Interview with Kala Vairavamoorthy, SWITCH Scientific Director

Posted on December 16, 2010

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Kala VairavamoorthyBy Andrea van der Kerk

What are your expectations on the Conference?

I have high expectations from the conference. I hope that the conference can catalyse change towards more sustainable urban water management in the “City of the Future”. This can only be achieved by demonstrating research and sharing knowledge across a range of different geographical, climatic and socio-cultural settings, so that the global adoption of more sustainable solutions can be accelerated.

What do you perceive to be the main challenges for Sustainable Water Management (SWM) in cities?

The current models of urban water systems and their corresponding infrastructure, originates from the 19th century, when populations were relatively small, and there was a view that water was.

These urban water management systems were never built for contemporary challenges. Today, cities all over the world are facing a range of dynamic regional and global pressures, such as climate change, population growth, urbanization, deterioration of urban infrastructure systems and more. Due to these pressures cities will experience difficulties in efficiently managing scarcer and less reliable water resources. In order to meet these challenges there is a need for a fundamental change in the way we manage urban water based on a foundation of research, technology and innovation.

There needs to be a recognition that the traditional range of ad-hoc responses, to the problems arising from conventional urban water management, will not be sufficient to cope with future global predicted changes.

What solutions or approaches in relation to these challenges would you like to highlight at this Conference?

There is a need for a fundamental change in the way we manage urban water based on a foundation of research, technology and innovation. In particular I hope that the conference can stress the importance of conducting research within an alliance of practitioners, researchers and policy makers.

This can lead to greater impact and more potential for taking innovations to scale. In addition by working with stakeholders can create the imperative for change that is essential for a sustainable urban water management. What makes it makes difficult is that in many places we have well functioning but unsustainable systems, where the decline is very slow. The imperative for change requires a change in the mindset of governments, financiers, consulting firms and the general public. Finally multi-stakeholder alliances will ultimately guide and support the implementation of research by taking account of local problems and needs. We should stop talking and start to create the change on the ground.

Thinking about the City of the Future, what main change in urban water management would you like to see being realised? Why is this change achievable (or not), taking into account the current trends?

To ensure a more sustainable future there is a need for a paradigm shift. More is needed than simply improving the performance and efficiency of the component parts – change is needed at a system-wide level as well. This paradigm shift should be based on innovation and cities like Zaragoza should become ‘cities of the future’, always looking ahead, always willing to challenge conventional wisdom and always seeking to break new ground. To achieve sustainable development, we need to recognize the high-level relationships among water resources, energy, and land use in an urbanizing world.

We need to reconsider the way water is used and reused. The challenge of servicing more people with scarcer water resources requires us to critically look into water use practices and to develop strategies that maximize the benefits of water services while minimizing the usage of both water and energy. SWITCH has developed innovations that promote increased recycling of wastewater that will ensure that water can be used multiple times, by cascading it from higher to lower-quality needs.

Energy efficient treatment options are being developed around natural systems, capable of removing multiple contaminants in a single system. SWITCH has developed water saving concepts and technologies that are intelligent and self-regulating based on feedback control systems, underpinned by decision support systems.

Finally, we need to learn how to design and manage systems in an uncertain world, since most external pressures, such as climate change, show a huge degree of uncertainties associated with them. These uncertainties cause difficulties when developing urban water management strategies. SWITCH has developed a framework that can generate flexible urban water systems that are robust and adaptable to new, different, or changing requirements. For example, SWITCH has investigated the potential of small-scale decentralized stormwater measures such as green roofs. These decentralised options provide internal degrees of freedom, allowing many different combinations of stormwater options to be considered so that their flexibility can be optimized over time.

How can local authorities enhance pro-poor practices in urban water management?

In developing countries, urban water services where water supply is often limited, the operation and maintenance of urban water services are poor and there are seriously deteriorating assets. The emphasis should be to improve the levels of service for low-income areas where much of the population, spend considerable time and money collecting low quantities of water from irregular and often contaminated supplies. More appropriate levels of service that recognise the true situation on the ground and techniques to operationalize these levels of service have to be developed. So moving from a service that is totally irregular, to a service which regular even if it is intermittent could be an improvement.

One essential approach in coping with the challenges in developing countries is integrated urban water management (IUWM). By applying an integrated approach to urban water management, it should be possible to satisfy the water needs of a community at the lowest cost whilst minimising adverse environmental and social impacts. Often in developing countries, it is the interactions between the urban water systems that can result in poor quality water leading to outbreaks of water borne diseases. It is widely recognised that it is important to consider these interactions in order to maintain an effective, efficient and safe service of water and sanitation.

In the light of pro-poor practices, it is important to emphasise that the issue of slums still forms a huge challenge. The number of people living in slums is set to double by 2030 and improving the living conditions in slums is one of the MDGs. Success in improving living conditions in slums will largely depend on stimulating informal slum improvement by slum dwellers themselves. We need to spend more time exploring slum upgrading programme strategies and investigating the global potential of strategies like slum networking. This approach does not aim to find solutions exclusively for the slum areas of a city but rather to integrate the slums into the wider city and provide a better infrastructure and quality of life for both. Depriving the slums from urban services creates problems for people in the whole urban area. Integrating the slum communities into services like water supply can create economies of scale and improve performances of the entire urban area. Thus providing services to the slum areas is better for everybody, not just for those people living in slums.

How can pro-poor practices accelerate the progress on realising the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)?

There are several constraints that are impeding the progress towards the MDGs in particular external pressures such as the predicted rapid urbanisation and climate change as well as technical, financial and institutional constraints. These constraints will make it a huge challenge to realise the MDGs. The MDGs are essentially about servicing more people with water, which requires us to critically look at water use practices and develop strategies that maximise the benefits while minimising the usage.  Balancing the demands of water needs to be accompanied with the use of new and alternative sources. In this respect I think the concept of recycling and re-using water will be very important, particularly also in developing countries.

In relation to the MDGs, we are not paying enough attention to the innovations that are coming out of the developing world. There needs to be a stronger commitment to promote locally driven research. A network of partners from the developing world sharing their experiences should be developed, because the conditions tend to be similar in many of the developing cities. If research and innovations from developing countries would be used and implemented in other developing countries, progress towards the MDGs can be significantly speeded up. Newly emerging urban areas can do things differently in the future by capturing lessons from the developing countries.

Which of the Conference messages for World Water Day 2011 would you like to highlight and why?

My message would be Change towards sustainable water management in cities is possible and stakeholders need to cooperate and collaborate in order to make the change happen.

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