Can Cities Meet Increasing Water Demands

By Nitin Dani, Georgina Glanfield 12 March, 2014

Green Initiatives in Shanghai share their thoughts on how Chinese cities can ensure water security in the future

33% of cities are water scarce; 70% of lakes & rivers contaminated; 270mn people no access to potable water
Education, urban planning & innovation are key; designs by engineers need to solve water-energy nexus issues
Informed public can play a role too: see list of simple actions an individual can take to save water

On November 16th 2013 at the Green Drinks China forum in Shanghai (organized by Green Initiatives, a nonprofit that promotes awareness towards sustainable and environmentally-responsible development and consumption) we discussed about the growing water problem in China. Industrialisation, lifestyle changes and population growth are increasing pressure on China’s water supplies making sustainable and safe water vital.

At the same time, climate change brings a suite of new urban planning challenges. In 2012, research by the Journal of Natural Hazards ranked Shanghai as the most vulnerable city in the world to serious flooding.

So what can we do to ensure our cities sustainably manage water resources and ensure our water security for the future? Here are some key actions.

1.  Acknowledge the scope of the problem and take action

.33% of China’s 600 cities are ‘water scarce’

… 270 million people have no access to potable water

The scale and scope of our water problems are a genuine cause for concern. The challenges are wide-ranging from the demand of increasing populations, to pollution and scarcity. What is worse, is that climate change will present a multitude of additional problems for developing sustainable water management systems. Given 60% of the world’s population currently live in low elevation coastal zones rising sea levels will complicate the provision of urban utilities and infrastructure.

According to Philip Lohrmann, a project engineer from Gleeds (a management and construction consultancy), the scale of China’s water scarcity is startling; 33% of China’s 600 cities are ‘water scarce’, 70% of lakes and rivers are contaminated and 270 million people have no access to potable water (see China’s Thirst for Water).

2. Broaden our understanding of water and its value to humanity

Often we consider water challenges simply in terms of quantity and quality. However, we have a much more complex relationship with water, which needs to recognized if we are to identify solutions.

… to address water scarcity and manage water sustainably, we need to better understand the relationship between water and energy and minimize energy use

Firstly, water is invaluable because of the critical role it plays in the production of energy, i.e the water-energy nexus. Not only does water facilitate the creation of coal, nuclear and hydropower that sustain our way of life, but also the energy to pump water through our networks making it easily available. In fact, more than half of China’s industrial water usage is in coal-related sectors. If we are seeking to address water scarcity and manage water sustainably, we need to better understand the relationship between water and energy and minimize energy consumption. Because energy saved means water saved (see here for more information).

Secondly, water also serves an important role in our communities and holds value as what Maren Striker, an Urban Planner from RTKL (an architecture, engineering, planning and creative services organization), terms ‘experience water.’ Water, in the form of rivers, lakes or streams, not only adds value to our properties with its natural beauty but is also a focal point for recreation and community gatherings.

… water, not oil may ultimately prove to be the most valuable liquid in the Chinese economy

Thirdly, water is valuable as a communal resource with water networks spanning multiple countries, particularly throughout Southeast Asia. This means that policy decisions, such as diversion, can have potentially damaging impacts on the stability and well-being of neighbouring countries. A better understanding of how water is valuable not only to ourselves but also to our neighbours will allow for more sustainable regional policy decisions. For more read this.

And finally, water has value in its utility for the next generation. Water might be cheap now but what is its long-term value? Many believe that water, not oil may ultimately prove to be the most valuable liquid in the Chinese economy. Read more on this here.

3. Develop and adopt integrated and holistic designs

‘Cradle to grave’ approach allows designers to consider the entire lifecycle of products

Engineers and planners have the opportunity to influence consumption in their designs. We can embrace opportunities to create accountable systems that maximize use of non-potable water, that are built from sustainable materials or situated to maximize natural heating or cooling. For example, a ‘Cradle to grave’ approach allows designers to consider the entire lifecycle of products from extraction of materials to product use and finally disposal. Yewande Akinola, an Environmental Services Engineer from Arup, feels this also allows designers to enhance efficiency by building solutions into systems rather than at the end of systems.

We also shouldn’t forget Braungart and McDonough’s ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach, where one thinks about how our products can be up-cycled at their end of life to become multiple useful products.

4. Engage with conservation efforts and communities to make change

Innovation may allow us to subvert, delay or work around current challenges but in the long run conservation efforts and community engagement are likely to be the deciding factors in whether we can address water quality and scarcity. Three key points that need to be highlighted in this area are:

a)  Work with nature, not against it

The age old phrase,  “work with nature not against it”, was a common view held by the panelists, who recognised its importance now more than ever. According to Striker, water should be a “guiding principle in every plan” reflecting on how simple decisions like narrowing a waterway can increase the chances of flooding. Similarly, civil infrastructure that hasn’t been well thought through, like reclaimed land, can create water risks such as droughts and flooding.

Given the water cycle is already in balance, it makes sense that we should be seeking to minimise our impacts and preserve the natural stet of our ecosystems.

This view was echoed by Lohrmann, who recognises the possibility of innovation through mimicry of the natural system in urban design. A great example is TreePeople’s work in America whose publication ‘Second Nature: Adapting L.A.’s Landscape for Sustainable Living’. This outlines a long-term vision for Los Angeles, with practical solutions for transforming real life urban sites into more sustainable places to live. A particular focus is developing urban forests that can provide irrigation, minimize run-off, assist with water treatment and enhance air quality.

b)  Empower citizens to make informed choices

One of the biggest hurdles met by designers and planners is a lack of awareness in the community, business and even government sectors about water scarcity

One of the biggest hurdles met by designers and planners is a lack of awareness in the community, business and even government sectors about water scarcity. While engineers and planners can attempt to influence and control consumption in their designs, we also need to work as a community to educate and improve understanding of the issues.

We can educate and lead in our own communities to change the behaviors and habits that create water scarcity. For designers it could be as simple as empowering users with knowledge through interfaces that show consumption levels and make people think twice about their habits.

Decision-makers in government can modernise our water consumption regulations and law enforcement and continue to improve incentives to support sustainable decisions. Similarly, businesses can invest in R&D and make sustainable choices in products & their supply chains.

By sharing our knowledge and experiences in our workplaces and communities, we can empower people to make informed choices and protect our water resources.

c)  Focus on simple choices that the community can make today

Whilst the water challenges are severe, there are simple changes we can all make today, such as:

  1. Reducing water usage and wastage: Examples include taking shorter showers, turning off taps while cleaning or washing, or installing water-saving toilets. When we see people wasting water we can make a point to tell them about the consequences of water scarcity.
  2. Using electrical appliances efficiently: Using ‘economy’ or ‘quick’ modes in washing machines, setting heaters to optimum temperatures or interval use (rather than running continuously), and unplugging appliances when not in use. It’s important to remember that in China the energy sector is the biggest user of water.
  3. Reducing meat consumption: The meat and livestock industry involves heavy water usage in every aspect of the production chain. Per ton of product, animal products generally have a larger water footprint than crop products. For example, 16,500L of water is required to produce a ton of beef compared to vegetables and cereals at around 322L and 1644L respectively.
  4. Changing purchasing behavior: Buying products that last longer and buying them less often. Water bottles, dozens of shoes and electronic equipment are all nice additions to our lifestyles but not always necessary. It’s important to invest in goods with long lifecycles rather than fashionable ‘use-and-throw’ products and to check energy labels and opt for more efficient appliances.
  5. Supporting conservation projects: Community conservation efforts such as planting more trees are a great way to address the problem of watershed management. Shanghai Roots & Shoots’ Million Tree Project and the NPO Greenlife Project are two of the leading organizations in China planting trees to reduce desertification. Charity Water is another organization attempting to address water scarcity in rural communities on a global scale.

It will only be through a holistic approach that includes urban planning, innovation and community engagement, that our cities will be able to sustainably manage their water resources in the future.

Further Reading 

  • 8 Facts on WastewaterDon’t know anything about wastewater in China? Is it on the rise? Is industrial wastewater under-reported? Is it worse for rural areas? Check out our 8 facts from tech, key pollutants to standards
  • The War on Water Pollution – Premier Li has just declared war on pollution. Tan expands on the government’s stratagems & offensives and fundamental changes required to shore up the MEP’s arsenal in order to wage a successful war
  • How Much Water Do You Use – Happy World Water Day! Coffee or Juice? Beer or Wine? Chicken or Cheese? Find out how much water you can save by making the right choices
  • Bridging Gaps to Water Innovation Water scarcity & pollution will drive innovation in partnerships and technology but the road to commercialisation remains long. Will Sarni, Partner at Deloittes discusses the barriers to innovation in the water sector
  • Double Savings from the Ground Up – With caps on both water and energy usage, saving water and electricity takes centre stage. Asia Clean Capital’s Brione Bruce explains how ground energy can help achieve double savings
  • Water Sense – Water Saving Technologies for Buildings – Property managers focus on saving energy over saving water. GreenLink Global’s Mona Ip explains why saving water in buildings will not only save costs but protect asset values

Quick Facts

Nitin Dani
Author: Nitin Dani
Nitin Dani is an architect by profession and an environmentalist at heart. He received his Bachelor in Architecture, from Bangalore, India and Masters in Strategic Design from Politecnico di Milano, Italy. He was raised and educated in various parts of India and has worked previously worked in Bangalore, Singapore, and Milan. In Shanghai he began his career in a branding agency in 2010. He later moved on to form an entrepreneurial venture facilitating clean technology solutions for the Chinese market, while also co-founding Green Initiatives (formerly Green Drinks China). GI is an environmental nonprofit organization that focuses on education, awareness and action on environmental issues through projects, events, trainings & workshops for the regular community, students and professionals. GI has organised over 200 events since its inception in 2009. Nitin also works as a Project Director with GIGA, an organization working on material research, cloud software and indoor air quality certification.
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Georgina Glanfield
Author: Georgina Glanfield
Georgina Glanfield is currently a volunteer at Green Initiatives (Green Drinks China(, working as part of a team to improve awareness of environmental and sustainability issues in Shanghai. Georgina recently relocated from Australia to pursue her interests in sustainable development and achieve fluency in Chinese. Prior to moving to China, Georgina was a policy adviser in the Australian Government providing briefing to ministers on key social, economic and environmental policy issues. She was also a research assistant at the Australian National University investigating regional security architecture in the Asia-Pacific. Georgina has a Masters degree in International Relations specialising in Peace and Conflict Studies from the Australian National University.
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