Gemma Dunn, PhD, is water market Leader for Western Canada at GHD. Dunn can be reached at or 604.248.3911.
May 27, 2021

Water Sensitive Cities: Building a Vision for our Water’s Future

What does a water sustainable future for communities look like?

water sustainable, one water

As we begin to imagine a future beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, local governments and public officials across North America and beyond are contemplating what a sustainable future for communities could look like. Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been growing interest in access to green open spaces and community liveability. At the same time, citizens are growing increasingly concerned over issues like climate change, the cost of living, and their prospects for employment.

Communities are dealing with aging infrastructure, population growth, and changing regulations, as well as the impacts of worsening environmental conditions. In recent years, we have also witnessed an unprecedented upsurge in severe droughts, floods, wildfires, winter storms and heatwaves, and a general decline in the health of our ecosystems.

As these issues unfold, there is growing recognition of the crucial role water plays in making communities liveable, sustainable, resilient and productive — yet traditionally, municipal service providers have worked in silos. Understandably, those working within daily operations and management of water services face different sets of concerns. They each see water differently and have different regulatory requirements, plans and budgets. They often do not even speak the same language:

  • Storm water management services may see water from the perspective of public safety and concentrate on flood risk and liability, receiving water quality, and focus on conveyance systems, surface contaminants, and inflow and infiltration.
  • The water resource department may approach water from the perspective of protecting public health, and will be concerned with drinking water quality standards, asset management, metering, leakage, pressure management, pumping stations and levels of service.
  • The wastewater treatment division may approach water as a waste product to be treated and disposed of safely. They will be concerned with suspended solids, viruses, parasites, and bacteria, emerging contaminants and regulatory compliance.

Then there are bigger issues at play such as aging infrastructure, population growth and limited municipal finances. Climate related issues like changes in precipitation will also bring another set of challenges — from too much water (with more frequent intense rainfall causing flooding) to not enough water (resulting in water shortages, droughts, urban heat, and wildlife risk).

Amidst so much complexity and uncertainty, how can we enable productive conversations and work together more effectively? How can we build consensus to work collaboratively toward a shared vision for our water resources, and collectively prioritize plans and investments?

With these challenges and issues, there is a pressing need for better policies, priorities and greater collaboration at the municipal level. An integrated approach to water has never been more important.

Building Integrated Water Management Through a Shared Process

The concept of "water sensitivity" offers an exciting means of delivering multiple benefits associated with liveability, sustainability and resilience through a city’s water management framework.

The Water Sensitive Cities Index (Index) is a benchmarking and diagnostic tool for assessing both the tangible and intangible aspects of One Water or Integrated Water Management (IWM), to help cities transform the way they deliver water services. Now available in North America through GHD, the Index is designed to benchmark a city’s current performance against seven goals of a water sensitive city to illustrate how urban water services are contributing to a city's liveability, sustainability, resilience and productivity. The tool provides decision-makers with a complete view of the water cycle, including water supply, wastewater, and storm water to help prioritize actions and investments. 

The Index methodology combines the wisdom and perspectives of various water-related services and interest groups at the municipal level to gain an understanding of how well they are performing, and help decision makers develop an action plan for more resilient future.

Already used by more than 50 cities around the world to make strategic planning decisions, the Index was developed in Australia by the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities (CRCWSC). The Index seeks to avoid many of the problems of previous water strategy methodologies. Rather than simply dropping a completed report, the Index process seeks the perspective of many different water users in the municipal government — water supply, water treatment, surface water, groundwater, flooding and storm water. Input from local interest groups such as environmental associations are also welcome.

Each participant or group is asked how they would rank the municipality against 34 corresponding indicators, which are scored on a 1 to 5 rating scale. An accredited workshop facilitator keeps the process on track, presenting and explaining each of the 34 Indicators so participants understand and think about the concepts in the same way. The tool is supported by a highly visual web-based platform, which can filter the results according to the needs and interests of the end-users and decision makers.

Several Benefits Result:

  • Fosters collaboration: In many municipal governments, the various departments rarely have an opportunity to get together as a group to discuss broader issues and future aspirations. They may also be competing for limited resources such as staff, budgets and public support. The Index workshop provides an important forum to meet one-another, build relationships and discuss issues and opportunities.
  • Generates alignment: People from various departments may also not have a clear idea of the other groups’ priorities, and what they contribute. At the end of the Indexing process, participants will have a shared understanding of what the characteristics of a water sensitive city are and what One Water or IWM aspiration they are working towards.
  • Cost effective: The Index process leverages knowledge from a range of departments and organizations. It can help prioritize areas for deeper investigation or investment potentially avoiding spending hundreds of thousands on additional studies.

In an ever-complex water planning environment, the Water Sensitive Cities Index enables collaboration and alignment across number stakeholders and perspective – while ensuring a holistic view of a community’s water future.

Global engineering consultancy GHD is the only entity currently accredited to deliver the Index in North America.

About the author

Gemma Dunn, PhD, is water market Leader for Western Canada at GHD. Dunn can be reached at or 604.248.3911.