Getting Strategic about Water – Nations think big in 2021

In recent months we’ve seen increasingly alarming reports of rising water security issues cropping up around the world. The response to this looming crisis is frequently framed in terms of leveraging innovation to create better water systems in desalination, wastewater treatment, recycling and storage. While new and better water methodologies are essential, it’s equally vital that they are deployed quickly, strategically and in a scalable manner.

This has become a matter of greater focus and energy for the governments of nations across the world this year, as the severity of the threat seems to finally be hitting home. In February this year, one of the world’s most famous and respected naturalists, Sir David Attenborough, called climate change “the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced”. He cited its ability to act as a ‘crisis multiplier’ that will, if left unaddressed exacerbate existing issues to create the wholesale collapse of the world’s fresh water supply chain.

Tell-tale signs of impending disaster

A recent United Nations forecast predicted that globally we will be running a water deficit of 40% between now and 2030, if current consumption habits are maintained. This is a stark reminder of the reality of water stress scenarios, which are already manifesting across more vulnerable regions.

In India over 600 million people currently face extreme water stress, and recent estimates suggests that as much as 70% of all India’s natural water sources are now contaminated due to man-made pollutants.

In the US, the warning signs can be found across the country. 88% of the American West is currently experiencing drought conditions, with natural water resources dwindling. Lake Mead, which supplies water for over 25 million people, has shrunk to just over a third of its capacity, while the Colorado River has been in drought for over two decades.

Further south, this year Texas suffered extreme weather that left 14.4 million people without access to drinking water.

Thinking Big – Large-scale solutions for lasting water security

Recent announcements on water strategy coming from countries like the US, which traditionally has lagged behind in this area, signal a major rethink on this vital issue. Last month, US Congress introduced a bill for funding a $750 million programme of dedicated water recycling projects that will be initiated across 17 of the country’s western states before 2027.

This is a timely (or perhaps ‘well overdue’ is a more accurate sentiment) correction to the drastic water imbalance that the US has created. Currently, only 10% of wastewater in California is recycled (it’s a similar story across most of the country, with water reuse rates at or below 10%) but the state aims to massively boost this rate to 100% by 2035 through the creation of new water treatment and reclamation projects.

China is also thinking big and acting swiftly. The country has managed to double its national water reuse rates in the past decade, and continues to ramp up its efforts to achieve water security while tackling existing water pollution levels. In late March this year, China announced its new five-year wastewater roadmap. Its key goal is to raise the proportion of sewage the country treats to reusable standards to 25% by 2025. Headline solutions for achieving this ambitious goal include the creation of dozens of new treatment plants and the upgrading of 80,000km of wastewater collection pipelines.

In the Middle East, the constant pressure of water stress means that countries in the region have been generally ahead of the global curve when constructing and refining their national water strategies. However, there is always more to do, and the uptick of various water sustainability trends in 2021 underline the urgency of the problem. MENA governments are looking to phase out water subsidies to reduce consumption, while Saudi Arabia recently outlined 40 new water infrastructure projects across the kingdom to be implemented before 2026. Also, its recently formed Water Transmission & Technologies Company (WTTCO) now has a $16 billion investment plan to expand the country’s water transmission system up to 17,000km.

Innovation roundup – a microbial approach to water treatment

Again, innovation and scalable action go hand in hand when it comes to boosting water security anywhere in the world. As such, the steady developments and breakthrough moments in water technologies remain as important as ever. Innovations that caught our eye this month focus on the use of microbes and bacteria:

Plant-based filtration: Belgian startup HelloWater as pioneered a new water filtration system that utilises plants, earthworms and microorganisms to break down pollutants. While this isn’t a new approach, HelloWater’s system is more flexible, affordable and scalable than previous leading examples, and provides a modular approach that makes it viable for individual households or large-scale treatment facilities. The startup is currently concentrating on the European market, but has global ambitions for its system’s rollout.

A quadrillion microbes go to work: The UK’s Biological Engineering Wastewater Innovation at Scale (BEWISe) centre has become Europe's first large-scale wastewater treatment research facility to use bacteria in sewage treatment. A quadrillion microbes (one million billion) are being tested in various types of sewage, representing the largest scale research opportunity that Europe has ever seen.

Metal removal from wastewater: Researchers from the European BIOMIMIC project have developed a biotechnological process to successfully remove acids, heavy metals and even radioactive materials from industrial wastewater. The team has achieved a rate of removal of 99% of the toxic substances from their tested water, using sulphate-reducing bacteria. 

Scaling up the global response to water stress

The constant reduction of naturally occurring fresh water sources is a well-documented global phenomenon that affects even the richest and most well-developed nations on Earth. This month’s announcements of larger, wider-ranging water strategies and initiatives emphasises the time-sensitive nature of the problem. There is a sizeable and growing gap between the world’s rising water demand levels and its dwindling supply. To redress the balance, countries can’t just try to keep up, they are obliged to create solutions that will overtake demand if they are to successfully achieve long-lasting water security.