The urbanization of poverty, water and sanitation – WRI workshop

Earlier this month I received a kind invitation to attend a workshop held by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington DC, USA. It was in the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, discussing two working papers on urban and water and sanitation within WRI’s World Resources Report (WRR) ‘Towards a More Equal City’ research and action initiatives.

What was the workshop about?

Photo: On the way to WRI’s offices in Washington DC.

Two new working papers were presented at the workshop. One addressed meeting everyone’s needs for sanitation in urban areas, the other was on meeting everyone’s needs for water in urban areas. These were ‘works in progress’ so I’m not going to quote a great deal from them. Needless to say I found them very stimulating.

Both papers questioned my previous view of ‘progress’ made under the water and sanitation-related UN Millennium Development Goals up to 2015. The papers were framed with the honest acknowledgement of ‘very large under-reporting on the quality and extent of provision for urban water (and sanitation) in the Global South, especially for low and middle income nations in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia‘. Basically fewer people than many believe – or report publicly – have access to reasonable water and sanitation services, and this is especially true as more people – and more poorer people – move to cities and urban areas. Both papers were rich on definitional and indicator challenges around these issues, and what they mean for policies, planning and practices in the sector.

Background to these papers came from WRI’s WRR document ‘Towards a More Equal City: Framing the Challenges and Opportunities’ (available here) stating that:

The number of people living in the world’s cities is expected to increase by 2.5 billion by 2050, with more than 90 percent of that increase occurring in Asia and Africa. In many of these cities, urban population growth will outpace economic growth. This trend is combined with the ‘urbanization of poverty’, which means that a larger share of the world’s poor now reside in urban areas. And, many of these cities have some of the lowest municipal budgets per capita today.

In a nutshell some of the biggest challenges for providing people with water and sanitation services, in particular, will be faced in urban areas with increasing absolute numbers of poorer people, and where financial and governance resources and capacity are seriously lacking…

Who was there?

Photo: Workshop at the WRI. Source: Picture by Afnan Agramont Akiyama, Engineers Without Borders Bolivia / NUR University and Catholic University in La Paz, Bolivia.

Two of the WRR ‘Challenges and Opportunities’ paper authors were there, namely WRI’s Victoria Beard and Michael Westphal – as well as the Ross Center’s global director, Aniruddha Dasgupta. Authors of the working papers, Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite (part of the IPCC team honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007) were also present. Arif Hasan – formerly interviewed for our MOOCs by Diana Mitlin back in June 2014 – attended and provoked some practical, important discussions.

Photo: Arif Hasan being interviewed for our MOOCs back in June 2014, in Manchester, UK.

There were other attendees from Bolivia, Brazil, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda. There were also what I would call ‘intermediary’ organisations represented, the Aquaya Institute and WSUP (Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor). This led to lots of thought-provoking ideas and discussions. Hopefully all this will soon feed into some actionable outcomes within this WRI line of work, as these two papers are developed further – especially given WRI’s WRR aim to provide ‘cities with practical and actionable strategies‘ to address their challenges…

A bit about Washington DC

This was my first – but I hope not last – trip to Washington DC. With little time I tried to see as much of this historic, beautiful city as possible. Mindful, as ever, of my co-blogger Roger’s admonitions about ‘sight-seeing’ posts, I’ll briefly share highlights, starting with a shot that does at least have some water in it (for relevance!):

Photo: The reflecting pool in front of the Capitol building, Washington DC.

The most moving place I (briefly) visited was the Lincoln Memorial, so rich in history, from where I hastily snapped this selfie, looking back at the Washington Monument:

Photo: Looking back at the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC (once again, see Roger… there is water in this picture too!).

It was a hot day and I wish I’d realised there were Segway-based tours available:

Photo: Everything’s better by Segway…! Segway tour of the National Mall area, Washington DC.

As an aside here – or more rather a segue way back into more strictly water stuff – the Segway’s inventor, Dean Kamen (who is not dead) is actually a prolific inventor working on affordable water purification (distillation) technology… as I found out recently thanks to a documentary (available on Netflix) about him and it, called SlingShot. Next I went near the White House:

Photo: In front of the White House, Washington DC (fountain, still some water, Roger!).

But its most infamous current resident was not in the country at the time… nor was he anywhere to be found nearby here…

Photo: I only stumbled on Trump International Hotel, alongside a fellow lost interloper from Tampere, Finland, due to closures on the DC Metro!

Then I whizzed past the outside of the World Bank Group’s offices at 1818 H Street:

Photo: Panorama from the outside of the main World Bank offices in Washington DC.

Here I realised, with vicarious humility, that even if you make it ‘all the way’ to end up working at the World Bank, you still might get your bicycle stolen…

Photo: Signage at the World Bank Group building, warning building users of possible bicycle thefts!

Overall this was a fascinating and enjoyable (short) trip. My thanks again to WRI for the invitation.

Another bonus was that reading up and around for this workshop, meant I scoured WRI’s website quite a lot. I found all sorts of other interesting work they are up to, which I’ll post up about here very soon!

Duncan Thomas


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