A version of this post originally appeared on Forbes.
From flooding in Louisiana and Shaanxi, China to droughts in Brazil and southern Africa, just the past week has been full of headlines about water. Crisis seems the new normal, and whether too much or too little, a water crisis is occurring somewhere in the world right now.
These recurring narratives as well as some less familiar statistics point to a daunting challenge: Half of the world’s cities experience water scarcity; by 2030, two-thirds of us may live in a water-stressed region, and we may face a 40% shortfall in water supply relative to human demand. Water is essential to human well-being. Finite, we manage it as though it were inexhaustible. Invaluable, we fail to adequately account for it and the ecosystems that provide it, threatening our very ability to respond to future human needs on a changing planet. Yet, rethinking our stewardship of water, with a view to water’s multiple scales will enable the resilience of ecosystems and economies.
The case for freshwater resilience
In the next two weeks in Stockholm for World Water Week, we call on leaders to embrace a new approach to managing water, one we call freshwater resilience. This approach also needs to inform other key global events: the UN General Assembly in New York, and the UN Habitat III conference in Quito in October, which will set the urban development agenda for the next 20 years.
“Freshwater resilience means that freshwater ecosystems (think lakes, rivers and aquifers) can handle changes, particularly climate, and still continue to deliver their essential services. This is the fundamental principle of resilience: being able to respond and adapt to shocks and stresses and to transform when conditions require it.”
What exactly must be able to adapt and transform? In this case, it’s not water itself, but rather our collective approach to managing this vital resource. From river basins to groundwater stores, we need to manage them in a way to ensure that everyone gets a fair share, while being prepared for certain shifts in supply.
The example of Indore, India
This is not a pipedream. This is a reality thanks to the leadership of citizens of Indore, India—a first among many cities that are building resilience into their development agendas.
A city of 1.5 million, Indore relies heavily on the distant Narmada River, almost 80 km away (about 50 miles) for water. This is costly and energy-intensive, yet necessary because of the rapidly growing population and water scarcity in the city limits. Additionally, much of the groundwater was contaminated and rainfall is increasingly unpredictable and all too often scarce. Poor residents have had to walk or wait—or both—to get the water they need for daily life.
As part of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (supported by The Rockefeller Foundation), a collaboration among India’s Taru Leading Edge, Indore’s government and community members, resulted in a diverse set of solutions to improve water management. This includes water provision, quality, use and storage, particularly when back-up supplies are needed. This integrated and diversified system with layers of redundancy for sourcing and storing water, are in fact pillars of resilience-building.
In practical terms, this included constructing a community-managed reverse osmosis (RO) plant, which uses simple filtration technology to provide safe drinking water. They now even have a surplus of quality water, which they sell to better-off residents nearby who appreciate its reliability. The initial investment in the RO plant construction has been recouped, and there are nearly 100 other sites in the city being considered for RO plants.
Indore is taking a new approach to managing its 24 lakes, too. Many have been drained or paved under rapid urbanization: Some have run dry, others are choked with weeds and waste. But with a resilience mindset, the city sees these lakes as a means to create an emergency supply for periods of water stress. To restore its lakes, Indore has worked in partnership with Taru and a diverse group of community representatives to deploy floating islands, which serve as natural filters as well as microbial treatment of lake water to remove pollutants. Community and business leaders are cooperating to ensure that trash and solid waste are treated and do not end up in the lakes. Recently, two lakes have come back to life, and the government is now investing to take this approach city-wide.
Indore is just one city of thousands that is navigating water stress, urbanization and climate change. As Indore has demonstrated, water resilience requires an end-to-end approach across scales and stakeholders. The “upstream” and “downstream” cannot be rationally separated. Freshwater resilience demands that we take a pragmatic approach that allows us to be ready for whatever is next. We don’t know the future, but we can be sure that planning now will allow our cities to be resilient, and that those who need water—which is all of us—can share fairly in this resource.