Making delta cities resilient

A plea for a costumised and righteous approach


This article is part of a series of guest blogs, in which we ask experts from the water sector to share their views on innovation and on the work of VIA Water

Making delta cities resilient: a plea for a costumised and righteous approach - Maurice van Beers

Urbanization will be one of the mayor global trends of the years to come. And although cities are engines of growth, if not planned carefully they also can be responsible for increased CO2 emissions, depletion of natural resources and growing social inequality. At the same time, cities will become more vulnerable to natural disasters. Partly because simply more people are living in cities and more valuable assets are accumulated in cities. And partly because the natural systems supporting the city are being destroyed or changed profoundly.

Chances and challenges for delta cities
For example, delta cities are situated in the ideal circumstances along rivers and coasts, connecting international trade with demands of the hinterland, and surrounded by fertile land for agriculture. And have thus throughout human history been places where cities developed and grew.

At the same time, those conditions make cities very vulnerable to increased rainfall (much rain in a short time), riverine and coastal flooding, land subsidence and salt (water) intrusion. Urban growth in deltas therefore places even more pressure on the natural systems of deltas, thereby increasing the vulnerability of their inhabitants.

Urban planning instruments in integrated urban water management in western industrialized countries have sorted effect on guiding the growth of cities towards a desirable outcome. It appears that the urban (planning) authorities of delta cities in lower and middle income countries lack the capacity to effectively implement urban planning instruments necessary to increase urban flood and water resiliency.

Integrated urban water management
A transition towards integrated urban water management in the delta cities of those countries seems necessary. Yet, although scholars have argued for the importance of urban water governance to achieving water resiliency, there is a knowledge gap on how transitions towards an integrated urban water resource approach work in real life of lower and middle income countries.

What is more, cities in deltas are facing several global water challenges: increasing fluvial & coastal flood risk, land subsidence, intensified rainfall, coastal erosion, salt intrusion. Yet, though the challenges might be present globally, a closer look at local situations teaches us that in every city the situation is different. And thus, that global solutions do not fit. This makes recommendations based on general principles of integrated water resource management little helpful for individual delta cities. It also makes effective city to city learning difficult. To find solutions that work, local case studies on how civilians, businesses and city authorities experience the city and its water challenges must be considered. 

'In every city the situation is different:  this means global solutions do not fit, and it makes effective city to city learning difficult'

The pressures on the natural systems in deltas, and the consequences of those pressures on the ability of urban societies recover from disasters, underline the importance of transitioning towards more resilient practices of water management.

Research on water resiliency indicates that on a global scale, current practices of urban water management are no longer acceptable from different perspectives of ecology (disruptions to the water cycle and habitats), public health (water qualities, sanitation services) and the economy (flooding and drought consequences, resource overuse).

Uneven division of consequences
In addition to the increase in risks and the impact of urbanization on the resilience of both people and their environment as described above, what is further important is that the consequences of those risks are unequally divided over the population. This is particularly evident in developing countries. Many city dwellers live in slums: informal areas lacking access to public services or infrastructure and thus benefitting less from investments in improvements of infrastructure. Taking the urban water system as an entry point and nexus between a variety of other urban challenges, an integrated urban water resource management approach that specifically addresses this inequality can contribute towards making cities not only more resilient but also more righteous.

Maurice van Beers is an expert in the area of sustainable development, with a specific interest in urbanizing deltas.