Achieving Water Security through Demand Management and Nature-based Solutions

How can demand management and nature-based solutions help achieve water security for all, while helping protect and restore the natural environment? Banner image: Shutterstock/ rdonar
Achieving Water Security through Demand Management and Nature-based Solutions
This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD. Join the Forum Network for free using your email or social media accounts to share your own stories, ideas and expertise in the comments.

Achieving water security is critical to:

  • Ensuring access to safe and sufficient drinking water for all to safeguard human health and well‐being;
  • Protect livelihoods, human rights, and cultural and recreational values;
  • Preserve and protect ecosystems and sustain their critical services.

However, climate change and associated extreme weather events are impacting water security by reducing the availability of water and posing threats to drinking water quality. In the face of interacting factors such as increased temperature, increased sediment, nutrient, and pollutant loadings from heavy rainfall, increased concentrations of pollutants during droughts, and disruption of water and wastewater treatment facilities during floods, conventional treatment processes simply won’t suffice.

The stakes could not be higher. Climatic extremes that affect water quantity and quality expose individuals, communities and countries to numerous socio-economic risks. They notably threaten the global economy. Floods and droughts can directly and indirectly affect a nation’s economy, with immediate consequences. Direct effects include damage to infrastructure, while indirect effects include an aversion to investing in at-risk areas. Meanwhile, poor water quality can impede economic growth. In turn, livelihoods and poverty also stand to be impacted: climate change renders poverty reduction more difficult by creating new poverty traps and prolonging existing ones, particularly in countries where economic inequality is on the rise.

Human health is also at risk. Climate change impacts human health mainly by exacerbating existing health problems. Examples include injury, disease, and death due to more intense heatwaves, undernutrition from diminished food production, especially in poor regions, and increased risk from waterborne diseases.

Read more on the Forum Network: "Health as the Central Driver for Action on Climate Change" by Renee N. Salas, Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Read more on the Forum Network: "Health as the Central Driver for Action on Climate Change" by Renee N. Salas, Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

In the same way, human security stands to suffer. Climate change can increase the likelihood of conflicts by amplifying existing difficulties, including economic weaknesses, a lack of adequate infrastructure, and weak governance. As the probability of displacement increases when populations experience higher exposures to extreme weather events, climate change is further projected to increase the number of displaced people.

Demand Management and Green Infrastructure

To address these risks and achieve water security for all, both demand management and nature-based solutions have a crucial role to play.

Demand management involves making better use of existing water supplies before attempting to increase them further. Specifically, it promotes water conservation during normal and abnormal conditions through changes in practices, culture, and people’s attitudes toward water resources. It seeks to reduce the loss and misuse of water, optimise its use, and facilitate significant financial and infrastructural savings by minimising the need to meet increasing demand with new supplies. Demand management tools include water pricing, smart water metering, and developing alternative water sources. A number of polities across the globe provide important examples of how this can be achieved:

  • The City of Vancouver has a seasonal water rate, where the water rate increases during the warmer months to reflect the added cost of supplying water to the city.
  • Singapore’s Public Utilities Board is rolling out 300,000 smart water meters island-wide from 2022 onwards, with consumption data sent back to customers in the form of hourly breakdowns the following day.
  • Austin Water’s Onsite Water Reuse System Pilot Incentive Program incentivises the development of systems that collect, treat, and reuse rainwater, stormwater, and greywater for non-potable uses onsite.

To rise to the water security challenge, nature-based solutions will be equally essential. These involve using natural or semi-natural systems that utilise nature’s ecosystem services to manage water resources and associated risks. NBS comes in various shapes and sizes and is implemented in a wide variety of contexts to mitigate the impacts of floods and droughts. A key aspect of nature-based solutions is their multifunctionality:  they allow harnessing the interrelationships between vegetation and the water cycle to enhance both sustainable development and water- and greenery-related ecosystem services.

  • The Hague, for instance, has launched a subsidy for the construction of green roofs throughout the city.
  • In Melbourne, the government owned water utility company Greater Western Water has created a Stormwater Harvesting Partnering Fund to help communities develop projects that promote sustainable water management and reduce demand for potable water, including projects that irrigate sports grounds and public open spaces.
  • New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection’s Watershed Forest Management Plan protects the city’s unfiltered water supply, the largest in the United States. The plan ensures diversity of forest species while protecting them from development. 

Across the globe, the summer 2021 has provided dire reminders that extreme weather events are on the rise. Yet, we are not left high and dry in the face of water (in)security. Through demand management and nature-based solutions, it is not too late to achieve water security for all, while helping protect and restore the natural environment.

To learn more, read also the OECD report: "Toolkit for Water Policies and Governance: Converging Towards the OECD Council Recommendation on Water"

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