World Water Day: thirsty cities


Background: Coping with the growing water needs of cities is one of the most pressing challenges of this century. Half of the world’s population now lives in cities and it’s estimated that within two decades that will increase to nearly 60% of the population, or 5 billion people. This means that a tremendous amount of water is needed, for drinking, sanitation, industry and to produce food. Ensuring reliable access to safe water supplies will make the cities of the future truly sustainable.
For this year’s World Water Day on Tuesday 22 March, IUCN is joining the international community in highlighting the 2011 theme "Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge".
Protecting and conserving healthy watersheds is essential for many of the world’s biggest cities and saves billions of dollars. For example, Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, relies on the Guatopo and Macarao rivers for its freshwater provision. Those rivers continue to supply a constant flow of freshwater to the city’s 5 million inhabitants. The forests of China’s Miyun watershed generate water benefits worth US $2 billion a year whilst supplying 70% of Beijing’s drinking water. Healthy wetlands provide natural wastewater treatment services, such as the Nakivubo wetland in Uganda, which saves the capital city Kampala US $2 million a year in terms of sewage and treatment facilities.

Key issues:

·        Water has an economic value: “Many of the world’s big cities have understood that protecting natural ecosystems to secure their water supplies makes economic sense,” says Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN’s Director General. “Rather than chopping down forests or draining marshlands, keeping water catchments healthy saves billions of dollars by not having to pay for costly urban infrastructure to store water, clean it or bring it from elsewhere.”

  • Protect water resources:Cities are often dependent on surrounding rivers, upstream wetlands and groundwater aquifers. These forms of natural water infrastructure, together with engineered infrastructure, pumping and piping systems, help guarantee water supplies to urban areas as cities grow,” says Mark Smith, Director of IUCN’s Water Programme.Yet, many cities are losing precious water resources through leakage or pollution. There is also growing evidence that water resources are significantly affected by climate change, particularly through the impact of floods and droughts.”

Mark Smith, Director of IUCN’s Water Programme
James Dalton, Water Management Advisor, IUCN Water Programme
Editor’s Notes:
The World Water Day 2011 Exhibition and Fair will be held in Cape Town, South Africa, from 20 – 22 March.
Photos available at:

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IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges.  IUCN works on biodiversity, climate change, energy, human livelihoods and greening the world economy by supporting scientific research, managing field projects all over the world, and bringing governments, NGOs, the UN and companies together to develop policy, laws and best practice. IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, with more than 1,000 government and NGO members and almost 11,000 volunteer experts in some 160 countries. IUCN’s work is supported by over 1,000 staff in 60 offices and hundreds of partners in public, NGO and private sectors around the world.