MARCH 21 — Today, more than half the world’s population live in cities, and in Asia we are expecting unprecedented growth — by 2030, megacities of 10 million inhabitants or more will be located primarily in Asia.
While urbanisation is synonymous with economic growth, it can often do more harm than good if we do not have the proper infrastructure to sustain the rapid development.
As epicentres of human activities, cities see intense production and consumption, using huge quantities of our limited natural resources while contributing to climate change.
One of the most critical resources under increased stress in urban cities is water.
The issue is even more acute in Asia-Pacific, with the region being home to almost two-thirds of the world’s population but only having access to one-third of its usable water resources.
For a country like Malaysia, development and climate change has affected the country’s water stress levels.
According to a 2016 report by the World Resources Institute (WRI), several areas in eight Malaysian states and Kuala Lumpur are expected to be under increased risk of water issues by the year 2020.
The impact of the rapid urban growth over our limited water resources is multi-fold: demand for water is on the rise, while more sewage is being produced and treated, more stormwater needs to be managed, and more water pollution needs to be contained.
While each city faces its own unique set of challenges when it comes to tackling sustainability, the bottom-line for all is that, in order to ensure we have enough water for the next generation, we need to take a step back and rethink how cities as a whole can better manage this precious resource, be it by reassessing the urban infrastructure or by tapping into new technology.
Adopting a 'green-grey' approach to building resilient cities
From water and wastewater treatment plants to pipelines and reservoirs, the urban landscape is rife with grey infrastructure.
However, as climate change heralds an increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and flooding, these robust, human-engineered systems are crumbling under the increased pressure to manage stormwater.
Malaysia continues to be vulnerable to the threat of flooding amidst urbanisation. According to the Belgium-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, Malaysia experienced 38 floods in the last two decades, which have affected over 770,000 people, killed 148 people, and caused over US$1.4 billion (RM5.7 billion) in damages (Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters August 2018. Emergency Events Database).
Urban and suburban areas such as Johor, Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, and Penang continue to experience flash floods during the monsoon season.
A proven way to better manage stormwater is by combining green infrastructure with grey infrastructure.
Green infrastructure is a cost-effective and resilient approach to manage wet weather impacts, through the strategic use of networks of natural lands, working landscapes, and other open spaces.
Increasingly, cities are recognising the effectiveness of the “green-grey” approach. A recent, successful example is China’s sponge cities.
Facing long-term risks from rising sea levels, the Lingang district in Shanghai replaced concrete pavements with wetlands, green rooftops and rain gardens so that stormwater could be absorbed back into the land, providing an ecologically friendly alternative to traditional flood defences and drainage systems and enabling water conservation that could be harnessed for reuse by households and industries.
Ensuring water efficiency in green buildings
While climate change has certainly exacerbated the water crisis, one of the major challenges faced by cities today is the inefficient consumption of water.
For cities, buildings account for a significant amount of water and energy consumption, and more residential and commercial buildings have come up in Malaysia.
According to a report by Fitch Solutions, Malaysia's residential and non-residential buildings sector will grow at an annual average of 3.7 per cent between 2018 and 2027.
In order to shelter the rising population and boost the economic growth, it is important to ensure we are using water efficiently.
Green buildings have become the new mantra for sustainable development of cities, including Malaysia. There are ongoing efforts to boost the development of these eco-friendly buildings that focus on efficient use of resources such as water and energy.
Initiatives such as Malaysian Green Building Confederation’s Green Building Index (GBI) rating system, helps set a benchmark for sustainability efforts by businesses and developers.
However, for buildings to really make a difference in their consumption, we need to look beyond just planting trees or incorporating energy efficient office design.
We need to also review the entire hardware of buildings to create greater efficiency in all aspects.
For example, pumps control the water and cooling system of a building, operating and using energy year-round. There is also a major opportunity to reduce water losses along the supply chain.
However, with pumps out of sight, few realise the environmental and economic potential of replacing inefficient pumps.
By using efficient pumps, buildings can go a long way in meeting sustainability as well as energy and water efficiency standards.
Redefining water management with digitalisation
An efficient water system goes beyond individual components working in silos, but instead is about how an entire system can work together cohesively to ensure the optimisation of resources.
The key to effectively address a city’s water challenges is interconnectivity between the different parts to enable constant feedback and communication and ensure resources are used efficiently.
Digitalisation holds vast potential for water and wastewater management by providing capabilities that enable this connectivity.
Intelligent technology enables our systems to predict changes in demand, and in turn proactively adjust water pressures to prevent excessive stress on pipes.
Notably, a seemingly simple but serious issue prevailing in many cities has been addressed with the help of digitalisation — water leakage.
Intelligent water management solutions have been implemented in several cities to automatically adjust water flow through the use of remote sensors, reducing excessive pressure in the water pipes.
This limits water leakages and losses, minimising cost and energy use.
Digitalisation can extend to entire networks across the city, connecting systems, buildings, and public infrastructure.
Through the Internet of Things, advanced real-time data collection and sensors, water networks can access information that allows them to operate in a more predictive manner, reducing downtime and avoiding serious business and environmental consequences.
Digitalisation can also be leveraged to develop cities’ reactions to extreme climate change events.
Water solution providers can generate real-life simulations of a problem and its proposed approach before construction, to test various approaches and optimise them.
Sustainability is not only the most challenging issue but the most urgent need that we face today. To effectively address this, the narrative of urban cities needs to shift from concrete infrastructure to a green approach, one that is married with innovative thinking and modern technologies.
The public and the private sector have a real opportunity to work together and address the water crisis by incorporating green infrastructure, developing green buildings and leveraging digitalisation in water processes.
With World Water Day this year reminding us to work towards the collective goal of “leaving no one behind,” we need to accelerate our efforts to ensure a secure and sustainable supply of water for future generations.
* Kim Jensen is group senior vice president & regional managing director, Grundfos Asia Pacific Region.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.