The world is thirsty for integrated water management

Some people thirst while others drown. Climate changes are increasing the imbalance of water resources, and fresh and clean water cannot be taken for granted. According to experts, we need efficient, integrated water management if water is to become more universally accessible.

 By Martin Zoffmann, October 2014

The world population is increasing at a rate of 80 million people a year, and with it the demand for clean fresh water. Meanwhile, climate changes are creating greater imbalances in water allocation, with some regions suffering from drought and others from record cloudbursts and rainfalls.

The world's water resources require firm management, but how do we delegate the task of practising more efficient water management on a global scale?

"Equitable, optimal and sustainable management of water resources demands an integrated approach, coordinated action and the sharing of responsibilities by the various tiers of government," says Benedito Braga. He is a Brazilian professor of civil and environmental engineering and President of the World Water Council, an international multi-stakeholder platform that counts the UN, the World Bank and the African Development Bank among its more than 300 members.

According to Prof. Braga, a new and consistent approach is the key to meeting local and regional water demand and to assuring the implementation of measures that enable us to mitigate and adapt to global changes.

"Water security should be made an even higher national and international policy priority, based on the principle that water resources must be allocated in a reasonable and equitable manner. Furthermore, local and regional planning and design need to be much more water-sensitive," says Benedito Braga.

Smart water and more collaboration

Kai Vakkila heads the water management unit at Ramboll Finland and has more than 20 years’ experience from working on water-related projects. He agrees that a better-integrated approach to water management is needed – both at the various government levels and in the services and solutions provided by companies like Ramboll.

"Water management is an extremely complex concept that can’t be reduced to a single service or solution. Most societies need to map and measure their water resources, streamline their utilities and purifying plants, reduce wastewater and take initiatives to save as much water as possible – while also taking the necessary steps to avert the overly adverse impacts of climate change," says Kai Vakkila.

"In many cases, all or many of these activities are interrelated and call for sophisticated overall planning that take socioeconomic, environmental and technical factors into account."

Kai Vakkila believes that more open processes between public organisations like utilities, private consultancies and academia offer one way of responding to these interlinked, highly complex challenges:

"In Finland, we’re currently working on an interesting project regarding water as energy. We’re engaged in an extremely productive cooperation with both waterworks and a university. I think we should use this approach more often as a means of coping with our common challenges, so this could stand as an open invitation to public organisations and universities the world over," says Kai Vakkila, adding:

"Moreover, we should all put greater focus on how to use the latest water management technology. We’ve talked about 'smart cities' for years, and now we’ve begun talking about 'smart water'. If we use the technology right, we could revolutionise the way we manage water, designing innovative water solutions that meet the needs of tomorrow’s cities."

World-leading groundwater mapping

The Danish National Groundwater Mapping Programme is essential to Denmark’s drive to secure clean, safe and fresh water. In Denmark the drinking water supply is based entirely on groundwater, which makes the availability of and accessibility to groundwater resources of paramount importance.

Safe water for future generations

Denmark’s groundwater became increasingly polluted over the course of the 20th century. So in 1999 the Danish National Groundwater Mapping Programme was initiated to combat the problem. The Danish Ministry of the Environment administrates the programme, which calls for detailed groundwater mapping of Particularly Valuable Groundwater Abstraction Areas, which comprise 40% of Denmark's land mass. The local authorities are responsible for resource protection and planning and apply the findings of the comprehensive hydrogeological mapping projects to their work.

Cross-discipline effort

The groundwater mapping has been a longstanding political priority and has made Denmark a leader in the field, among other things due to the use of sophisticated technology. Ramboll has reinforced this position by providing a unique team of geologists, geophysicists, hydrologists and civil engineers who have helped map the country’s groundwater for more than a decade now.

Water consumers finance the mapping programme by paying EUR 0.04 per m3 of water consumed. The programme is slated for completion by the end of 2015.

Securing safe drinking water in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, high levels of naturally occurring arsenic have been found in the groundwater, undermining the country’s decade-long success with supplying 97% of its population with safe drinking water. 30-70 million people are at risk, since the harmful effects of arsenic only show up decades after the actual poisoning occurs.

In some parts of Bangladesh, local drillers are targeting groundwater assumed to be safe on the basis of local sediment colour and water texture. Apparently, red sediments are low in arsenic and may function as a natural arsenic filter, having a high content of iron-oxyhydroxides (rust) that can adsorb mobilised arsenic.

This solution has been scientifically verified as viable. The objective is to validate the method’s long-term sustainability. Over time, arsenic may contaminate clean water from the red sediments if water from higher layers flows downwards.

Predictive groundwater simulations

The study area, 60 km SE of Dhaka, is among the most arsenic-affected districts in the world. Using data from ongoing field and laboratory research, Ramboll will run predictive groundwater simulations aimed to ascertain the sustainability of the targeted groundwater-bearing sediments. Local authorities can then incorporate the results in their water safety plans.

The project collaborates with a MISTRA-funded project managed by the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Dhaka University, NGO Forum for Drinking Water and Sanitation, Bangladesh.

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