Better urban planning key to protecting water resources

Rapid urbanisation is leading cities to divert water from the countryside to quench the thirst of their growing urban populations — and it is putting rural regions at risk of drought. Better urban planning and governance could mitigate this increasing inequality.

Water reallocation – the practice of transferring water from the countryside to cities – is deepening inequality between urban and rural regions and fostering resentment and resistance. Climate change is set to worsen this, as highlighted by recent drought crises (and conflicts) in Cape Town, Melbourne and Sao Paolo.

A new study has now revealed the extent of this problem: worldwide, 69 cities with a population of 383 million people receive some 16 billion cubic metres of reallocated water per year, almost the annual flow of the Colorado River. Rural-to-urban water reallocation is especially problematic in North America and Asia.

The researchers call this just the tip of the iceberg. “Our review shows that we are woefully underestimating the size and scale, as well as the costs and benefits, of rural-to-urban water reallocation, due to major blind spots in the data, particularly where South American and Africa are concerned. These are places where future water pressures are likely to be highest,” said lead author Dustin Garrick of the University of Oxford.

According to Garrick, rural regions need to be involved in the design, development and implementation of reallocation projects, pointing to the Mexican city of Monterrey, which provided farmers with compensation and city wastewater for irrigation. Likewise, cities need to be designed in a way that they depend less on their surroundings and can, for example, re-use part of the water they waste.

“It is our hope that decision-makers can be better prepared to act on evidence, particularly before crises hit and the pressure for quick action can lead to rash decisions and avoidable risks,” added contributing author Lucia De Stefano, associate professor at Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

Image credit: Allison Kwesell / World Bank via Flickr

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