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A total of 3.3 billion litres of water are lost in the UK each year due to leaking pipes.
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How a circular economy can help prevent a global water crisis

Dr Mark Fletcher

29th August, 2017

World Water Week 2017 this month brought together experts and decision makers to debate solutions to a growing global clean water crisis. DR MARK FLETCHER told the conference that the circular economy - and systems thinking - must be part of the solution

I believe more progressive circular economy, or system-based thinking, needs to be applied across and within the water cycle.

Demand for water – our most precious resource on the planet - is set to increase as the global population continues to grow dramatically. The World Economic Forum identifies ‘water crises’ as the global risk of greatest concern for the next decade. 

While water scarcity is something typically associated with deserts and countries ravaged by droughts, it’s becoming clear that water shortage issues are far more prevalent. So much so, that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that by 2050 water scarcity could affect four billion people worldwide. 

What’s certain is that addressing this issue will require a revolution in our day-to-day behaviour and mindsets. While old habits die hard, the global population needs to reduce use, recycle more and use water more sustainably. 

I appeared at World Water Week in Stockholm last week. My talk discussed the circular economy in the context of water; in other words, the importance of moving towards a system which favours restoration and regeneration over disposal and wastage. 

World Water Week 

The focus of this year’s World Water Week, the annual focal point for global water issues, was “water and waste – reduce and reuse”. Bringing together experts and key decision makers from a range of sectors and countries, this annual gathering allows us to forge new ways of thinking and develop solutions to the most concerning water-related challenges.

This year, one of the standout questions for the water industry is, how can we change how we approach water management on a global scale? What will be the catalyst for change for water-based, privatised utility companies already making steady profits?

And how can UK citizens, who have a dangerous misconception that water is an endless resource, be persuaded that immediate behaviour change in essential if we’re to meet long-term goals?  

Practical application of the circular economy 

I believe more progressive circular economy, or system-based thinking, needs to be applied across and within the water cycle.  

But what do we mean by the circular economy? A circular economy reuses and recycles materials to conserve them and reduce waste. More broadly the application of circular principles aims to improve citizen quality of life and protect our most vital natural resource, while providing employment opportunities in local communities. 

At Arup, our projects are carried out with circular principles in mind. We recently worked with Del Monte for example, to create a new cost-effective plant which treats wastewater from pineapple washing and processing.

Using an anaerobic reactor, waste water from the pineapple washing and processing areas is treated to lower contaminant levels. Gas generated from the anaerobic process is captured and then transferred to new combined heat and power engines to produce electricity.

As a result, Del Monte have stopped using their coal fired power station, and bolstered the resilience of their plant during a power outage, all while reducing operating costs. 

The ‘water lens’ 

Arup encourages the organisations we work with to apply a “water lens” when evaluating their processes and systems. This means assessing how they can reduce consumption and reuse water, as well as improving the design of their business models, materials and products to cut waste.

Having a coherent vision of how the circular economy can deliver value is crucial for all organisations, whether private or public. 

We have developed our own Design with Water Framework to demonstrate how water management needs to be integrated as part of the water cycle.

Addressing issues such as resilience, flood risk, water supply and wastewater treatment, the framework places the water cycle at the centre of sustainable planning. 

Collaborating for sustainable solutions 

In a world with rapidly depleting resources, private sector water companies who wish to keep turning over a healthy profit need to adapt their business models to reuse materials wherever possible.

When engaging with local communities and stakeholders across the water cycle, the business and societal benefits of integrating the circular economy principles into projects must be clearly outlined at an early stage. 

At the same time, there’s the opportunity for water companies to work together with other organisations – public and private – to ensure water becomes a more significant driver in the planning and development of future community projects. This type of collaboration brings a shared case for investment, as well as environmental and societal benefits. 

What’s next?

Organisations will need to step up to the plate and take advantage of emerging technologies and best practice examples to adopt a circular economy approach. 

At a national level, there are significant issues for the industry to tackle. Considering an estimated 3.3 billion litres of water are lost daily in the UK due to leaking pipes, there are glaringly obvious opportunities to repair ageing infrastructure and rethink design with ‘reuse’ as a priority.  

On a bigger scale, the industry needs to think outside the box to deliver solutions. For example, as well as purifying, delivering, collecting and treating water, utilities could extract and sell resources from wastewater.

Wastewater plants could become bio-refineries for example, where organic materials could be converted to useful products.  

Clear governance and regulation will be key, as many existing frameworks for both natural and man-made water management fail to offer clear guiding principles for design, engineering and construction projects. Integrating circular principles into frameworks will ensure that we manage water in a much more sustainable way.

We still have a long way to go before we achieve the type of behavioural change needed to secure our future water supply. However, dispelling the view of water as an ‘end-of-life’ concept is a good place to start.

If there was a message I wanted to deliver at World Water Week 2017, it was this: encouraging a circular approach to water is no longer just a conceptual nicety – it’s an economic and environmental must.

This Author

Dr Mark Fletcher (FICE, FCIWEM, FGS) is director and global water business leader at Arup.

 

 

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