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Water insecurity: time for action


16 Dec 2011


Sustainable Dev.
Climate & Environment

RICS Research report – Water Scarcity and Land Use Planning

One person out of three cannot access the water they need for everyday life and in fewer than 15 years, one quarter of countries in the world will face water stress or scarcity. Water insecurity is one of the greatest challenges facing societies in the 21st century. In a new report published today, Friday 16 December, RICS recommends a series of solutions to tackle the issue at regional, city and building level. 

At a time when governments –obsessed with their economic headaches- are tempted to slash support for bold environmental policies, we should be under no illusions about the urgent need for a concerted and holistic approach to counter water shortage. Over the last century, water demand has been growing at almost twice the rate of the world’s population. This has a profound impact on politics, human health, food production, urban growth and the wider, global economy. Justin Abbott, author of the RICS report, comments: "Water is not an infinite resource. Now is the time to refocus the balance between increasing supply and managing demand."

As every truly global challenge requires, countering water insecurity needs local action. Sander Scheurwater, Head of RICS EU Policy and Public Affairs, commented on the report: "The publication of this research paper comes at the time when the European Commission is taking initiative to review its policy measures required to ensure efficient and sustainable water use across the EU. In this perspective, the RICS report provides a list of recommendations to assist decision makers in drafting coherent and effective policies at regional, city and building level."

Top priorities at regional and city level include reducing water leakage by improving the performance of supply networks in the largest cities where currently between 20 and 50 percent of water is lost through leakage or illegal connections. The use of multi-functional green infrastructure (e.g. trees, green walls, green roofs, open spaces) to capture and store rainfall and storm water runoff should also be encouraged, as well as creating formal networks to re-use and recycle non-potable supplies of water (rainwater, storm water and treated grey water from sinks, showers and washing machines).

Estimates show that up to 30 percent of the water consumed in buildings could be saved. At building level, RICS therefore advocates for new building codes. These should affect the financial value of a building depending on their water performance, with sellers required to demonstrate that they meet the appropriate standards. More efficient tools are needed to measure the water performance of buildings, but in the meantime, there is obvious scope to retrofit existing water appliances, such as WCs, showers, tapware, and baths to improve water efficiency.

However, the success of all these measures will depend on one crucial factor: public engagement. For demand management to work in the longer term, and to achieve real behavioural change, it is essential that the general public understands the value of water and recognises the finite nature of this resource. Justin Abbott adds: "Economic incentives will play a role, but more work needs to be done with communities to support the understanding of water scarcity and its impact, and to build trust in new approaches, such as recycled water systems."


Key RICS Recommendations

Regional and City

Reducing leakage: It is estimated that in the largest cities between 20 and 50 percent of water is lost through leakage or illegal connections. Therefore, improving the performance of supply networks through technical and engineering support as well as community partnerships should be a top priority.

Green infrastructure: Appropriate use of green infrastructure (e.g. trees, green walls, green roofs, open spaces) to support the more effective capture and storage of rainfall and storm water runoff should be encouraged. Solutions should be multi-functional in nature, e.g. able to address both water scarcity and flood risks. Ultimately, careful use-planning, design and species selection should be combined with an analysis of whole life costs and maintenance plans that take into consideration projected water availability.

Re-use and recycle: More formal networks to recycle non-potable (potable water is suitable for drinking) supplies of water (rainwater, storm water and/or treated grey water from sinks, showers and washing machines) should be put in place to complement the potable supply.  

Valuing water: It is estimated that, in Europe, at least 20 percent of water is wasted due to inefficiency. Public and private spaces often provide water management functions, like groundwater recharge, which can be valued in monetary terms. In future, civic authorities looking to encourage water efficiency savings and better water management could charge for such services. Schemes like these could be coupled with incentives for incorporating water-related green infrastructure on development sites. Overall, attaching a financial value to water will provide all stakeholders with a clear picture of the true worth of their water resource and will likely encourage water conservation.

Education and participation: At the urban scale, greater levels of public participation are needed to tackle the challenge of water insecurity. Encouraging such participation will require the education of and engagement with the public. This may include, for example, greater community involvement in decisions on land use planning and local water harvesting recycling solutions, which might include: on-site grey water systems; third pipe, recycled water pipelines at community scale; local re-use of storm water and local rainwater harvesting.


Supplementing building credentials and codes: Estimates show that up to 30 percent of the water consumed in buildings could be saved. Consequently, a number of ideas on improving water efficiency in buildings are already being considered. Ultimately, water efficiency ‘credentials’ may affect the financial value of a building and sellers may be required to demonstrate that they meet the appropriate standards. Building codes will also need to be further updated to support water efficiency at a per capita consumption level, e.g. through the use of reduced flow taps and other water-efficient fixtures and fittings.

Improving efficiency: New tools are needed to measure the water performance of buildings, but in the meantime, there is obvious scope to retrofit existing water appliances, such as WCs, showers, tapware, and baths to improve water efficiency. For example, in the 1970s WCs with a flush volume of 12 litres per flush were common, but technological advancements mean that WCs can now be flushed by 6 litres or less.

Notes to editors:

* Water Stress/Scarcity: Water stress is commonly measured by two indicators: the Water Stress Indicator and Water Vulnerability Index. The former indicator looks at the total freshwater resources in each country each year relative to the total population. Water stress is considered to begin at less than 1,700 m3/cap/year. Water scarcity begins when the indicator drops below 1,000 m3/cap/year. The Water Vulnerability Index is defined as the mean annual total abstractions of freshwater divided by the mean annual freshwater resources. It describes how the total water abstractions put pressure on water resources. The warning threshold for this index is typically 20 percent. Severe water stress can occur where the index exceeds 40 percent.


** Types of Water Scarcity:

-Physical: Naturally low water availability, e.g. desert

-Economic: A lack of finance limits access to water, e.g. inability to pay for supply or to find labour and time needed to collect

-Managerial: Scarcity caused by the poor management and maintenance of water infrastructure and supplies, e.g. over exploitation of resources or leaky supply networks

-Institutional: Failure to manage imbalances between supply and demand

-Political: Inability to access water due to political reasons, e.g. transboundary rivers

About the Report: Led by Justin Abbott at Arup, Water Scarcity and Land Use Planning is a new RICS research report that examines the trends and drivers of water scarcity and how regions and communities are responding, and presents RICS recommendations for tackling water insecurity into the future.The report also takes an in-depth look at the current water situations in Australia, China and India.

About the Author: Justin Abbott is a Director at Arup with over 20 years consulting experience covering a wide range of water and environmental projects undertaken in both the UK and overseas. He sits on CIRIA’s Water Advisory Panel and EPSRC’s Review College. He has a background in environmental planning and project management in the water sector. His principal research interests focus on the sustainable management of water, with expertise in environmental impact assessment, water scarcity and risk, water quality and sustainable design. He sat on the Steering Group of CIRIA’s work on Water and New Developments, which explored the potential of new technologies to manage water, and has recently acted as Project Director for two commissions with UNEP-FI looking at water scarcity and risk in the agri-business and power sectors. He is currently researching water footprinting and is providing consultancy advice on carbon footprinting in the water sector.

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For more information:

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