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October 21, 2008

Urban Renewal

By any measure, Dubai is a new city. Its sparkling skyscrapers, utter modernity, and diversified economy all speak to new wealth and deliberate planning. And the continued building boom signals its future as a world-class center of commerce.

Because it is still growing, Dubai and the many urban centers here in the United Arab Emirates, have the luxury of learning from lifetimes of urban planning mistakes in the rest of the world. And because it is located in one of the most water-scarce regions on earth, it will have to take each of those lessons to heart.

As such, Dubai made a perfect setting for a Global Innovation Outlook deep dive that spent a great deal of time discussing the trends of urbanization and sustainable civil engineering. The meeting brought together representatives from all over the region, including Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, South Africa, Poland, Great Britain, and Russia. There were non-governmental organizations (WaterAid and Global Ethics Limited), universities (University of Bristol and University of KwaZulu-Natal), businesses (Dow and Royal Dutch Shell) and government officials (Ministry of Environment and Water, UAE.)

The conversation was wide ranging, touching on everything from pricing to the need for integrated solutions to water management. But more than any topic, that of the major water challenges faced by the world’s cities took center stage.

Urbanization is forever altering population densities around the world. In 1900, only 13 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Today, more than half of the world’s residents call a city home, a number that is expected to increase to 60 percent by 2030 (even amidst an overall population growth of nearly 50 percent.)

The effects of this trend on water management vary widely, but are significant and severe. In existing and ageing cities, the added burden on water supply, distribution and treatment systems will be overwhelming. Coastal cities will have to deal with the impact of increased runoff and waste on marine ecology. And cities that rely largely on desalination and other energy-intensive filtration technologies will require massive infrastructure development, at a high cost to both taxpayers and the environment.

Without reversing the urbanization trend (which some participants favored), these issues need to be addressed, and fast. There are a number of things that need to be done, such as fixing leakage in older city pipes, which can lose between 15 and 30 percent of their payload. But this is a fantastically expensive proposition, one that requires digging up thousands of kilometers of city streets. There are creative ways to spread those costs around however.

“If I had a wish, it would be that you would not be able dig a hole in London without every utility in the city getting a crack at it,” said Larry Hirst, Chairman of IBM Europe, Middle East, and Africa. “Gas companies, electricity utilities, and telcos all need to get in there to upgrade their systems. So why not do it all at once?”

There was also major concern about how waste water is treated and returned into the environment in these cities. Some participants suggested taxing discharge rather than intake, which has the dual benefit of cleaning up the waste and curbing demand. Others had more innovative, if not universally appealing, suggestions.

Christopher Buckley is the leader of the Pollution Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He favors the process of urine diversion toilets, which use no water to flush and separate so-called “yellow” waste from “black” waste. The idea is to use the nutrients in the yellow waste as fertilizer for crops, and extract energy from the black waste. The western world may turn its nose up at this approach, but the results are undeniable, and the process not only doesn’t use any energy, it produces it.

In other parts of the world, cities are literally being built from scratch. In Abu Dhabi, for example, a new “green city” called Masdar City, is under construction. Masdar, which means “the source” in Arabic, will use only renewable sources of energy, have zero carbon emissions, and zero waste. It will cost $22 billion, take 8 years to build, and be inhabited by 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses. Planners are still working out the details of how water will be supplied, distributed and reused, but it is likely to be a model for the many other cities being built throughout the world, including the so-called “Eco-Cities” under construction in China.

It’s easy to be cynical about the human race and the many mistakes we’ve made over the years. But seeing some of the progress and planning going into our future living environments is indeed encouraging. And seeing the passion and commitment of the people in the Dubai deep dive gives you the undeniable impression that the glass is half full.

October 21, 2008 in Water and the Oceans | Permalink

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