Sustainable Cities Water Index 2016: The Asian perspective

By John Batten 19 October, 2016

New index by Arcadis ranks cities by water sustainability

9/12 Asian cities ranked in bottom half of 50 cities; climate adaptation & resiliency the most pressing issues for leaders
HK, Beijing & Shanghai ranked 30th or lower; Wuhan at 40th but improving through the Sponge City Programme
Singapore sees water as a new growth sector; cities need to carefully and creatively manage water assets

Great cities are defined and illuminated by the water that surrounds them or flows through them. Be it the harbours of New York, the river estuaries of London, the Amsterdam canals, the waterfronts of Doha or the beaches of Sydney, water is what gives a city its unique magnetism and attraction factor. Cities are rarely spontaneous creations. They are often strategic settlements grounded by access to water and linked by transportation, trade and commerce. The historical positioning of cities proximate to fresh and navigable waters enabled settlements to flourish, grow and prosper. Now more than ever, cities and their waterscapes face challenges: water demand is rising, aquifers are being depleted and the threat of extreme weather is increasingly real.

Now more than ever, cities & their waterscapes face challenges…
New index ranks 50 cities on water resiliency, quality & efficiency

Most cities across the world today are in need of greater investment to improve their resiliency to extreme weather events and unforeseen water shortages, according to the inaugural Sustainable Cities Water Index from global design and consultancy firm Arcadis. Asian cities, in particular, face multiple challenges around water quality, efficiency and resiliency.
The index, developed by Arcadis in partnership with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr), explores the three aspects that make up robust, effective and healthy waterscapes to develop an indicative ranking of 50 leading cities. The report finds that most cities, especially in Asia, need greater investment in their ability to withstand natural disasters and drinking water shortages, with climate adaptation and resiliency being the most pressing issues for future city leaders in this Region.

9/12 Asian cities ranked in bottom half…
… climate adaptation & resiliency are the most pressing issues for future Asian city leaders

arcadis 3
The majority of Asian cities studied face challenges in water sustainability, with nine out of twelve ranked in the bottom half of 50 cities. The four developing economy cities of Jakarta, Manila, Mumbai and New Delhi finish last in the overall ranking, struggling with quality and efficiency especially. In Asia, Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo rank highest at No. 22, 23 and 25 respectively.

Singapore highest ranked Asian city, has become water innovator

Singapore ranks No. 22 globally and does well with the elements over which it has control, such as leakage, treatment and metering. However, its location makes the city water-stressed, vulnerable to flood risk, lacking in reserves and dependent on foreign freshwater sources. On this front, Singapore has invested in projects such as the Marina Bay and subterranean caverns.
Under the leadership of PUB (Public Utilities Board), Singapore’s National Water Agency, the country has become an innovator in many areas of water management. For example, it has overcome water shortages by changing negative public perceptions of wastewater reuse. Nevertheless, Singapore still faces challenges with water stress, reserves and highly polluted pre-treatment source water, as urban runoff is exposed to many manmade sources of phosphorus and sediment.

Singapore sees water as a new growth sector; govt is adopting a “close the water loop” strategy

The Singapore government has made significant improvements over the past few decades to become a regional water hub, as it recognizes water as a new growth sector. We see the government adopting a ‘close the water loop’ strategy to maximize yield, committing to infrastructure that is designed to collect every drop of rainwater, utilizing seawater and reusing endlessly. By optimizing the water systems through Four National Taps and investments into water R&D, Singapore can look forward to an efficient and sustainable water supply that is resilient and caters to its economic growth.

Chinese cities rank in bottom half; Wuhan working hard

The four cities studied in China rank in the bottom half overall – Hong Kong (No. 30), Beijing (No. 31), Shanghai (No. 35), Wuhan (No. 40) – and underperform especially in the quality and efficiency sub-indices. Beijing ranks higher in resiliency (No. 16) due to more green space and reserve water.

HK, Beijing, Shanghai & Wuhan underperform, especially in quality & efficiency

Despite ranking lowest among these four, Wuhan, with more than 12 million residents and the most populous city in Central China, is working hard to deal with water stress, as well as with water balance and reserve water. Flooding from the main Yangtze and Han rivers has been strongly diminished by building high levees and by constructing the Three Gorges Dam. But the location of the city in a large plain still makes the city vulnerable to surface flooding following intense rainfall. Extensive building activities have put a stress on the retention capacity of the city, as in the last decades many lakes and green areas have been urbanized thus the urban drainage system became overwhelmed.

Wuhan working hard on improvements through the Sponge City Programme

Presently the municipality is working hard on improvements through the national Sponge City climate programme. In total 30 cities have been selected as a pilot of the Sponge City Programme, Wuhan was one of the main cities to be selected. Sponge City was established in response to the alarming statistic that the number of Chinese cities affected by flooding has more than doubled since 2008 due to rapid urbanization. Arcadis was selected by the city of Wuhan to be their general advisor to the Sponge City Programme.
Sponge City refers to the innovative solution to create more green and blue public space to absorb, retain and detain stormwater. Sponge City stormwater system also refers to an integrated stormwater system with three stages, and each stage is targeting different rainfall events designed to capture 70%-80% of annual rainfall (24.5-35.2mm in Wuhan). At the same time of this process, Sponge City measures also are designed for diffuse pollution reduction and water resource utilization, thus, not only focusing on absorbing stormwater, but a holistic approach to alleviate water safety, water quality and water shortage issues all together.
Despite the challenges in China, the government is taking measures to develop long-term solutions in partnership with the private sector based on key cities’ needs. Blending green infrastructure with other flood control measures, the new solutions will help improve cities’ water sustainability and serve as a model for other Chinese cities struggling with water issues due to urbanisation and climate change.

Manila outperforms some of its Asian peers in efficiency with Tokyo not far behind

Manila outperforms some of its Asian peers in efficiency as its metering, wastewater reuse and water charges are higher than its regional peers, but it has room for improvement on the resiliency and quality indices. The greater metropolitan area is characterized by extensive informal settlements which developed without proper urban planning.
Flooding after rainstorms occurs regularly and levels of drinking water and sanitation provision are low. The Philippine capital has a sanitation coverage rate of just 12%, one of the lowest in the Index.

Metro Manila planning a flood protection programme with the World Bank

The other large challenge that Manila faces is an adverse geographic location with one of the most challenging climates on earth, as the Philippines is the most-exposed large country in the world to tropical cyclones (typhoons). Manila is prone to frequent flooding and four different types of water-related natural disasters. Metro Manila is now with support of the World Bank planning for a flood protection programme. The city’s score on water balance is also very low, due to a sizeable precipitation deficit in certain months and a huge surplus during the rainy season.
Despite challenges in the region, Tokyo stands out with the sixth best efficiency score despite the lack of wastewater reuse, and minimal reserve water and green space.

Great cities are defined & supported by the water around them

Great cities are defined and supported by the water around them. As water demand rises, aquifers are depleted and the threat of extreme weather becomes increasingly real. This means cities face the risk of being overburdened with too much water or stressed without enough. Cities which carefully and creatively use water assets and improve resiliency will be more liveable, safe and competitive.
The full rankings can be viewed at

Further Reading 

  • 8 Things To Know About Recycling Water – Recycling water could help alleviate some of China’s water challenges. Yet, only 10% of its treated wastewater is recycled. Not sure what reclaimed water is? Check out China Water Risk’s 8 things you should know about water recycling in China
  • Unconventional Water For Power Generation – The power sector is China’s largest industrial water user & is also exposed to water stress. Unconventional water sources such as mine water & municipal wastewater can help with this. China Water Risk’s Thieriot explores these sources
  • Paris Agreement: Food & Water Still At Risk – Even if all pledges made at COP21 are carried out, global staple crops face increased failures and 1.5 billion more people are to face water stress by 2050. MIT’s Mark Dwortzan shares more findings & solutions from their report
  • Environmental Law: 1 Year On – China’s amended Environmental Protection Law has been in effect more than 18 months now. How impactful has it been? Have there been more fines & violations? What about compensation? China Water Risk sat down with Liu Feiqin, from the China University of Political Science & Law, to get her thoughts on this & more
  • Counting the Costs of Floods in China – With China in the midst of one of its worst flood episodes in history, Asit K Biswas & Cecilia Tortajada look at the significant social and economic costs of floods, and what can be done about them
  • Sponge Cities: An Answer To Floods – Floods have cost China close to RMB2 trn between 2000-2014. Today, with 641 cities prone to flood risk, the Chinese govt has turned to sponge city pilots. Do they work? How much do they cost? CWR reviews
  • Water SMART Blue Buildings For Sustainable Urbanisation – Complete coverage of centralized water & sewage systems may never be possible in China, so what can one do? Ecosoftt’s Stanley Samuel & Marcus Lin share how their Water SMART Blue Buildings Standard can be a valid alternative
  • WaterHubs: Infrastructure for Urban Slums – 523 million or 61% of the urban slum population in developing countries is in Asia. Saurabh Saraf, WaterHubs CEO, outlines how WaterHubs can deliver holistic & fiscally viable water & sanitation solutions for slums
  • Can Cities Meet Increasing Water Demands – Nitin Dani and Georgina Glanfield from Green Initiatives Shanghai share their thoughts on how Chinese cities can ensure water security. Can the public play a role?
  • Urban Water-Energy Strategies – With rising urbanisation and the need for more water & power in Chinese cities, water & sustainability expert, Robert Brears shares some price & non-price management tools to better manage urban demands
John Batten
Author: John Batten
As the Global Water and Global Cities Director for Arcadis, John leads a global team dedicated to delivering outcomes that improve quality of life, safely and sustainably. John has more than three decades of experience in the urban water and environmental fields, and now leads a global portfolio of thirteen cities for Arcadis as well as the global water business line. Prior to his current positions, he was the Executive Vice President and the Director of Strategic Client Development for Arcadis North America. John has a wealth of experience which includes management of drinking water and wastewater utilities, water quality and public health, marketing and communications, customer and public relations, vocational training and system optimization. John holds a BS degree in Environmental Sciences from The American University and a Master’s degree in Public Health from New York Medical College.
Read more from John Batten →