24 November 2012

Rivers, canals and harbors: a resource for cities

(This bleak image of a woman washing her clothes in a polluted river in China with a pile of garbage in the background was found at : http://factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=391&catid=10&subcatid=66  This site is also an interesting one on the state of rivers in China.)

In a recent entry of The Urban Flâneur Guidebook, I featured some intriguing photographs by Hamish Stewart, the blog author of Le flâneur: the random urban photographer, of the Regents Canal in London. His photographs portrayed how a canal or any water body can be a delight to urban residents.  However, many waters bodies in urban areas are not places of beauty, but often resemble a vision of hell, as seen in the picture above.

In the Industrial Era, lakes, rivers, bays and canals were perceived not for their intrinsic natural value, but for their economic use and waste disposal.  In this present transition era, this situation can be found in numerous cities around the world, particularly those in developing nations.  Many rivers, harbors and canals are lined by industry, derelict buildings and receive a significant amount of pollution from various sources.  One does not have to look far to see the destruction that humans have caused to these valuable resources. 

Water is the actual lifeblood of all living things right down to the microscopic level. Our bodies can not survive without water. Plants and animals rely on it for their existence. Other human related processes are intrinsically dependent on water (i.e., manufacturing, hydroelectric generating, agriculture, etc.)   Yet the present global economy and their associated actors are humming along, treating water resources as relatively inconsequential. 

Presently, the focus is on the worldwide economic crisis with myriad discussions on fiscal policies, reducing debt and  reviving sluggish, erratic, unsustainable economic growth.  Our political leaders and other key decision-makers seem to have put environmental concerns far down the list of important agenda items. They drive around in limousines, sit around tables, arrange numerous conferences, fill up resorts and hotels discussing financial markets which have been made extremely complicated by their own design, and expect the ‘magic market’ to take care of things. ( The World Economic Conference (although a private conference) held annually in Davos, Switzerland  is probably the pinnacle of such elitist conferences.) Despite present decision-makers apparent lack of attention on these issue, there has been major national and supranational legislation and the creation of environmental  organizations whose responsibility lies in monitoring and improving the environment, including water bodies. A growing amount of NGOs are also involved in environmental actions.

Substantial improvement of the environment, including water resources.is not going to happen unless the focus of discussion starts to change through being forced by the grassroots/bottom-up and informal networks, such as emerging city networks. Cities must lead the way and not wait upon our lethargic national and supranational organizations to take action. Cities have at their disposal untapped resources, particularly their citizens and local industries/businesses, that can improve water resources.  They can also leverage a vast amount of public and private and network with other cities and NGO’s (as referenced below.)  It all starts with a vision of how water resources can be improved; forming formal and informal groups who are committed to this vision and making it happen. (An example of how city networking is developing can be  found in Regina Laisner's article, "The role of international city networks in the support of local participatory govenance in Latin America in the online journal: Urbana: Urban Affairs and Public Policy.)

Water bodies can be the ‘jewel’ of cities in many aspects. They are of value in many aspects: clean drinking water, recreation, aesthetics and quality of life.  Some cities have started to recognize the value of water, but not enough.  However, we wait around for the right time, we will find that this resource will be in extreme danger.  It has been said that the next wars will be fought over water.  This could occur if sufficient action is not taken to correct this problem on numerous scales. 

There are numerous resources that give further substance to this discussion.  Here are a list of just a few:
UN Water

A Blueprint to Safeguard Europe’s Water Resources