/ Analysis / Cities Look to Nature to Bridge Water Investment Gap

Cities Look to Nature to Bridge Water Investment Gap

Matt Ball on December 10, 2014 - in Analysis, Financial, Planning, Water

The water sector has always struggled for investment, and each year the gap between dollars being spent and dollars that need to be spent on critical water infrastructure grows. The US, for example, is facing an $84bn funding gap by 2020, and it is estimated to grow to more than $140bn by 2040.

Despite numbers like these from around the world, investment in water remains low as cities struggle to keep annual budgets out of the red. Governments, international organisations and water utilities are trying to find solutions that provide for growing global populations, but traditional financing of engineered structures cannot get us there alone. We need to think beyond city boundaries and look to nature for a solution and an investment opportunity.

The provision of clean drinking water is arguably the most fundamental service provided by cities and utilities. It’s not only fundamental for sanitary living conditions; it’s expected by city residents. Despite this, cities struggle to access the capital required for the necessary investments to provide this “basic” service.

Urban Water Blueprint

A new report by The Nature Conservancy – the Urban Water Blueprint – shows one route out of this deadlock. And that route starts with realising where cities’ water comes from.

According to the report, some 823 million people live in the 100 largest cities around the world. These cities occupy less than 1% of our planet’s land area, but their source watersheds—the rivers, forests and other ecosystems from which they get their water—cover over 12%. That’s an area of land roughly the size of Russia. Some of these watersheds lay far outside of a city’s boundaries, and collectively, these cities transfer 3.2m cubic metres of water a distance of 5,700km every day to meet residents’ needs. As more people move into cities, the demand for water will continue to increase. This will require cities to better protect what limited supplies they have.

Watersheds are the most basic water supply infrastructure for cities. They collect, filter and transport water and can improve the quality of water that reaches cities. In fact, protecting water at its source can be cheaper and more efficient than treating it after it has already been polluted. Restoring habitats such as forests and stream banks, as well as making adjustments to the way we use agricultural lands, can reduce sediment and nutrient pollutants in water sources, offsetting the need for investment in more advanced water treatment technologies.

By targeting specific activities to a small fraction of land, millions of people can experience better water quality. For example, improved farming practices, such as the use of cover crops on fallowed fields or wetland construction near streams and rivers, have the potential of reducing sediment and phosphorus concentration from fertilizer runoff. By applying these practices to 6.4m hectares of farm and ranch land (slightly smaller than the size of Ireland) located in watersheds, more than 600 million people could see an improvement in their water quality.

This realisation changes the boundaries of the water challenge, even for the most complex environments. About 172 million people living in some of the world’s largest cities drink water that has traveled through land that is more than 50% cropland. By knowing how land is used within a watershed, cities and utilities can start to understand the opportunities for improving water quality and use nature as a tool to do that.

Mumbai and Los Angeles

Take the case of Mumbai. In the past 300 years, the city has grown from a collection of seven small, swampy islands to the sprawling cultural and financial heart of India that around 14 million people call home. Like many large cities, stability and reliability of the water supply is a concern for water managers. Over the years, managers have looked outside the city’s boundaries for water. More than two-thirds of the lands in the watersheds that supply Mumbai’s water are devoted to agriculture. The city could reduce nutrient levels in its water supply by working with farmers in the watershed to implement better farming practices on just a few thousand hectares.

On the other side of the world, Los Angeles could benefit from improved farming practices in its distant watersheds, too. Some 90% of the city’s water travels an average distance of 71km, some of which is through the agriculturally-dominated Central Valley picking up agrichemicals and sediment runoff from fields along the way. The city could improve water quality and reduce treatment costs by working with farmers on just 1,000 hectares to reduce field nutrient runoff.

Savings of $890 Million a Year in Water Treatment Costs

There are many cities and utilities that could see similar results by adding nature to their water treatment toolbox. In fact, out of all 534 cities analyzed, one in four that apply natural solutions to their watersheds could realise a positive return on investment. Natural solutions have the potential to save cities $890m a year in water treatment costs alone. Significant additional savings will come from avoided capital expenditures for additional treatment plants.

Cities, whether in the red or black, will have to look well beyond their walls to overcome the investment gap in the water sector. Nature can play a critical role in improving water quality and reducing water treatment costs, but it will require the water sector to redefine its scope, as sustainable farming, ranching, and forest management all become investable opportunities in the provision of clean, safe water to people.

Read more at: http://blog.nature.org/conservancy/2014/11/26/cities-should-look-to-nature-to-bridge-investment-gap-in-water/#sthash.HoPpCCqi.dpuf

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