The Future of Water – Options and Possibilities

The UN has sagely noted that “water is the primary medium through which climate change impacts will be felt by humans, society and the environment” and accordingly climate change will necessitate improvements in water resilience systems in cities across the globe. Increasingly they will have to focus on local water sourcing, reuse and recycling in order to sustain their ever-expanding population. There are multiple ways in which efficiency can be improved not least through significant investments in green infrastructure, the adaption of smart technology and widespread public education which will help to manage water demand through a broader understanding about its natural process. Water is a key contributor to life. We need to be constantly reminding ourselves of this and take action.

Many countries are currently working to maintain and improve the quality of their sources.  About 96% of the earth’s total water supply is found in oceans and there is broad agreement that extensive use of desalination will be required to meet the needs of growing world population.  Worldwide desalination plants are producing over 323 million cubic metres of fresh water per day, however energy costs are currently the principal barrier to its greater use. The State of Singapore has innovative water technology, aiming, despite its size and population density, to become fully self-sufficient by 2061.  Plans include tripling its desalinated water supply by 2030, the large-scale collection of rainwater, and the collection of recycled water which, as well as the standard procedures, uses micro filtration processes, reverse osmosis and UV treatment to deliver potable water to its citizens. In short they are converting their city into a catchment and focusing on source diversity.

Elsewhere efficiencies will be improved by the use of intelligent robots, which will play a greater role in the inspection of infrastructure.  New materials, such as graphene, that are lighter, stronger, smarter and greener will also become more popular replacing traditional materials such as stainless steel pipes.

Growing concern for the environment and for public health means that water companies will be held to greater account for their environmental impact and water quality. A stronger emphasis on green infrastructure will support a trend for companies to transform from providing base utilities to creating a system of amenities that support the water cycle. An example of this can be found at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Rain gardens have been reutilized as communal meeting spaces, through-ways turned in to permeable walkways and three acres of new native plant communities with underground cisterns collect rainwater for future non potable reuse. Once all the changes are implemented the IIT predicts a 70 – 80% reduction of run-off into Chicago’s sewer system while making the collected non-potable water available for irrigation. Expect this repurposing of public spaces for multi-functionality for both amenity and wider sustainability purposes to be widely adopted.

Alongside making improvements to the infrastructure, there is a pressing need to do more with less water. Smart technology and big data will help. Changing public behavior is a huge challenge however.  Although there is widespread understanding that rising consumption of raw materials is both intensifying resource scarcity and increasing competition, most people, certainly in the developed world, live materialistic lifestyles resulting in high levels of waste.  In Australia for example, on average around 20 million tonnes of waste per year is thrown away at a value of AUD10.5 bn. Digital lifestyles can increasingly link consumer behavior to consumption and growing connectivity, utilizing the Internet of Things, will mean that it will be possible to monitor the consumption and cost of water in real time allowing consumers to understand their impacts and take action.

Data analytics can help build understanding on how to use the water cycle to respond to the challenges of climate change. It can also lead to increased scrutiny of water utilities and a better understanding of cost. Companies will therefore be able to integrate the true cost of water into their decision-making. In addition the availability of data provides an opportunity to educate customers about consumption. Publicity campaigns and a growing sense of urgency will nudge consumers to reduce consumption and should be used in partnership with economic levers that recognize the true value of water.

Growing populations and changes in diet mean that we need to produce more food. Water is a fundamental part of this process. In Australia, for example, the agricultural sector accounts for around 65% of total water consumption.  This could be greatly reduced if we could change consumer behaviour. It is estimated that Australians throw away AUD5.3bn of food waste every year. This is simultaneously wastewater. There is a real need to change this approach and developments in this sector will continue to have tangible knock on effects for the water supply industry and the natural environment from which this water is sourced.

Science will also have a key role in reducing the amount of water we use. Nano and biotechnology is a potential game-changer for the water industry, and can enable breakthrough products and technologies to tackle pressing global challenges such as reducing environmental footprints, using less and cleaner energy and decreasing water usage and waste generation. For example microorganisms are now being used to treat water that has been contaminated by hazardous materials. The global market for nanostructured product used in water treatment was worth an estimated USD1.4bn in 2010 and is expected to rise to USD2.1bn in 2015.[1]  Initial success in this area has also raised the possibility of the utility as a self-healing ecosystem.

Greater efficiency is the driving force for manufacturing companies where energy and water can be as much as 50% of the total manufacturing cost.  In the future expect more green manufacturing and increased co-operation when companies forge alliances across traditional boundaries, for example to share common costs. In the water industry this will manifest itself in knowledge sharing and contributions to joint research and development across catchment boundaries.  Through using resources more efficiently countries could also become more active trading partners; this would allow for more equal water redistribution amongst users. This could include a water balance concept similar to carbon emissions reduction strategies where water saved in one country offsets additional water use in another.

Looking ahead, users are likely to have to pay for the real cost of infrastructure. One short-term option is the financial recycling of assets and capital where old assets are sold or leased to fund the new. However, in the longer-term we will have to pay the true value for key resources. This shift could also lead to the greater application of the circular economy, which will help stretch resources through end of life recycling and reuse. More awareness will lead to increased scrutiny of water utilities and pricing of services as the widespread availability of data provides the opportunity to educate customers about consumption and managing resource use.  Looking through an international lens, water trading would allow for the efficient redistribution of water amongst users, so countries could become active trading partners. As the amount of water used in agriculture in arid regions is two to three times higher than in rain fed regions water trade could help save water on a global scale.

Once efficiencies and improvements are made, consideration should be given to the most cost effective way to provide access to basic services.  The fixed nature of water supply infrastructure and its history as an essential government supplied service gives rise to natural monopolies within supply areas. Governments need to ensure the pricing policy is appropriate to balance the essential need for water, the impacts on consumers (particularly those on lower incomes) and the requirements of the suppliers to remain financially viable.  To do this there should be better integration between urban water planning and urban development planning with considerations on limitation to green-field development.

Recognizing innovation opportunities for the future more and more companies are tapping into the public’s intellectual capital by crowdsourcing product ideas and solutions.  In exchange they are giving creative consumers a direct say in what gets developed, designed or manufactured. Crowd-funding added at around 270,000 jobs and injected more than US$65bn into the global economy by the end of 2014 with an expected industry growth of 92%.

[1] . Nanotechnology Now. Nanotechnology in Water Treatment. 2012; Available from: http://www.nanotech-now.com/news.cgi?story_id=45894