, Volume 40, Issue 5, pp 437–446 | Cite as

Global Urban Growth and the Geography of Water Availability, Quality, and Delivery

  • Robert I. McDonald
  • Ian Douglas
  • Carmen Revenga
  • Rebecca Hale
  • Nancy Grimm
  • Jenny Grönwall
  • Balazs Fekete


Globally, urban growth will add 1.5 billion people to cities by 2030, making the difficult task of urban water provisions even more challenging. In this article, we develop a conceptual framework of urban water provision as composed of three axes: water availability, water quality, and water delivery. For each axis, we calculate quantitative proxy measures for all cities with more than 50,000 residents, and then briefly discuss the strategies cities are using in response if they are deficient on one of the axes. We show that 523 million people are in cities where water availability may be an issue, 890 million people are in cities where water quality may be an issue, and 1.3 billion people are in cities where water delivery may be an issue. Tapping into groundwater is a widespread response, regardless of the management challenge, with many cities unsustainably using this resource. The strategies used by cities deficient on the water delivery axis are different than for cities deficient on the water quantity or water quality axis, as lack of financial resources pushes cities toward a different and potentially less effective set of strategies.


Aridity index Global Rural/Urban Mapping Project Gross-domestic product Hydrosheds 



The authors were part of an NCEAS Working Group on urbanization and its effect on the environment. This work would not have been possible without the GRUMP and Hydrosheds datasets, and we are grateful for the hard work that went into their creation.


  1. Anonymous. 2008. Now, DJB nod must for drilling borewells in city. The Times of India, December 3.Google Scholar
  2. Bartlett, S. 2003. Water, sanitation and urban children: The need to go beyond “improved” provision. Environment and Urbanization 15(2): 57–70.Google Scholar
  3. Bhatia, R., and M. Falkenmark. 1993. Water resource policies and the urban poor: Innovative approaches and policy imperatives. In Water and sanitation currents. Washington, DC: World Bank.Google Scholar
  4. Carrera-Hernandez, J.J., and S.J. Gaskin. 2007. The Basin of Mexico aquifer system: Regional groundwater level dynamics and database development. Hydrogeology Journal 15(8): 1577–1590.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chau, K. 1993. Management of limited water resources in Hong Kong. Water Resources Development 9(1): 65–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. City of Bangalore. 2009. The Bangalore waster supply and sewerage (amendment) Act, Karnataka.Google Scholar
  7. City of Tucson. 2008. Ordinance No. 10597, Tucson, AZ.Google Scholar
  8. Emerton, L., L. Iyango, P. Luwum, and A. Malinga. 1998. The present economic value of Nakivubo urban wetland IUCN—The World Conservation Union. Uganda: Eastern Africa Regional Office.Google Scholar
  9. Fernandes, T., C. Schout, A. De Roda Husman, A. Eilander, H. Vennema, and Y. van Duynhoven. 2006. Gastroenteritis associated with accidental contamination of drinking water with partially treated water. Epidemiology and Infection 135(5): 818–826.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Foster, S., A. Lawrence, and B. Morris. 1998. Groundwater in urban development: Assessing management needs and formulating policy strategies. Washington: World Bank.Google Scholar
  11. Gandy, M. 2006. Planning, anti-planning and the infrastructure crisis facing Metropolitan Lagos. Urban Studies 43: 371–396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. GEMS, and UNEP. 2007. Global drinking water quality index development and sensitivity analysis report. Ontario, Canada: United Nations Environment Programme Global Environmental Monitoring System, Water Programme Office.Google Scholar
  13. UNEP, GEMS, UNESCO, ERCE, GEMS, and IAP. 2008. Water quality for ecosystem and human health, 2nd ed. Ontario: United Nations Environment Programme Global Environmental Monitoring System, Water Programme Office.Google Scholar
  14. Ghassemi, F., and I. White. 2007. Inter-basin water transfer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Global Water Intelligence. 2010. Lagos water supply. Global Water Intelligence 11(6).Google Scholar
  16. GRUMP. 2010. Global rural-urban mapping project. Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), Columbia University; International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); The World Bank; and Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT).
  17. Hammad, Z.H., A.O. Ali, and H.H. Ahmed. 2008. The quality of drinking water in storage in Khartoum State. Khartoum Medical Journal 1(2): 78–80.Google Scholar
  18. Henderson, M., E.T. Yeh, P. Gong, C. Elvidge, and K. Baugh. 2003. Validation of urban boundaries derived from global night-time satellite imagery. International Journal of Remote Sensing 24(3): 595–609.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hutin, Y., S. Luby, and C. Paquet. 2003. A large cholera outbreak in Kano City, Nigeria: the importance of hand washing with soap and the danger of street-vended water. Journal of Water and Health 1(1): 45–52.Google Scholar
  20. IDA. 2010. Sanitation and water supply: Improving services for the poor. Washington, DC: International Development Association, World Bank.Google Scholar
  21. Jain, S.K., P.K. Agarwal, and V.P. Singh. 2007. Hydrology and water resources of India. Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  22. Kelly, T. 2006. Using sustainability in urban water planning. Paper read at SWITCH Workshop on Learning Alliance, Tel Aviv, Israel.Google Scholar
  23. Kimball, A. 2005. Selling water instead of watermelons: Colorado’s changing rural economy. Next American City, April.Google Scholar
  24. Kingdom, B., R. Liemberger, and P. Marin. 2006. The challenge of reducing non-revenue water (NRW) in developing countries. Washington, DC: World Bank, Energy and Water Department.Google Scholar
  25. Kuwairi, A. 2006. Water mining: the Great-man-made river, Libya. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers 159(1): 39–43.Google Scholar
  26. Lallana, C. 2003. Water use efficiency (in cities): Leakage. Copenhagen: European Environment Agency.Google Scholar
  27. Lehner, B., K. Verdin, and A. Jarvis. 2008. New global hydrography derived from spaceborne elevation data. Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union 89(10): 93–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Liu, C. 1998. Environmental issues and the South-North water transfer scheme. The China Quarterly 156: 899–910.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. McDonald, R. I., P. Green, D. Balk, B. Fekete, C. Revenga, M. Todd, and M. Montgomery. 2011. Urban growth, climate change, and freshwater availability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108(15): 6312–6317.Google Scholar
  30. MEA. 2005. Ecosystems and human well-being: Desertification synthesis. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.Google Scholar
  31. Oesterholt, F., G. Martijnse, G. Medema, and D. Van Der Kooij. 2007. Health risk assessment of non-potable domestic water supplies in the Netherlands. Journal of water supply: research and technology, AQUA 56: 171–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Peierls, B.L., N.F. Caraco, M.L. Pace, and J.J. Cole. 1991. Human influence on river nitrogen. Nature 350(6317): 386–387.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Phienwej, N., and P. Nutalaya. 2005. Subsidence and flooding in Bangkok. In The physical geography of Southeast Asia, ed. A. Gupta, 358–378. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Rockström, J., and L. Karlberg. 2010. The quadruple squeeze: Defining the safe operating space for freshwater use to achieve a truply gren revolution in the Anthropocene. AMBIO 39: 257–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Shahin, M. 1990. Annual flow variations in the Nile River system. In Hydraulics/Hydrology of Arid Lands, ed. R. H. French. Washington, DC: American Society of Civil Engineers.Google Scholar
  36. Small, C., F. Pozzi, and C.D. Elvidge. 2005. Spatial analysis of global urban extent from DMSP-OLS night lights. Remote Sensing of Environment 96(3–4): 277–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Sutton, P., D. Roberts, C. Elvidge, and K. Baugh. 2001. Census from heaven: An estimate of the global human population using night-time satellite imagery. International Journal of Remote Sensing 22(16): 3061–3076.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Syagga, P., and W. Olima. 1996. The impact of compulsory land acquisition on displaced households: The case of the Third Nairobi Water Supply Project, Kenya. Habitat International 20: 61–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. UNEP. 1997a. Source book of alternative techologies for freshwater augmentation in Latin America and the Caribbean. Nairobi: United Nations Environmental Program, International Environmental Technology Center.Google Scholar
  40. UNEP. 1997. World atlas of desertification. Nairobi: United Nations Environmental Programme.Google Scholar
  41. UNEP, UN Water, and UN Habitat. 2010. World water day 2010: Water quality facts and statistics. Nairobi: United Nations Environmental Programme.Google Scholar
  42. UNPD. 2007. World urbanization prospects: The 2007 revision. New York: United Nations Population Division.Google Scholar
  43. Vörösmarty, C.J., P. McIntyre, M.O. Gessner, D. Dudgeon, A. Prusevich, P. Green, S. Glidden, S.E. Bunn, C.A. Sullivan, C.R. Liermann, and P.M. Davies. 2010. Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity. Nature 467: 555–561.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Watts, J. 2009. China plans 59 reservoirs to collect meltwater from its shrinking glaciers. The Guardian, 2 March.Google Scholar
  45. WHO. 2008. Guidelines for drinking-water quality. Geneva: World Health Organization.Google Scholar
  46. World Panel on Financing Water Infrastructure. 2003. Financing water for all. Marseilles: World Water Council.Google Scholar
  47. Zhang, L., and C. Kennedy. 2006. Determination of sustainable yield in urban groundwater systems: Beijing, China. Journal of Hydrologic Engineering 11(1): 21–28.Google Scholar
  48. Zhang, Q., Z. Xu, Z. Shen, S. Li, and S. Wang. 2009. The Han River watershed management initiative for the South-to-North water transfer project (Middle Route) of China. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 148: 369–377.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert I. McDonald
    • 1
  • Ian Douglas
    • 2
  • Carmen Revenga
    • 1
  • Rebecca Hale
    • 3
  • Nancy Grimm
    • 4
  • Jenny Grönwall
    • 5
  • Balazs Fekete
    • 6
  1. 1.Worldwide OfficeThe Nature ConservancyArlingtonUSA
  2. 2.School of Environment and DevelopmentUniversity of ManchesterManchesterUK
  3. 3.School of Life SciencesArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  4. 4.Faculty of Ecology, Evolution, & Environmental ScienceArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  5. 5.110 Marlyn LodgeLondonUK
  6. 6.CUNY Research FoundationThe City College of New YorkNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations