If we are going to live in cities, there must be water

Posted in: Department of Chemical Engineering, Opinion, Research

Author: Professor Jan Hofman

More than half of the global population lives in cities and the percentage of people living there is still growing. These urban dwellers all need water, but their prospects are not very bright. This is the result of 10 years of research led by Professor Kees van Leeuwen (Global Chair 2017-18) and Dr Stef Koop of Utrecht University and KWR Water Research Institute.

I have been a part of this international research team along with our Water Innovation and Research Centre.The study involved many students at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht. Also, some of our MSc Environmental Engineering students contributed to the result. The Free University of Brussels, the universities of Inner Mongolia and Nankai (both in the People's Republic of China), and UNESCO also made important contributions to the research.

The world needs to water-wise up

The team investigated water management practice in more than 200 cities in the world. Only two cities, Amsterdam and Singapore, deserve to be called water-wise. A city is water-wise if its water management is nearly self-sustaining and circular, and it also recovers energy and materials from waste and wastewater. Its infrastructure is multi-functional and adaptive and integrated into urban planning.

Stef Koop says “urban dwellers are victims of poor urban water governance, with grave results from flooding, heat stress, and severe water shortages to health risks, loss of biodiversity and poor provision of drinking water, wastewater treatment, and sanitation.”

Of the 200 cities we assessed, 145 performed very poorly on wastewater treatment, energy recovery, and climate adaptation. And not only in Asia, Latin America, and Africa but also cities in North America and Eastern Europe were on this list. Many cities in Africa and Asia are also lacking good water supply and sanitation.

Informing SDGs

The results of this study are important for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this study, the team focused on two of these:

  • SDG6: ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • SDG11: make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable

According to Kees van Leeuwen the delivery of the SDGs is a political choice. He says, “you only earn water if you care for it.” But often the means and resources for that are lacking. He continues “lack of data are hindering the development of the SDGs. It is impossible to develop cities and steer the process of progress if we can't monitor it. Our research unfortunately tells us that many cities will probably not achieve SDG 6 and 11 by 2030”.

This of course means that targets for other SDGs will also not be achieved, because water plays a central role. This is an important message for World Water Day and the UN Water Conference in New York (22-24 March 2023).

It was fantastic that we could contribute to this international research at Bath. It has helped our focus on water security and the results laid an excellent foundation for further water research. We are currently working on exploring how social inequalities and diversity in cities affect water security.


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

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

Posted in: Department of Chemical Engineering, Opinion, Research


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