Debate

Cities the key to saving the world's oceans

Today, attention is paid to the water issue in connection with International Water Day. Water is also high on Sweden's international agenda during the spring. In June, Sweden and Fiji will host a UN conference that will address the catastrophic situation that prevails beneath the surface of the world's oceans. It is high time to seriously talk about the underlying causes of one of the most devastating crises of our time, write representatives from research and civil society.

It is in the nature of things that we care about what we see. Sometimes the direct consequences are noticed, but too rarely do we see the underlying causes. Water is particularly complex. It flows through everything, it connects us with each other regardless of socio-economic situation, it links the most polluted land with the most important source of drinking water. This means that we can no longer put our heads in the sand and pretend that the environmental challenges do not exist.

Seawater and freshwater each have Global Goals (SDGs). SDG 6 shall ensure access for all people to sustainable water and sanitation management and SDG 14 aims to preserve the oceans and marine resources and to utilize them in a sustainable manner. But not enough. Water is also crucial for the production of many natural resources, as well as important ecosystem services, food production and carbon dioxide uptake.

The water crisis - the main global risk

When it comes to our drinking and wastewater, the situation is alarming. 663 million people - one in ten - lack access to clean water. 2,4 billion people - one in three - do not have access to a toilet. The consequences speak for themselves: Every ninety seconds a child dies from a water-related illness. The water crisis was identified during the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2015 as the main global risk in terms of its impact on society. The crisis is partly due to the fact that our need for drinking water competes with, for example, the need for irrigation systems for cultivation. But there is potential for change - every dollar invested in water and sanitation returns four dollars in economic returns.

The obvious challenges to protecting our oceans are pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The pollution creates islands of plastic and large belts of oil. Greenhouse gas emissions lead to melting glaciers, rising water temperatures and changing water chemistry. The consequences are obvious: The average sea level has already risen by about 25 cm in the last 100 years and if the world's ice melts completely, the sea level will rise by about 50 meters. Climate change is threatening to destroy most of the world's coral reefs, which would wreak havoc on fragile island economies and risk the extinction of fish - an important source of protein for millions of people. In addition, more than 80 percent of the world's population lives within 100 km of the coast. Three quarters of the world's megacities are located by the sea, where slums are often relocated to flood-prone areas and thus become extra vulnerable. In the long run, it is precisely the cities that will be the main victims of climate change.

"Without sustainable urban development, the race is on for the oceans"

Cities are central to the water issue - both the challenges and the solutions are there. The absolute majority of the pollution comes from our cities. Every day, two million tonnes of human waste are dumped into watercourses. In many cities, especially in low-income countries, the lack of water treatment and sewage treatment plants leads to contamination of the soil and surface water resources. 80 percent of all pollution in the oceans comes from land-based activities. Since the majority of the pollution comes from cities, the growth of cities is crucial for the future of the oceans. Sustainable urban development, where the negative imprint of cities on the planet is reduced, will be the key to protecting our drinking water and saving the world's oceans.

Aquatic and marine environment issues are closely linked to other development issues, such as poverty reduction, food security, human rights and, not least, urban development. SDG 6 and 14 are also parts of an integrated development agenda, Agenda 2030, where seawater and drinking water are linked to virtually all other sustainable development goals.

In June 2017 in New York, Sweden together with Fiji will host the UN conference on the implementation of SDG 14 on marine and marine resources. They have done something in common in emphasizing that sustainable seas are an issue that affects all countries in the world: in the north and in the south, high- as well as low-income countries. But the wording should also include "both urban and rural". To put it bluntly: without sustainable urban development, the race is on for the oceans. That is why it is important to link the June summit to the implementation of SDG 11 on sustainable cities and the new urban agenda.

Water inputs should not be seen as a cost

Sweden can share good examples from its coastal cities, and Swedish experiences from Baltic Sea work can be highlighted. In fact, most Nordic cities that successfully work with environmental and climate adaptation, such as Umeå, Stockholm, Malmö, Gothenburg, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Vaxholm and Karlskrona, are just coastal cities. Sustainable coastal cities give to the sea instead of unsustainably taking resources and then polluting. Water inputs should therefore not be seen as a cost. The environmental and socio-economic benefits are obvious, such as improved biodiversity, reduced risk of flooding and a healthier population. But it is also an opportunity to create jobs.

Let not International Water Day or the forthcoming UN Conference be about the catastrophic situation that prevails, but about the solutions and opportunities they create. Because it is possible to reverse the development, but then political will, a lot of knowledge and a good dose of leadership is required. Let urban design, planning and urban life in itself become tools for securing water supply and saving the world's oceans. The key is to build sustainable and smart cities, for real.

Johan Hassel
Elin Andersdotter Fabre
Sara Borgström
Maja Brisvall
Barbara Jackson

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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