‘Making the invisible, visible’
Key Insights from our Water Initiative
September 12, 2022
Over the summer period heatwaves swept the European continent, with two thirds of Europe affected by drought. Heatwaves have become more frequent, more intense, and last longer because of climate change. However, the record temperatures in Europe are not the exception, it seems they have become the norm. Back in April this year India and Pakistan faced a brutal heatwave that hit almost 50C, with devastating impact on their crops/harvest, and today we have heatwaves around the globe [Asia, Africa and Europe, the States], with upsetting impact in all walks of life. The heatwaves are also contributing/causing a range of other development challenges, including wildfires, air pollution, harvests and droughts. The recently published ‘Drought in Europe 2022’ publication, talks about the impact of the heat stress on crop yields, droughts and wildfires. The paper notes that the status quo has contributed to ‘lack of #water (which) is also reducing or suspending hydroelectric and thermoelectric power production operations across countries. Moreover, the extreme weather is impacting waterways, and by that influencing commerce, trade, drinking water, emphasizing the need for urgent action.
- Cooling Cities and our #Water Initiative
As global temperatures increase, cities and citizens are trying to find solutions for the extreme weather. Policy innovations range from the establishment of Chief Heat Officers tasked within cities to deliver a unified response to extreme heat, to heat action platforms and cooling cities initiatives and toolkits that raise awareness about the challenge, and give policymakers action plans and inspirations. One could also argue that having a well-developed accessible public drinking water fountains system is one of the ways in which citizens can cool down during the warm summer months, which is why we need to ensure that these structures are well kept, clean, accessible and designed in a way that they don't waste drinkable water.
In our community we are not immune to extreme weather, our cities have been struggling with heatwaves, and we have felt many of its implications already. In addition to that cities have also been struggling water losses within their water supply system. So, on world water day this year, thematically focused on groundwater, and making the invisible visible, our #UNDP team in North Macedonia launched a crowd mapping initiative to map the drinking water foutains in the city of Skopje. With the initiative we wanted to raise awareness and to inspire action towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030, but also to use this initiative to make some arguments about: the need to reduce single use plastic, to reduce the water losses in cities, and to emphasize the importance of public spaces where people have access to water.
- Key insights from our #Crowdmapping journey
To help lay the foundation for the development of a more sustainable network of public drinking fountains, to encourage residents to use them (responsibly), and the institutions to find mechanisms to keep the fountains safe and functional, with reduced water losses, we started a very simple crowd-mapping challenge, that encouraged people to use their smart phones and geo-map their community fountains. When we first presented the initiative to the broader public, we offered four easy steps that anyone who was willing to contribute, could do so, and participate in the creation of this map. Today, we are happy to report that our interactive, open by default, and free for anyone to use map, has mapped over 100 public drinking fountains in the city, with 1/3 of all data points visible on the map coming directly from citizens that took part in this challenge. The interactive map now looks like this, highlighting the fountains within the city of Skopje:
Throughout this journey we also learned a lot, about the types of water fountains that exist within the city, and we also noted some of the challenges surrounding the fountains. On the positive side, we noticed that in many neighborhoods the fountains are in locations where the community gathers, providing the needed cooling, particularly in the summer period. There are also areas within the city that have a well-established structure of public drinking fountains, making it easy for people to locate one near them when walking or exercising. Some of the fountains have mechanisms that are still operational and allow for the regulation of the water flow, not allowing unnecessary water loses. It is worth mentioning that some fountains have inclusive designs that allow for more convenient access for people, and finally in few cases fountains have a bottom plate that captures water for animals as well. There are some challenges that we observed as well. The design of the fountains in the city varies, with some having no on/off mechanisms, making it difficult to regulate the water flow, allowing water to be wasted. We also noticed few fountains that were mapped in the period of April until today were not functioning properly, some of them were even filled with waste.
Process wise, we were also happy to receive contributions of mapped public drinking water fountains outside of the city of Skopje, encouraging us to think about engaging with this topic on a national level.
4. Innovative tools to learn more about the topic of water.
One of the side goals behind our water initiative, was to attempt and experiment with the deployment of a new tool when dealing with a development challenge that our community is facing.
Our UNDP country office, does a lot of work in the space of integrated lake watershed and river basin management, as well as flood recovery programs, so we wanted to do something on smaller scale, complementary and relevant. We also wanted to build activities around the crowd mapping initiative, with existing processes in our office, so we teamed up with our colleagues from the Democratic Governance Unit, and organized a ‘Dream Lab’ thematically connected to the topic of sustainable water management. The Dream Labs are a tool that we have used as one of the key activities within our process to support the creation of the ‘National Development Strategy’ in the country. The Labs allow for us to engage directly with citizens, institutions, civil society organizations and members of the academic community for a future – oriented, visionary exercise in creative thinking. These stakeholders were all presented at our Dream Lab thematically organized around water, hosting 50 participants, for a full day session of envisioning the future of water management in our country, the challenges of today, and how can innovation and better policies can help us achieve those futures. The insights from this Dream Lab directly contributed to the content of the bassline studies that we are preparing within the NDS process. The participants gave us a vision of how the sector could look like in 2042, ranging from smart systems that will enable sustainable water use; to nature based solutions for water management and alternatives for production processes that require a lot of water. They also pinpointed to what are some of the perceived challenges and paths forward, including greater coordination between the local communal agencies with the central government, a need for greater coordination of national strategies and plans, that try to regulate areas adjacent to our topic.
We also reached out to proven champions in the community when it comes to sustainability and resources. We organized sessions where we presented our initiative and familiarized people with the broader work UNDP is doing, but we also tried to learn about activities that other entities are doing in this space. For instance, we organized a session where we presented the crowd-mapping initiative with the Scouts Association in North Macedonia, but also with the YES abroad program, to encourage them to take part in the challenge. We also hosted the Macedonian Young Lawyers association who talked to us about their work in the intersection of legal protection and water, as a part of our Fridays at the Lab series.
In our journey we also benefited from utilizing the Global Accelerator Lab, and how we act as a learning network, by organizing a knowledge sharing session on the topic of #water, in which we discussed with colleagues that have had activities in this space, about the actionable intelligence on the topic, based on their research, experimentation and mapped solutions. This session has helped us think of new areas of intersectionality between: water and other topics (heat, resilience, agriculture, waste water, tourism, etc.)
5. What comes next?
We are launching this blogpost as the Global Week to #Act4SDGs commences, so in that spirit we are also going to proceed with organizing activities in this realm. Inspired by the publication ‘System Change: A Guidebook for Adopting Portfolio Approaches ’, that talks about using ‘rapid ethnographic research’ to learn more about certain community practices, we have teamed up with a local anthropologist with whom we are working on highlighting some community practices pertaining sustainable water management. The key findings from this research will be published on our website as well. We also would like to continue our efforts to map all existing fountains within the city of Skopje, and broaden the map to include other cities and communities, so if please do join the team, and map your local fountain. Lastly we do hope to keep this conversation active and ongoing, because ‘both too much and too little water is a disaster’, and we have an obligation to propose policies, and advocate for a more sustainable water management.