WATER is one of our primary resources, yet it is often overlooked when it comes to the planning and design of our buildings, communities and cities. Our waterways are a source of livelihood; they give our cities character and vibrance. Unfortunately, in the Philippines, they are treated as back-of-the house “basurahan” rather than a front door to development and an alternative water source.
Water scarcity is getting worse and not just in our city. In 2018, Cape Town in South Africa was in danger of approaching “Day Zero” or the day when they would completely run out of water. Their dams were already bone-dry. If Day Zero was not averted it would be the “largest drought-induced municipal water failure in modern history.” However, Cape Town’s local government and residents were able to prevent it through simultaneous strategies. Notable was the government’s enforcement of water tariffs and prohibitions on non-essential heavy uses such as swimming pools and a new water pressure system that saved approximately 10 percent of the city’s water use. The government’s strategies would not have been successful without the total support and compliance of the city’s residents, businesses and other stakeholders. Here in our country, scarcity is not our only dilemma when it comes to water but the excess of it during the rainy season and its poor quality due to excessive pollution.
More and more cities around the world are addressing these issues by promoting and applying water-sensitive urban design (WSUD) and architecture. It is defined as integrating urban planning and design with the urban water cycle that includes stormwater, groundwater, and wastewater management and water supply. WSUD encourages the concept of developing communities and cities with respect to water resources, and it treats storm water runoff as an alternative resource to low water supply rather than a problem or liability. Runoff is water from rain, snow or other sources that flow over our land surfaces. The beauty of WSUD is it has several solutions that can be applied to our cities’ infrastructure and programs as well as in our homes, offices, schools, commercial centers and public areas. From simple rainwater tanks and rain gardens in our homes to rainwater harvesting mechanisms and green walls in our buildings and open spaces, to bioswales in our streets and wetlands and well-preserved water bodies within our cities, we can all take part in solving our water issues. Let me share with you how several cities have successfully incorporated WSUD in their city planning and design and improved their water security and quality of life.
In spite of its very limited natural water resources and land area, Singapore has emerged in the forefront of holistic and effective research and technology to ensure water security. In fact, the city-state is globally recognized as a “global hydrohub,” a leading center for business opportunities and expertise in water technologies. Its strategies include extensive rainwater collection with further plans to increase the program to reach 90 percent of its land area; water recycling, which is Singapore’s most cost-effective and sustainable method to increase its water supply; water importation; and desalination — removing the salt from seawater to convert it to potable water. Most remarkable is its water recycling program “NEWater” that produces safe drinkable water. It is used water that undergoes an extremely thorough process of filtration, purification and disinfection thus meeting World Health Organization and other international standards for safe and clean drinking water. For WSUD, Singapore has its Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) program that modifies its canals and reservoirs into clean and vibrant community spaces, connecting people with the water, thereby establishing a respectful perspective toward waterways. The government also encourages rainwater harvesting in the community level up to urban gardens and green buildings that are prevalent all throughout the city, establishing Singapore as a garden city. When it comes to flooding, they apply the “source-pathway-receptor” approach that enhances overall flood resilience and are well-equipped with the “Marina Barrage” located in the middle of the city to protect low-lying land areas during heavy rainfall.
Because of climate change, Amsterdam and cities in China have been experiencing more intense rainfalls whereas Melbourne has been undergoing more frequent and severe droughts. However, their strategy is the same: make the city greener. Amsterdam initiated the “Polderdak,” a network of roof gardens that also serve as efficient water storage. These roof gardens are strewn all over the city — over houses and buildings and in public spaces. In China, 150 cities are part of the “Sponge City Initiative” through which nature-based and flood-resilient green infrastructure such as low-elevation greenbelts and grass swales help address urban flooding. Melbourne has been investing in its urban forest program because increased vegetation in the city is an effective way to capture, filter and store stormwater that replenishes groundwater. These green spaces also intercept polluted and harmful runoff before it reaches the city’s waterways, fight the urban heat island effect and increase biodiversity.
Evidently, these are the same issues we have, and we can also greatly benefit from practicing WSUD. I support requiring offices, especially those of government agencies and commercial areas, to incorporate rainwater harvesting in their building design, and I highly encourage households to have rainwater tanks as an additional source of non-potable water. Majority of our cities are made of impervious materials that cannot absorb runoff, hence more intense flooding, so I hope our cities can have more bioswales — long trenches filled with vegetation — to collect and filter runoff, rain gardens, and greenbelts that can beautify our streetscapes, increase urban cooling, and ease urban flooding. Let us help clean our waterways. Laguna Lake is bigger than Singapore, twice the size of Cape Town and four times the size of Amsterdam. It can be Metro Manila’s alternative source if its water quality improves. I strongly believe applying WSUD in our architecture and city planning can create more livable, resilient, sustainable and vibrant places that will ultimately improve our quality of life.