suffer most.

The gaps in access to adequate sanitation are even greater. Indeed, many cities and towns have made very limited progress with the usual approach of combining sewers to collect used water with centralised sewage treatment facilities to clean it. This lack of infrastructure impacts human health and degrades the local environment, in turn, worsening prospects for the people concerned, especially in developing nations.

Millions of people appear to have access to clean water, but this water reaches them infrequently, if at all.

Opportunities for innovation

Fixing intermittent water supply is no easy task as it requires a whole new way of operating. Fortunately, new innovative technologies can help. For example, there is a rising opportunity to harness breakthroughs in digital technology to help deliver cost-effective ways to fix existing networks.

The opportunities for innovation concerning sanitation are even more profound. Those of us who work in the sector see great potential for solutions we refer to as ‘decentralised’, promising a departure from traditional approaches. These solutions deal with used water at a particularly local level. Wherever possible, they promote resource reuse and recovery, regarding the ‘black gold’ that is human waste as a valuable, unexploited resource that may help fund these currently struggling systems.

A paradigm shift

All of this means that the places where needs are greatest also have the biggest opportunities to gain from innovation. This is particularly the case for the towns and cities in Africa, and beyond, where rapid expansion expected over the coming decades will require even more infrastructure than currently exists. Used at scale, approaches now seen as innovative can therefore become the norm, creating a new paradigm for the rest of the world.

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