This initiative is helping countries in Asia to turn water’s threats into opportunities

Water is a common factor underlying many of the most complex challenges facing the world in the coming century – from floods and droughts to pollution, food insecurity, and conflict over scarce freshwater resources. By the same logic, a focus on water can potentially lead to solutions that address multiple areas of sustainable development at the same time.

T he Water as Leverage for Resilient Cities Asia programme was a winner at the Dutch Design Awards 2020 last month in the “Best Commissioning” category. The award will give the Water as Leverage approach new impetus to scale up across the Asia region and globally.

Launched in 2018, Water as Leverage is a competition, initially involving three Asian cities, to design comprehensive projects that address the city’s challenges with water – and, by using water as an entry point, build their resilience to climate change more generally.

In giving the award, the Dutch Design Week jury noted that Water as Leverage “shows that we can approach even large, global issues as an opportunity instead of as a threat”.

Investing millions to leverage billions

Water as Leverage aims to tackle three related problems. First, there has traditionally been a lack of funding for the pre-project preparation phase in climate infrastructure investment. This includes research, building capacity, nurturing coalitions, creating innovations and developing designs.

Investing more resources in this pre-project phase can lead to the development of better projects, which can then seek bigger amounts of funding. As Henk Ovink, the Netherlands Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, puts it: “It takes millions to invest billions wisely”.

Water as Leverage seeks to spur new thinking by creating a “pressure cooker” atmosphere. In his TedX talk, Henk Ovink describes the approach and how it takes inspiration from the Rebuild by Design challenge after Hurricane Sandy in the USA:

The second problem is that project development is often fragmented. Water as Leverage brings together all stakeholders from the start – development banks and other financiers, vulnerable local communities, governments and project designers. Developing projects with the involvement of all stakeholders can create more opportunities for blended finance, public-private partnerships and market-based solutions.

Third, projects are often narrow in scope. Water as Leverage encourages a wider focus.

Two teams per city

In each of the first three challenge cities – Khulna, Semerang and Chennai – two teams are competing to developing proposals for comprehensive projects to address water-related challenges.

Khulna is a coastal city in Bangladesh with issues including saltwater intrusion, coastal flooding due to inadequate drainage and rising sea levels, and “dying” waterways. The city’s canals and ponds – which once held water for drinking – have gradually become choked with sediment and waste, or deliberately filled in to create new space for urban development.

Semerang in Indonesia is a rapidly urbanizing regional trade hub where overuse of aquifers has led to land subsidence, increasing vulnerability to flooding. The problems in Chennai, meanwhile, include flooding during the monsoon season, scarcity of water at other times, and pollution.

To take an example of one of the teams, City of 1000 Tanks in Chennai is focusing on the potential to revive the traditional role of temple tanks in the city – reservoirs built alongside temples that once sufficed to serve all the residents’ water needs. Cynthia Van Elk, a Dutch photographer who is recording the work across all three cities, explains further in this video:

City of 1000 Tanks is aiming to create an urban water network that links existing and new tanks, ponds, bio-swales and constructed wetlands to collect, clean and recycle rainwater and wastewater. By the end of its second phase it could be meeting around 15 percent of Chennai’s water needs.

Towards global replication

While every city has its own unique challenges, the Water as Leverage approach is replicable anywhere as its core idea is enabling collaboration among stakeholders who would not normally interact in designing projects. UN-Habitat has adopted its methodology as a best practice in its New Urban Agenda.

The Dutch Design Awards commended Water as Leverage for its “integrated and inclusive approach to transformative, design-driven solutions for complex urban challenges”. As Henk Ovink put it on accepting the Award, “We need these catalytic solutions and inspiring partnerships to accelerate climate adaptation action”.

The ideas presented in this article aim to inspire adaptation action – they are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Global Center on Adaptation.

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