Critical to the “city of the future” will be efficient, overhauled urban water
management systems, which are rooted in solid and sustainable financial systems
capable of withstanding ongoing climate change.
Anthony Cox, head of the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Environment Directorate,
stressed such views to The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview from his Paris
office on Thursday morning. Cox will arrive in Israel this week to chair a
session on urban water use at the annual WATEC Israel: Water Technology and
Environment Control Exhibition and Conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, titled
“Joining Forces to Develop Smart, Cost-Effective Urban Water
The OECD’s Environment Directorate, in conjunction with its
Horizontal Water Program and a few other directorates, is leading a new project
titled “Water Policies for Future Cities,” which will aim to provide governments
with guidance on how to confront the economic and bureaucratic challenges cities
will be facing regarding water.
Among the most pressing burdens to the
global water sector is the increasing rate of urbanization, Cox explained. By
2050, the OECD projects that 70 percent of the world population will be living
in cities, in comparison with the approximately 50% right now – and demand for
water will increase by about 55%.
“What we have to do now is look at the
water resource management systems we have in place,” he told the Post. “Are they
capable of meeting the demands that are going to come from this increased
competition? Are we able to improve the water efficiency sufficiently?” To do
so, Cox explained, cities have to ensure they have proper pricing and financial
systems in place, which encourage innovation and are consistent with the
watershed the municipalities receive. Meanwhile, governments must recognize that
ongoing climate change is having an enormous impact on water, causing extreme
weather events such as floods and droughts and affecting the availability of a
stable water supply.
“Climate change is essentially water change, so that
will be the first important way in which climate change will be felt,” Cox said.
“If we don’t have the systems in place that allow us to respond to the changing
climatic conditions, then it’s going to be a real challenge.”
emphasizing that “there is no one model” that all cities will be able to adhere
to when overhauling water infrastructure – because the world’s urban
environments and their needs do vary – Cox emphasized that “there are some key
features that every city has to have,” within “a clear and credible and
consistent policy surrounding water.”
Perhaps the most crucial point is a
sustainable financial model for managing the resource, with a clear
tariffsetting system, clear regulations and a clear understanding of
institutional arrangements regarding price-setting and financing of the water,
A second key requirement for all cities will be a
recognition of how they fit into their larger watershed, according to Cox. Urban
environments must understand that they cannot upgrade their infrastructure in
isolation from the rest of the users and stakeholders of the local watershed,
keeping in mind that they need an institutional arrangement with a more holistic
These institutional arrangements are a third factor that all
cities will need to take into consideration, as one of the biggest challenges in
urban water management is the fact that multiple agencies often participate in
water management. Consequently, these agencies must “make sure they work
together,” creating “a joined-up policy around how the different aspects have an
impact on the urban water,” Cox continued.
The Water Policies for Future
Cities project will look at all of these issues and solutions, analyzing
examples from selected cities to provide policy guidance on water infrastructure
financing, implementation of ecological innovation, and watershed linkage
between urban and rural environments.
A major workshop or conference will
likely take place during the second half of 2014, to exchange best practices and
further develop policy guidance principles, according to the project’s
Such a conference could be instrumental in refining the project’s
messages prior to the 2015 World Water Forum in Korea, during which the project
leaders aim to present their work.
When asked if he already had some OECD
cities or countries in mind that were already performing optimally in terms of
urban water management, Cox responded that “the word ‘optimally’ is probably a
loaded term.” However, he explained, although no city is perfect, there are some
locales that have strong policies in place and provide pockets of good
Continuing to stress that “ensuring financial sustainability is
essential,” Cox said that the UK – particularly England and Wales – already have
good tariff systems in place, which are clear about the roles of the water
utilities and the regulator. These systems provide transparency and
accountability to their customers.
Following a visit to Lisbon earlier
this week, Cox said that Portugal’s capital has also undertaken many reforms in
the past 20 years, to ensure the city’s infrastructure climbs to very high
standards with a strong financial basis.
Another country with strong
urban water management, in Cox’s opinion, is Israel – which is making enormous
reuse of treated domestic wastewater, employing recycled rather than potable
water for large portions of agriculture.
“There are a lot of very
innovative and strong features around Israel’s urban water management that we
often make use of in our work on water as an example of good practice,” Cox
Israel, he noted, has made great strides in trying to bring about a
more integrated approach in terms of water policies, and combining water needs
with those of agriculture, regional development and energy.
makes good use of pricing mechanisms. It is very innovative on the consumer side
and the demand side,” Cox added.
Regarding the urban implementation of
gray water – the reuse of shower and laundry water for activities like flushing
toilets – Cox said that each country must decide how it wants to use water
resources, depending on a full range of cultural and historical issues. Israel’s
Health Ministry still opposes the practice, yet environmentalists have long been
pushing for the reuse of such water.
“We think that it’s a potentially
important part of the water cycle,” Cox explained.
“Reusing water is a
way to expand and enhance water availability, improve water
Although there exists a “social acceptability issue there
that many countries are grappling with,” Cox pointed out that the modern nation
of Singapore readily makes use of gray water in its closed water
“It’s up to each country to have the debate, but in principle
they should be very open to the use of gray water, water recycling and water
recovery,” he said.
While overhauling entire urban water infrastructure
systems is a very expensive undertaking, Cox said he feels discussion will
inevitably translate into action among city governments, as “the cost of
inaction is very high.” If cities do not embrace innovative ways to manage and
finance their water use, they will accrue further costs in the future, he
Most OECD countries have water infrastructure that has already
existed for about 100 to 150 years, so the renewable process will be very
expensive, he acknowledged.
“In comparison, for developing countries, the
challenges are quite different – it’s about building infrastructures,” Cox said.
“One of the questions for developing countries is, what kind of urban water
infrastructure would best meet your needs?” Developing countries must decide
whether they should follow in the footsteps of OECD nations with large
infrastructure such as big pipelines and expensive networks, or whether they
should “leapfrog OECD countries” – installing more semicentralized systems, with
more local, flexible deliveries enhanced by modern technologies, Cox
Financing the overhauls and construction of new infrastructure
will be a challenge for both developed and developing countries alike, according
“For both developing and developed countries, there are three
sources of revenue that can cover water infrastructure development: tariffs,
taxes from general taxation and transfers, overseas aid component – the ‘three
Ts,’” Cox said. “These are the only ways that you can finance water; there is no
money coming from anywhere else.”
While countries like France, Japan, the
UK and Australia have opted for reliance on tariffs with very low public
subsidies from general taxes, many developing countries do not yet have very
high tariffs due to the inability of citizens to pay, he explained.
we’re finding is that developing countries are beginning to realize they can ask
their citizens to pay tariffs, because consumers are paying for water one way or
the other,” Cox said.
Such a system, the countries realize, is often
preferable to requiring women and children to trek long distances to manually
collect water – acts that reduce productivity and increase costs, he added. In
some developing nations, urban areas still receive water via trucks, ratcheting
the cost of the resource up to 100 times more what it would be through a
pipeline, Cox continued.
This practice, however, is ultimately changing,
he stressed. “Countries are more willing to impose tariffs and consumers are
willing to pay for more reliable water,” Cox said. “So you get into what you
call a virtuous cycle of water financing.”