Environment: Overhauling water management in Israel

To cope with rapid urbanization and climate change, future cities will need to encourage innovation and promote water efficiency.

woman drinks water 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
woman drinks water 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 Utilities.”
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.”
While 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, he explained.
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 approach.
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 goals.
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 examples.
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 said.
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.
“Israel also 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 productivity.”
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 system.
“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 added.
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 explained.
Financing the overhauls and construction of new infrastructure will be a challenge for both developed and developing countries alike, according to Cox.
“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.
“What 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.”