Cities and Water Governance: A sustainable perspective for water access and management


“Water is an essential resource for the survival of cities. Throughout history, this element has shaped prosperity, location and even health of cities.”


What is the purpose of cities? Nowadays, we can see and hear that nature and countryside are the new true luxury, but then, we have these mega-populated cities across the globe which do not seem to be going away anytime soon. If we define the purpose of cities and if we really understand them, then we can be able to realize the urgent need for urban regeneration.

A city is more than the sum of its buildings; it includes services and infrastructure, hinterland, and agriculture that its inhabitants use to consume energy, resources, and land. (Downton 2009). Thus, water is within the backbone of the resources needed for a thriving city, now this vital liquid is one of the environmental and social problems that we must face. Especially, if we take into account the predictions that states the devastating consequences of a future shaken by climate change which includes an excess (caused by floods) or a decrease in the quality and quantity of the so called blue element.

Water resources in many urban areas of the world are threatened by scarcity, pollution. Now with climate change, cities are facing challenges of their own adaptation and resilience, from urban development to basic living conditions. The urban infrastructure which has been left behind, is inefficient and inoperative. The excessive population growth without considering sustainability controls makes urgent the adaptation of new urbanization plans that successfully integrates public policy and new technologies to guarantee a sustainable water access while minimizing climate change impacts.

Consolidating water as a source of social well-being and sustainable development, while preserving natural resources, requires primarily, the engagement of national and local agencies responsible for distributing and cleaning up water, as well as maintenance of the operational efficiency of water management systems in cities.

Water management has been a challenge in different periods of history, its complexity lies in expansive population and industrial growth, which in turn, has involved problems of contamination, supply, over-exploitation, quality, among others. In this context, different types of administration, operation and solution with their respective approaches have been formed, resulting into the development of a network of institutions, actors, techniques, regulatory frameworks, programs, projects, public policies, instruments and other tools to cope with such situation (Diaz 2018).

As we can infer at this point, water is an essential resource for the survival of cities. Throughout history, this element has shaped prosperity, location and even health of cities. It is well known that great civilizations have been formed along water sources. It is not surprising that urban settlements have been established along the Tigris and Seine rivers, and examples like these can be found in every country and in all five continents.

The different approaches analyzed on water management have always been historical, anthropological, legal and social, emphasizing symbolic, cultural, political and economic elements, but ignoring a central piece for its study: space and territory, more specifically, the social configuration of the territory and the socio-spatial relations that this implies. Therefore, public policies that have been implemented are part of an element of unequal access to water, thus disregarding the inherent human right in its consumption.

Human nature gives us a kaleidoscope of co-evolving circumstances.They involve cultural and politics aspects, environmental issues, power and economical distribution; water is interconnected to all of these circumstances in the so-called community or social space.

As has been established, water infrastructures have changed over time, and under current conditions, an imminent modernization change on urban water systems is not only visible in the near future but mandatory. Nowadays it is almost impossible to talk about sustainability without mentioning climate change, water is an integral component of these two concepts and the primary medium through which it exhibits its impacts.

On the global scale, 95% of urban development seems to occur without proper planning, plus, the world’s urban population is projected to grow by more than two billion by 2030, (UN-HABITAT 2003). With this in mind, is necessary to say that 94% of this urban population growth will be in less developed regions, and by 2030 the urban population will have, by far, surpassed the rural population. This means that virtually all the additional needs of the world’s future population will have to be addressed in the urban areas of low- and middle-income countries (Sanchez 2013). There will be an unprecedented demand for water in urban areas.

Access to water is a cornerstone of development and a strong driver for reducing inequalities. It is a determining factor for economic growth, environmental health, and social welfare. The water crisis the world is going through is now largely due to a crisis of governance. Securing water for all, especially vulnerable populations, is often not just a water resources issue, but also a matter of good governance. The survival of our specie’s civilization depends on how we make our cities work and how sustainable we are with laws and policies that establish water management.

Cities can adapt existing solutions to their local contexts of social spaces and territorial configurations, ensuring the participation of all stakeholders (final users, companies, governments, entities, community associations, regulators…) and accountability mechanisms in order to join forces, share risks and responsibilities to achieve equitable and sustainable results in water governance. There is not a universal response for all situations, but rather the need to design local and contextualized policies that integrate territorial and cultural specificities.

Normally, the key challenges of implementing water governance include a high degree of territorial and institutional fragmentation; lack of capacity of local actors; weak legislation, bad regulations and transparency; questionable resource allocation; irregular financial management; weak policy objectives, and lack of knowledge of new technologies and tools to achieve a more efficient and sustainable water management. Such challenges become particularly serious due to the intrinsic characteristics of the water sector, which often combines several governance gaps compared to other areas of natural resources or infrastructure sectors.

The complexity of urban areas results from their heterogeneity and is within this context that water governance in cities remains unclear, but now, it is time that different visions emerge with a  more holistic approach, starting from sustainability and integrating new technologies, current practices, and focused studies to ensure water access and thus protect the citizen rights in modern cities.


Mots clés : Water, Governance, Cities, Sustainability

L’auteur a consulté les références bibliographiques suivantes :

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