Circular Economy

Can the circular economy solve the world’s water crisis?

Can the circular economy solve the world's water crisis?

Cape Town proved to the world this year that water should not be taken for granted – and as low levels of rainfall are compounded by heatwaves in Europe, experts are calling for change in our consumption patterns and innovative water management strategies to help protect our most previous resource.

Now in their third year of drought, Cape Town citizens narrowly avoided running out of water altogether this summer. The authorities threatened to shut off water altogether and refer residents to communal water taps if the dam levels reached below a certain point – the dreaded ‘Day Zero’.

The stark situation galvanised into action – overall, the city of Cape Town successfully lowered its total consumption from 600l per day to 507l per day. Per person, that means a limit of 50l or less per day, and households that go over this amount face hefty fines.

Almost 9000km away, India is experiencing similar extreme water shortages, which authorities claim is down to poor water management, affecting an unprecedented 600 million Indians, and has been described by a government think tank as ‘the worst water crisis in history’.

According to the UN, by 2030 total global water demand is expected to exceed supply by 40% and approximately half of the world’s population will suffer from water stress.

“Cape Town and India are good examples of the fact that despite the best intentions and forecasts, tools and designs, the water systems that we are developing today are bound to be stressed by situations, contexts and uncertainties that go beyond what they were designed to do,” said professor Christos Makropoulos, an expert in hydroinfomatic tools and methods for urban water management.

While nearly 70% of the world is covered by water, only 2.5% of it is fresh, and of that freshwater, most of it is trapped in glaciers and ice fields, leaving just 0.007% for the planet’s 6.8 billion people.

According to Makropoulos, it’s clear that we need to change how we deal with water, and the most effective way to tackle these growing problems is to transform our economies into a circular model.

The idea of a circular economy is one in which waste and energy is fed back into the system via a series of loops, for example by recycling waste to make new products or to provide energy. In this way, the system as a whole uses less resources and produces less waste, creating a win-win situation.

“When you look at a wastewater treatment plant – could its processes also be used to produce energy at the same time,” Makropoulos said.

“This shift of whether wastewater is a waste that we need to treat to protect the environment, or whether it’s a resource that we can mine makes all the difference.”

Changing people’s perspectives to see waste as a resource will take some time, but trial initiatives are already underway in places like Costa Brava, Swedish region Gotland, Bucharest in Romania, and a variety of sites across Europe.

As part of the recently launched NextGen project, these areas will serve as ‘test-beds’ for trying out new thinking and technologies for better water management.

The solutions that the project finds will be a combination of new technologies, new approaches and new methodologies for treating wastewater. One such solution might be the development of businesses that can facilitate change.

“In the Netherlands there is quite a big agriculture sector of course, but the wastewater treatment companies were not in the business of selling fertiliser, and the farmers were not interested to go to the treatment plants for the fertiliser,” Makropoulos said.

“Profitability is key to the success of any circular economy initiative. In this way, financial sustainability can be ensured and the solution will last into the future.

“The challenge here is to make sure that the approaches and the technologies that we come up with is not only good for the environment, but that it makes sense from an economical perspective. If that can be achieved, it’s a game-changer.”

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