Why sustainable water management needs a systemic solution

Ensuring that fresh water is available, in a sustainable manner, is fundamental to climate resilience. 

Access to drinking water is a basic human need. The European Pillar of Social Rights places water and sanitation as one of the essential services everyone should have access to. Water also underpins our economy — a fundamental part of agricultural, industrial and energy production. 

Yet because of our changing climate, Europe is increasingly facing situations of either too much water, or not enough. Torrential rains and floods can devastate communities and infrastructure, while droughts damage crops, contribute to wildfires and dry up rivers, reservoirs and watercourses. Climate change exacerbates the challenge of shared water resources across borders, and low river flows, increased water temperatures, flooding and forest loss increase the risk of contamination and pollution of fresh water supply.

In the new Adaptation Strategy from the European Union launched on 24 February , the European Commission acknowledged that smart, sustainable water requires closer cooperation between adaptation action and water management authorities, and transformational changes across all sectors. 

“Transformational change in water management means switching focus from stand-alone projects, like concrete flood walls, to more systemic solutions that might, for example, couple river restoration with wetland creation, or pair flood forecasting and warning systems with new insurance mechanisms,” says Ellie Tonks, a Programme Lead specialising in adaptation and resilience with EIT Climate-KIC. 

She says that as a result of continued growth, climate change and the deterioration of urban infrastructure, cities especially are facing a number of compounded challenges. The blended problem of water abundance and scarcity means there is a real need for an integrated and holistic approach to water management that addresses resources, services, infrastructure and risks, all at the same time.

“We need to implement multiple actions simultaneously, consistent with treating adaptation as a systemic challenge, rather than distinct project-by-project, sector-by-sector actions,” she says. 

Different paths 

Tonks adds that in our approach to adapting to climate change impacts, human and ecological systems have the potential to go different ways. “Our responses can either lock-in vulnerabilities, or build resilience,” she says.

Locking in further vulnerabilities can also be known as ‘maladaptation’. This is where our response is built on new or existing projects that reinforce, redistribute or even create sources of vulnerability. Many of these adaptation projects are unsustainable and can even end up being more damaging than the climate impacts the projects are trying to solve. 

The alternative is to build long-term resilience by involving local people in the design and implementation of projects, and by addressing the drivers of climate risk as well as local challenges and power dynamics.

Protecting communities from flooding for instance can either mean building more hard infrastructure and concrete walls, a key driver of surface runoff, or instead designing sponge cities using plants and green spaces, which not only as act as water basins but also bring health and wellbeing benefits to local residents.

Left-field thinking 

Replacing current urban water infrastructure, like urban drainage and supply systems, is an example of an adaptation need that is “labour intensive, expensive and could lock in further vulnerabilities,” says Tonks.

Field Factors, an EIT Climate-KIC supported start-up from the Netherlands, has developed an alternative approach. 

As specialists in water technology solutions, they have developed Bluebloqs, a nature-based solution for decentralised water management in cities. Bluebloqs works by locally collecting, treating and storing stormwater. The integrated circular water system means the stormwater is then reused on site to meet local fresh water demand. Instead of rainwater being discharged into the sewer, the water is stored and reused, tackling a range of challenges by preventing sewer overflow, reducing flood risk and also contributing to a sustainable, locally sourced supply of freshwater. 

“The solution brought to market by Field Factors represents a mindset shift in the way society values and manages both water resources and the infrastructures that manage those resources,” says Tonks. 

The system can be implemented at building, property or even neighbourhood level. It has the added benefit of adding green to existing infrastructure and can retrofit projects with a minimum use of space. The technology is now operational in four cities across Europe and currently in use in industrial settings, as well as green parks and sports stadiums.

Field Factors is just one of many projects proving the scalability, viability and benefits of adaptation innovation that takes us on a path to sustainable, long-term resilience instead of a quick fix.  

“We need to continue to support innovators that are thinking differently about water management in urban environments, while recognising the need to move from gradually improving our urban resilience to making larger shifts more quickly,” Tonks adds. 

“Transformational change can come from a series of incremental steps, that will eventually lead to a tipping point of the whole system.”

 
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