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World Water Day: “Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge”

Posted by Jean-Louis Oliver on 22 March 2011

March 22 of each year was designated for the observance of World Water Day in order to draw attention to the importance of fresh water and to support the sustainable management of this precious resource.

The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) recommended an international day to celebrate fresh water. The United Nations General Assembly responded by choosing March 22, 1993 as the first World Water Day.

Each year, the World Water Day highlights a particular aspect of fresh water. In 2011, the aim is to attract international attention to the impact of rapid growth of urban populations, of industrialization, and of uncertainties caused by climate change, conflicts, and natural disasters on urban water systems.

This year’s theme, “Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge” aims to highlight and encourage governments, organizations, communities, and individuals to actively commit to meet the challenge of urban water management.

The figures speak for themselves: in the early 20th century, 200 million people lived in cities or 14% of the world’s population. Since 2008 and for the first time in the history of mankind, the majority of the planet’s population now lives in cities and in 2050, world population will reach 9 billion people with 4.5 billion in urban zones, over 50% of the world’s population. The exponential and anarchic growth of global cities exacerbates the development of urban wastelands on the outskirts of cities, where human populations settle with no access to infrastructures and essential public services. The situation in these urban areas degrades living conditions and the human dignity of the inhabitants, as well as significantly increasing health and social risks.

More than ever, water supplies; collecting and disposing of wastewater and stormwater; protection against floods in these cities, often located near a river, lake or sea have all become major priorities.

The key challenge is to channel urban growth by providing a comprehensive planning vision of urban development. Such a vision needs to include successive anticipatory horizons and must be based on continuity and spatial coherence within territorial planning policies at the regional, urban, and rural levels.

Managing urban water cycles is vital to such a project. First, it ensures the population has access to water and sanitation, including the most disadvantaged individuals. Secondly, it allows water to become a structuring element of urban space and landscape, for recreational use around ponds and fountains in parks and public gardens; but also for risk management by restructuring river banks, with the necessary expansion areas for floods or for storing rainwater.

All urban actors must be mobilized

Like surface water, groundwater, a precious resource to be mobilized for populations in need, must be protected by measures of integrated and sustainable management.

Urban water management goes far beyond mere public intervention. Within the same collective support system, it needs to integrate sustainable development’s three pillars: economic, environmental and social. This can only be accomplished through the involvement of civil society at the local level.

A sustainable city must be based on a comprehensive strategy for both urban development and public policies implemented in the areas of education, training, solidarity, employment, etc.

To achieve this, all urban actors must be mobilized: elected officials; planners; architects; engineers; sociologists; building, public works, utilities and finance professionals; associations, and of course those who are most directly concerned: the inhabitants themselves.

There is no single model for sustainable cities. Each is built within a specific geographical, historical, economic, social, and cultural context. Each city draws on its history and roots, with a humanistic vision for the future that is fueled by those who live therein.

The rapid pace of urban and suburban growth is today the greatest global challenge to achieving access to water and sanitation for all.

It is with this in mind that France and the city of Marseille are preparing to host the 6th World Water Forum in March 2012. This Forum must encourage the enhanced mobilization of all public, private, and voluntary entities involved in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in this vital sector.

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