New Tech & Policy For Climate Resilience: 3 Takeaways
By Chien Tat Low, Woody Chan 14 June, 2018
CWR's Low & Chan share expert views from the forum
On 29 March, the new Centre for Water Technology and Policy of the University of Hong Kong hosted an interdisciplinary forum with the theme “Climate-resilient Urban Water Systems: New Technologies and Policy Challenges”. The forum invited more than 10 speakers from academia, both local and overseas, to share their research and views on new tech and water policy issues critical to urban sustainability. How can policy help mainstream new and existing water tech? Who is leading? What are the challenges? Find out our 3 key takeaways below.
>10 speakers from academia shared their views on new tech & water policy issues critical to urban sustainability
1) New tech needs “think out of the box” policy support from governments
From urban flooding and droughts to extreme weather, climate change is set to bring acute water challenges. Experts such as Dr Ji Chen from the University of Hong Kong and Professor David Chen from the Chinese University of Hong Kong made this very clear. In particular, water supply and quality has been and will likely be affected by climate change. New science and technology might be the answer to such water crises.
|“Water is a mess without climate change… with climate change it is much messier.”
Professor Michael Hanemann (Arizona State University)
The good news is that there are abundant existing innovative water technologies, plus more in the pipeline. However, these technologies need to be integrated into the planning and development of water infrastructure. In essence, how can technology come into actuality? Speakers at the event gave their views on this, and mainly focus on the need for “think out of the box” policy support from governments:
- Water tech not just about engineers & hydrologists – This point was established early in the forum by Professor David Sedlak, the co-director of Berkley Water Centre. Using the example of potable water reuse in the San Francisco Greater Bay Area, he noted that new water tech has to serve the public’s interest, merge with merged daily life experiences and needs trust in the government. As such, the government can be the catalyst in satisfying these requirements.
- Traditional water supply may not be the way forward – Here, Dr Frederick Lee, the executive director of the new Centre for Water Technology and Policy, uses Hong Kong as a case study. Reservoirs have traditionally been seen as a key water supply for HK but do we really need them in the future when the Dongjiang river provides water to the largest ones? Shouldn’t we broaden our attention and secure basin-wide water resources in the Pearl River Delta given our reliance on the Dongjiang?
- New financing strategies for urban water supply – As Professor Hanemann finds, water is more capital intensive than other public utilities. Private funding is often needed to ease the government’s burden and make the development of a larger project possible. The benefits of public participation in water infrastructure were also discussed.
2) Singapore & China are two exemplary models in promoting this tech-policy interface
Among all examples given in the forum, Singapore and China stand out as the leaders in integrating new water technologies and policies for better and more sustainable water management.
As Dr Olivia Jensen from National University of Singapore showed, NEWater in Singapore recycles treated used water into ultra-clean, high-grade reclaimed water, cushioning their water supply against extreme weather and moving Singapore towards water sustainability. She also stressed the importance of an existing distribution network in making reclaimed water use more economical.
Water tariff reform & govt support helped establish China as a leader in water PPPs across Asia…
…but Hong Kong lag
Another good example is China’s Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in the water and sanitation sectors. Professor Xun Wu from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology showed that China’s water tariff reform, strong support and oversight from the national government, as well as credible regulatory mechanism helped establish China as a leader in water PPP’s across Asia.
Such best practices would surely be welcome in Hong Kong, which, according to Dr Frederick Lee, still lacks a comprehensive way of managing its water.
3) Interdisciplinary cooperation needed but still silo-ed; action & expectation mismatch
The forum’s participants generally agreed that interdisciplinary research is the way forward to a climate-resilient urban water system. Indeed it was encouraging to see academics from difference fields come together to discuss the issue, from climate modellers to policy researchers. To further advance new approaches for urban water management, researchers have to expand engineering and social science research with genuine engagement with decision makers.
However, we see three more mismatches which need to be solved going forward:
- Climate science works in averages but water management works in extreme – Climatic science is more accurate at global level but this is not the scale at which water is managed. Instead, policymakers are keen to know the maximum absolute limits at the local level, instead of global averages. Professor Van-Thanh-Van Nguyen from McGill University and Professor Hanemann echoed this mismatch in their talks. This is worsened by the lack of open access scientific knowledge, which we explore here.
- Mismatch in long-term vs. short-term actions – Water infrastructure needs to be planned for the long-term but at the moment, short-term thinking still prevails. A case in point would be the tendency for CAPEX for water infrastructure to be prioritized while maintenance OPEX is overlooked. Long-term, holistic planning also seems to be lacking in HK: as an audience member pointed out: have the climate impacts of HK’s new desalination plant been considered?
- Mismatch in financing mitigation & adaptation – As we mentioned in our earlier article, adaption finance in climate change still lags far behind mitigation. Plus, apart from public climate finance, we need to get the private sector involved and enhance its role in adaptation finance. Perhaps the PPPs experience from China could be a good lesson to other countries in Asia too.
There was much interdisciplinary communication in the forum and the knowledge sharing was significant. However, we feel that this is still silo-ed within academia and more stakeholders need to be brought to the table. Nevertheless, the new Centre for Water Technology and Policy is a step in that direction and this forum has put forth a good start. We look forward to hearing more voices from policymakers, investors and perhaps even the public on this topic in the next edition.
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