If we're all going to live in cities, we will need water

Research on 200 cities worldwide

Joint press release Utrecht University and KWR Water Research Institute

More than half of the world's population lives in cities, a percentage that is only going to increase. All those people need water but the outlook is not particularly optimistic, warns an international group of environmental scientists led by Utrecht University and KWR Water Research Institute. They examined water management in 200 cities around the world. Of those cities, only Amsterdam and Singapore can be classified as "water wise." The research has been ongoing for more than a decade and was conducted mainly by students at Utrecht's Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development.

According to Stef Koop, a researcher at KWR and the Copernicus Institute, there are only a few water wise cities worldwide. "That means they are largely circular and therefore water self-sufficient. They recover raw materials and energy from their waste and wastewater. They also have multifunctional and adaptive infrastructure, and integrate water into their urban planning." Globally, water in the city will become the next issue where people become victims of governance inability, Koop warns. "The consequences are enormous. From flooding to heat stress and severe water shortages. Or large-scale health risks and loss of biodiversity due to inadequate provision of drinking water, sanitation and wastewater treatment."

Sustainable development goals

The researchers looked at how cities score on the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 6 (Healthy Water and Sanitation) and SDG 11 ( Sustainable Cities and Communities). "Effectiveness of governance seems decisive for achieving those SDGs," clarifies Chloé Grison, former master's student at the Copernicus Institute and KWR and currently working as manager of public infrastructure at Invest International. "For that level of effectiveness, the World Bank sets the criteria. As it turns out, in cities with effective governance, water management is also good. Or as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, says: If you want to fix the water pipes, start with the institutions."


Of the 200 cities studied, 145 underperformed on the topics of wastewater treatment, energy recovery and climate adaptation. "Not only in Asia, Latin America and Africa, but also in North America and Eastern Europe." Many cities in Africa and Asia fall short when it comes to proper drinking water supply and sanitation. "The latter also plays out in Latin America."

Political choice

Achieving the SDGs is a political choice, stresses Kees van Leeuwen, professor of Water Management and Urban Development at the Copernicus Institute. "You only earn your water if you actually care about it. And since most of us live in cities, achieving the goals of SDG 6 and SDG 11 is crucial for humanity." But the resources to do so are mostly lacking now. "Data gaps stand in the way of achieving these goals. It is not possible to drive a process if progress is not properly monitored. In this way cities and countries cannot be held accountable for their limited progress in a timely manner. This is a major impediment to achieving SDGs 6 and 11. Therefore, based on our analysis, it is highly likely that in many places the targets of SDGs 6 and 11 will not be met by 2030. This also has major implications for achieving the other SDGs because water often plays a central role in them."


In addition to the master's students from Utrecht University and KWR, the University of Bath (United Kingdom), the Free University of Brussels, the universities of Inner Mongolia and Nankai (both in the People's Republic of China) and UNESCO made important contributions to the research.


Chloé Grison, Stef Koop, Steven Eisenreich, Jan Hofman, I-Shin Chang, Jing Wu, Dragan Savic, Kees van Leeuwen, ‘Integrated Water Resources Management in Cities in the World: Global Challenges’, Water Resources Management, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11269-023-03475-3 / https://rdcu.be/c8aKm

Stef H.A. Koop, Chloé Grison, Steven J. Eisenreich, Jan Hofman, Kees van Leeuwen, ‘Integrated water resources management in cities in the world: Global solutions’, Sustainable Cities and Society, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scs.2022.104137