Travel with care: an introduction to Urban Water Management Paradigms

Water and city, Stockholm by Jimmy Harris (CC)

This post is a brief overview of the recently published article, The Water‐Sensitive City: Implications of an urban water management paradigm and its globalization, written by the authors: Françoise Bichai and Andres Cabrera Flamini.

Academics and practitioners of the urban water sector have been concerned with growing challenges of water services provision around the globe for decades. As part of the response to ensure the adequacy and sustainability of these services, numerous urban water management (UWM) paradigms have emerged as proposed solutions. Integrated UWM, Sustainable UWM, Water Sensitive Cities (WSC) and Water-Wise Cities have become some of the most prominent discourses promoted in the urban water sector. Yet, these concepts were largely developed by academics and practitioners from (and thus for) high income countries.

As these paradigms continue to travel the globe, they have the potential to shift high and low income countries’ approaches to providing solutions to existing localized water problems. This article, written as an introduction for young water professionals to these emerging UWM paradigms, also takes the space to question whether they can and should be promoted globally.

Proposed UWM paradigms as response to pressures and challenges in the urban water sector

Common ground of UWM paradigms

An overview of the UWM paradigms mentioned above points towards a common approach to facing the growing challenges of the urban water sector:

Complex urban water challenges need to be tackled through integrating across institutional and technological silos in order to restore and prevent further socio-environmental harms, while increasing the benefits and efficiency of water services.

This entails a number of on-going changes. First, it calls for considering and taking advantage of the urban water cycle in its entirety to increase efficiency and reduce pressure on exploited resources. Re-use, “fit-for-purpose”/alternative water schemes, and decentralized systems are some of the technical and management approaches considered. Second, the engagement with a broader set of stakeholders becomes crucial. Multi-sector approaches and synergies are to be sought for (e.g. water and energy sectors). Additionally, consideration of the environment as a stakeholder is paramount in order to ensure that requirements for ecological sustainability are accounted/argued for, integrated and maintained. Third, particularly for the WSC, the incorporation of social aspects – through the involvement of social sciences and pro-active two-way discussions with communities – are deemed vital to address the wicked problems of water, as they support context-adequate solutions that count with the support and buy-in of relevant actors. Through these changes, UWM paradigms provide approaches to securing a sustainable urban water future.

And yet, there remains a critical question/challenge: currently there is not a single city in the world that can be described as a Water Sensitive City. Rather, loose elements of the WSC are progressively (somewhat ad-hoc) incorporated, with the promoted benefits usually emerging when institutional coordination can adequately support the transition. If the cities that have already achieved adequate drinking water, sanitation, and drainage services, which are also expected to have the resources to maintain them, do not yet fully transition to a WSC, what of those numerous and fast-growing cities that cannot meet basic service provision in face of persisting and complex challenges? Considering this, we turn the discussion towards the applicability and usefulness of such paradigms, especially in mid- and low income cities.

Caution advised as UWM paradigms travel

The WSC and analogous paradigms mainly arose in academic and practitioner circles in high income countries. As global processes go, these UWM paradigms are increasingly also promoted as solutions for low income countries. Yet, due consideration of the (different) existing challenges and unique contexts of these places is quite often understated. For example, implementing green infrastructure for improved stormwater management, a practice well supported by the principles of the WSC and potentially preferable to traditional (grey) drainage infrastructure in some developing cities, could lead to unintended negative consequences if other basic services like solid waste management are not well coordinated (Mguni et al. 2016). Adapting these paradigms to the local context is thus crucial, as different areas of a city will likely also have diverging levels of service and access (Fisher-Jeffes et al. 2014).

Previous experiences with the export of similar “nirvana-like” concepts (that claim to solve everything for everyone), shows that they tend to fail when applied in different contexts, with the added problem of leaving legacies of additional institutional, technical and social problems (Molle, 2008). As attractive as it may be to transfer these models globally and leap-frog development phases where infrastructural and institutional gaps are found, it is vital to account for local idiosyncrasies to prevent the risk of potentially interfering with local priorities that may call for other preferable context-specific strategies, and in the process misuse limited existing resources.

We hope this article is useful for young professionals to further their understanding of ongoing urban water sector management challenges, as well as foster two-way conversations, spaces, and opportunities for academics and practitioners around the globe as we all share experiences and thus further our joint efforts towards a sustainable and liveable (water) future.


Andres Cabrera Flamini

I am a Lecturer and Researcher at IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft, Netherlands, originally from Colombia. A mechanical engineer by training, a WASH humanitarian by trade, and a life-long learner by nature, I'm passionate about exploring the intersections and tensions of water, foreign aid, knowledge exchange, and perceptions.

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