Water challenges and case studies shared at IWA-ASPIRE

The International Water Association (IWA) held its latest IWA-ASPIRE conference and exhibition in Hong Kong from 31 October – 2 November 2019. With a focus on Smart Solutions for Water Resilience, the 3-day event, which included technical visits to sites across Hong Kong, showcased international water management best practice and attracted more than 1000 participants from all over the world.

Eleanor Earl, based with Arup in Hong Kong, attended the exhibition on behalf of the Resilience Shift and she highlights some of the key case studies from Asia and Australia shared at the conference, and her reflections on the event.

Eleanor noted “The event was really interesting, with participants mainly from Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand but also a strong UK and Dutch contingent.”

“If you were yet to be convinced that one of the essential ingredients to building resilience in urban environments is its water system, IWA-ASPIRE 2019 demonstrated some firm arguments to the contrary”, she said.

Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, kicked off proceedings by sharing some of the great feats of water engineering in Hong Kong, followed by the rest of the day’s focus on case studies from around the Asia-Pacific region.

Since the 1963 drought in Hong Kong, a huge amount of major water infrastructure has been constructed. The city, which now receives 80% of its water supply from mainland China, boasts 300 sewage treatment and pumping facilities, and is home to four major underground storm water storage schemes and drainage tunnel networks. This has contributed to water services being one of the biggest energy users in the city. In 2023, Hong Kong plans to open its first desalination plant to help meet future freshwater demand.

The city is thinking hard about the future and its need for sustainable development and Mr Wong Kam-Sing, Secretary for the Environment, spoke at IWA-ASPIRE of the need to integrate water with all the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR)’s Water Services Department has developed a Total Water Management Strategy, to respond to freshwater scarcity, climate change and the need for water security. The HKSAR Drainage Services Department also recognises the need for complementing grey infrastructure with blue-green infrastructure to encourage more sustainable development and is promoting river revitalisation and Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS).

In Singapore, the water, sewage and drainage authority sit together in the Public Utilities Board, enabling a joined-up approach to water management in a severely water-stressed urban environment which is set to increase. Singapore ranks in the top 7 in the world’s most Water-Stressed Countries for 2040 (WRI, 2019)

Mr Peter Ng, Chief Executive Officer of the Public Utilities Board in Singapore shared the city’s current opportunities and challenges. Mr Ng noted that water challenges are nothing new. He quoted former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew – “Water dominated every other policy”.

These challenges are set to rise and in 2061 Singapore’s import partnership with Malaysia will end meaning that Singapore will no longer be able to rely on Malaysia for water imports. Meanwhile, it is expected that non-domestic water will increase rapidly, increasing overall water usage in the city by 50%.

“Where will 680million gallons of water come from?”, Mr Ng asked. “Not Malaysia. Not from the sky [as there is not enough rain or storage]. [Instead] recycled water and the sea”. He described the change in thinking from water treatment to water resource recovery plants and opting not to use seawater for toilet flushing to keep water supplies at a high quality for reuse, a more circular and connected approach to water resource management. This diversification of supplies is common across other Asia-Pacific cities.

In Australia, Dr Steve Capewell, Head of Water Cycle Innovation at the Water Cooperation in Western Australia, highlighted that from 2000 to the present date in Perth, the city’s water source reliance switched from dams and groundwater to groundwater and predominately desalination. This change from natural to predominately manufactured water required over $1.5bn USD investment, but enabled water resilience through climate independency.

However, he recognised that the future is more complicated and uncertain, as this means of supply comes with major challenges including high energy usage and brine discharge. 

In relation to China, Professor Jiu-hui Qu talked of the strong link between water, nature and society.

Over the last 40 years China’s water management has moved from a development orientated approach to protection and restoration, considering both water quantity and quality. This is reflected in the country’s work to develop ‘Sponge Cities’ and significant investment into water research.  

Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, spoke of the critical link between partnerships, people and projects.

“The plan needs the projects otherwise it’s a book on a shelf”. Remembering that “each action has to be inspiring to inspire new work, Mr Ovink stressed the need for solutions to be based on the future not the current system and to allow for adaptive pathways to account for future uncertainties.  

In the event’s plenary session, the expert panel discussed the change in thinking over recent years. Water sensitive cities, green infrastructure and nature-based thinking have now become mainstream and integrated. They recognised a need for a more contextualised approach to the application of blue-green solutions, in recognition that these are not ‘copy-paste’ but need to be honed to the local geography.

More awareness of systems-thinking, particularly between sectors and across borders, was demanded, with the example of water-stress in New Zealand linked to food production for East Asia. There was also recognition of the need for more discussion on policy, governance and regulation to facilitate future water management.   

Eleanor Earl noted “It was very interesting that during the plenary session the lack of integrated thinking between sectors/infrastructures was picked up alongside the need for integration with policy. The use of resilience concepts was often focused on climate change and it was recognised that there is potential to think more deeply about the myriad of shocks and stresses our infrastructure faces, and hopefully this can be further discussed at future events”.

We share below images from one of the site visits to the Happy Valley Stormwater Storage Scheme, an impressive 60 million litre tank in the centre of a horse race course.

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