Redefining water infrastructure to build back better

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COVID-19 recovery presents the water sector with an opportunity. Kala Vairavamoorthy looks at the how, who and where of ‘building back better’, and the role of IWA.

Rather than ease back into the familiar yet flawed ‘normal’ state of traditional operations, water professionals can seize the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to break with the past and embark on a transformative vision for the provision of life’s most essential services.

That vision calls for a more inclusive social contract, with no one left behind. It demands transparent governance, adaptive innovation, an empowered workforce, and embraces no-regrets measures that build local resilience to global shocks. This vision isn’t limited to the virus alone. The pandemic landed amid the escalating pressures of ever more frequent and extreme droughts and floods, rapid population growth, economic inequalities, and neglected and deteriorating facilities. With these threats compounding each other, recovering cities can unite under a rallying cry that we harness our energy, innovation, and investments to ‘build back better’ (BBB).

Those three potent words unite us with hope. Their alliterative promise shape pandemic responses at the highest levels. The phrase infuses stimulus packages such as the EU’s Next Generation EU Recovery Fund or the UK’s transition plans, which call for climate neutral growth. The Biden White House leveraged its BBB campaign slogan to forge a nationwide jobs plan. The G7’s Build Back Better World offers a strategic initiative for middle income countries. And both a recent OECD report and World Bank framework use the phrase to advance ‘green, inclusive and resilient development’ (GRID).

But it has been especially galvanising for the water agenda, tracing a long and rich lineage through the United Nations. The words first arose in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. They gained global currency in June 2015 under the UN’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and resurfaced again this summer when the UN harnessed those words to combat Desertification and Drought.

And yet such lofty words rarely can or will translate into consequential actions – unless we first define their contours and focus their energy. So, let’s anchor the phrase’s root verb. When water professionals set out to ‘build back’ something essential, the nexus of our mental and financial resources is ‘water infrastructure’.

Beyond physical infrastructure

Our first thought is of physical infrastructure – a term that emerged in the late 19th century, linking infra (below) with structure (building) to describe the tangible underpinning of systems that undergird natural monopolies. For water and sanitation, infrastructure has meant complex linear engineering marvels built around pumps and pipes, dams and dykes, treatment plants and transfers.

That traditional mindset has reached its limit. The ravages of age, neglect, stagnation, rocketing demand, and volatile impacts from extreme global heating all exact a heavy toll. The predictable results are that in cities large and small, and in countries affluent and developing, quality degrades. Demand outstrips supply. Conveyance grows costly, creaky, leaky, and clogged. Facing climatic and viral disruptions, local infrastructure is increasingly fragile.

The 2021 infrastructure report card of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) illustrates today’s challenge for existing systems. It assessed 3.5 million kilometres of pipe, found to be losing 23 billion potable litres each day, and graded it a C-. America’s 16,000 wastewater plants merited a D+. Its 91,000 dams and 2.5 million stormwater treatment assets both earned a D.

It is tempting to blame our shortcomings entirely on financial shortfalls. But the current we face runs both deeper and wider than money alone. Our search for green, resilient and inclusive development (GRID) solutions calls for a more holistic and interactive approach. Today, ‘building back’ means investing in more than just physical capital. It redefines ‘water infrastructure’ with a more expansive scope that must embrace and integrate human water infrastructure, digital water infrastructure, and natural water infrastructure.

People infrastructure

Humans are not infrastructure in the way that rebar, concrete and storm drains are, but flesh and blood workers are what ensure safe and effective service provision.

Unfortunately, our ‘human water infrastructure’ has also been quietly eroding. Within the next decade, many utilities expect half of their staff to retire. Facing a ‘silver tsunami’, it is unclear whether, how, or by whom they’ll be replaced.

This global people-risk surfaced in the world’s first synthesis, ‘An Avoidable Crisis’, where IWA looked at WASH human resource capacity gaps in 15 developing economies, noting: “There simply are not enough appropriately skilled water professionals to support the attainment of universal access to safe water and sanitation.”

The obvious response, to recruit the next generation, reveals education and training as a cornerstone of ‘people infrastructure’. It takes the form of online courses, research, publications, technical presentations or specialist workshops. IWA further ‘builds back’ institutional strength through an influx of Young Water Professionals (YWP) who seek mentors from membership ranks. Such peer-to-peer training yields multiple rewards and incentives.

One benefit is gender parity. Once a male-dominated profession, we now see young women filling the water sector’s human resource gap as often (if not more so) as young men. Why? Because in our increasingly thirsty world, females take more responsibility over water, have higher value for water, and suffer most when water systems fail. How fitting that, once they’re educated and trained, women reinforce the foundation of human water infrastructure.

Water education and training also draw from an ever-wider spectrum of disciplines. While still dominated by ‘hard’ sciences of engineering, chemistry, ecology, the water sector increasingly hires from fields such as law, economics, behavioural science, and communications. This isn’t so much choice as necessity. Forced to deal with rising complexity, our water institutions must combine analytical ‘left brain’ thinking with linguistic ‘right brain’ pathways.

As workforce interactions generate creative friction, they unlock more opportunities to innovate. The pandemic conclusively demonstrated the absolute need for global cooperation, which works best through a more distributed, participatory, collaborative and sharing approach known as ‘open innovation’. Running counter to traditional norms of secrecy and silo mentality, open innovation taps the ‘inclusivity’ current of the World Bank’s GRID outlook. In human water infrastructure, open innovation engages end users not as passive recipients, but as equal and active partners. Open innovation recoils from the notion that only a few certain experts enjoy a monopoly on the best ideas; rather, the ‘better’ can only be ‘built back’ if defined through wider, collaborative input.

IWA’s Water-Wise Cities initiative offers one example of open innovation. Its global perspective establishes 17 high-level principles for urban resilience. Yet it then encourages local communities to collaborate on their own customised, bottom-up solution.

Finally, open collaboration ensures YWPs not only learn, but can in turn teach their mentors. Seasoned elders value young expertise in the adoption and application of newer, faster, more innovative tools. Their disruptive potential may scare some who fear redundancy. Yet the most valuable technologies enable and empower us to do more, reach further, and perform better, with less risk or cost. Which brings us to our next inclusive redefinition: a virtual world of 1s and 0s.

Digital water infrastructure

The water sector may, inescapably, be about moving and managing a heavy, physical substance, but our future is increasingly digital. Three years ago in these pages, IWA called for “the rise of digital water”. We highlighted the ‘soft’ inner nervous system of diagnostics, “internet-linked sensors, online algorithms, user-friendly analytics and handheld displays” that alter how families and firms relate to water.

Back then, the biggest threats to urban water infrastructure were scarcity, declining water quality and flood risk. Pandemic – at the time nowhere on the horizon – has only compounded mounting risks and costs. Against these pressures, digital water has proved invaluable… where it was embraced.

For years, digital adoption moved slowly. Progress was rare and incremental. Then the virus showed up to accelerate decisions everywhere. Back-office employees Zoomed from home. Fieldworkers kept at a distance. All remote workers felt individually responsibile. Yet some were equipped with the digital ‘connective tissue’ of fast and frictionless devices, tablets and smartphones. As they exchanged rich and even real-time information, digitised employees manage and monitor their physical water and wastewater as a more cohesive and resilient utility.

Ironically, the opportunity to adopt digital water technologies is strongest in emerging economies. Why? Because they remain unburdened by the sunk costs or ingrained habits of physical or human systems. Much as they ‘leapfrogged’ fixed wires of communications infrastructure, so they can avoid the slow, costly, mechanistic and heavy legacy of centralised water and wastewater systems. Indeed, for the great many seeking adequate water supply and sanitation, the task is not so much to ‘build back’ an improved water infrastructure, but simply ‘build better’ off-grid, distributed, localised digital systems from scratch.

Such a nimble approach offers, among other advantages, affordability. Following decades of pricey ‘physical’ infrastructure, multilateral lenders and aid agencies now welcome digital water’s falling costs. The Inter-American Development Bank assessed Smart Water Infrastructure Technology – an integrated suite of digital AMI, GIS, CRM, MIS, and DMA tools – and advocated rapid adoption across Latin America and the Caribbean. Still, neither priceless workforces nor inexpensive digital technologies are free. Constrained budgets point us toward that final redefinition, looking to nature, which is.

Natural infrastructure

For all their elegance, even the greatest Roman aqueducts could only imitate the complex filtering, conveyance, and treatment capacities of the wild water systems that predated them. For centuries engineers sought to ‘tame’ and impose order on nature. They often saw ‘built’ and ‘unbuilt’ environments in opposition. It is time to unite them in a symbiotic relationship.

That was harder while few people could trace the source of water any further than their tap. But a silver lining of urban lockdowns is that closed offices opened human connections to, and deeper appreciation for nature. More looked with fresh eyes (and other senses) upon upland forests that capture and retain precipitation. We sought tributaries and streams that channel water closer to cities. We grew grateful for the floodplains that absorb runoff and attenuate floods. We discovered how wetlands filter water. We learned how aquifers store, safe from surface pollutants, all while preventing evaporative loss. We realised the water cycle as the original circular economy.

This economy is annually worth trillions of dollars. And yet it asks nothing to provide us with life-saving, life-giving services. Struck from utility accounting systems, healthy aquatic ecosystems have no value. That’s a mistake. For only once we include and integrate the rocky contours, living landscapes and biological dynamics of natural water infrastructure can cities afford the vital path to resilience.

Over several decades, New York has invested nearly two billion dollars to protect its natural mountain headwaters that secure unfiltered tap water. Expensive? Manmade filtration plants cost five times as much. Similar progress is arising wherever urban water professionals acknowledge the value of natural infrastructure. Diverse cities, from Kunshan, China, to Nairobi, Kenya and Porto, Portugal, have put the IWA agenda of Basin-Connected Cities into action.

Few regions have explored the need for (and challenges of) investing in natural water infrastructure more than Latin America. Starting in Quito, Ecuador, and spreading across Bolivia to Peru and up to Mexico, fondos de agua (water funds) explicitly link urban water bills to the protection of upland forest landscapes. At other scales, and contexts, cities invest in designing permeable pavements or natural bioswales that help slow the flow and filter the quality of the lifeblood that flows through ‘sponge-like’ cities.

A sector built back better

Water utility decisions have never been easy. Indeed, a friend and mentor, Paul Brown, once compared our daunting challenge to military strategies and tactics made in “the fog of war”. The pandemic has complicated things further. The global momentum to ‘build back better’ provides a window of opportunity to close infrastructure gaps and tackle systemic shortcomings, but the need to act at speed to make the most of this opportunity calls for some clear thinking on how best to do things differently.

Decisions about water infrastructure – physical, human, digital, natural – are never ‘either-or’. They’re ‘both-and’, or more accurately integrate ‘all of the above’. To maximise the value of, say, built reservoir assets, utilities require an empowered workforce, equipped with and connected to real-time digital sensors and pumps that enhance decisions about conjunctive use of dam releases to recharge groundwater storage. That is what a sector ‘built back better’ looks like, and IWA can be instrumental in charting this course. •