Urban areas (especially cities) are challenged in meeting their direct water needs from local sources. They also exert strain on global water resources through their indirect (virtual) water use. Agencies concerned with urban water management have visions and goals for managing direct water use, but indirect use is only inferred in more global visions for sustainable consumption. There is limited quantification of “urban water performance” at the macro urban scale (whole of city) to monitor progress toward these goals. It is constrained by a lack of clarity about the evaluation approaches that best serve them. We ask, How can the evaluation approaches described in literature advance urban water management goals? We reviewed the utility of eight evaluation approaches, including urban water system modeling, urban metabolism (territorial and mass balance), consumption (life cycle assessment, water footprinting, and input-output analysis), and complex systems (ecological network analysis and systems dynamics) approaches. We found that urban metabolism based on water mass balance is a core method for generating information to inform current goals for direct urban water use, with potential for being “coupled” with the other approaches. Consumption approaches inform the management of indirect water use. We describe this in a framework for urban water evaluation to give greater clarity to this field and flag the further research that would be needed to progress this. It includes the recommendation to differentiate the evaluation of direct and indirect urban water, but to also interpret them together.
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