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The future of urban water: scenarios for water utilities in 2040

The future of urban water

Scenarios for water utilities in 2040

Focus Area

Cities, Water


Planning, Utilities, Water





Water companies have traditionally been conservative in their approach to planning, with development plans covering 5- and 10-year timeframes based on published development growth plans. As a result of more corporate focus and commercial drivers, water companies are starting to think longer term about their drivers and assets.

Sydney Water, supported by Arup, took a step along this strategic path by bringing Arup and Sydney Water staff together for a series of Arup-facilitated workshops. Based on the workshops, four plausible scenarios for the future of urban water utilities in 2040 were identified: incremental improvements; better together; autonomous communities; and survival of the fittest.

Using Sydney as a reference city, the study explored how a wide range of social, technological, economic, environmental and political trends could shape our urban water future under each scenario. The use of scenarios promotes deeper understanding of possible pathways into the future and enable conversations about how the direction of travel into the future can be influenced and guided.  Scenarios can be used to explore the viability of different strategies, inspire innovation and assist in long-term planning for more sustainable and resilient urban water systems. While the scenarios adopted in this study are based on Sydney Water, their implications are relevant to a wide range of other utilities and organisations.

Key Findings

The future of urban water is influenced by a broad range of factors, with water scarcity, urban population growth and the resulting necessity for efficient systems being the most influential ones.

Cities across the globe will increasingly have to focus on local water sourcing, reuse and recycling in order to sustain their population. Consequently, they have to move away from their reliance on external sources while considering the global water cycle. Water utilities need to be prepared to serve more people in the future while simultaneously dealing with an increasing scarcity and competition for resources. More resilient systems are needed. This offers the chance for water utilities to increasingly act as service providers for the development of autonomous systems.

To better deal with future challenges, water utility providers will increasingly have to favour integrated solutions over siloed interventions. This provides the chance for water utilities to play a fundamental role in the shaping of healthy and water sensitive cities. Increasing investment in green infrastructure, primarily for stormwater management, would offer the opportunity to access and directly treat a new, currently under-utilised water source. Another opportunity area is engagement in behaviour change interventions to better influence and manage demand. Availability of more and more data through increasing digitisation offers opportunities for investment in real-time monitoring of network utilisation to enhance operations and asset management.


Outputs of this research were shared with clients within the water sector and with the media to encourage consideration and planning for the future of water. The methodology has been used as a tool for systematically thinking and planning for resilience within utilities.

A summary report by Arup of the research, entitled The Future of Urban Water: Scenarios for Urban Water Utilities in 2040, is available online at


The approach of scenario planning for different futures had not previously been adopted in the water industry. The exploration of future trends and forecasts on water management around the world, alongside with the analysis of challenges and opportunities in socio-economic, environmental, technological, and political terms, provide Arup and stakeholders in the water sector with a better understanding of possible pathways into the future and enable conversations about how we can influence and shape the direction of travel. This enables water utilities and other stakeholders to plan effectively for the long term and Arup to respond to their challenges.