• The Netherlands has a national strategy to fully embrace the circular economy by 2050.
  • Amsterdam is working with utility companies to recycle used water.
  • Rotterdam is filtering medicine residues from wastewater to create biogas for energy generation.

Two cities in the Netherlands are turning to the circular economy to better manage one of the planet’s most precious - and overstressed - resources: water.

Clean water is essential for drinking, hygiene and cultivating low-income crops for food. But over the last century, global water use has increased at more than double the rate of world population growth.

Embracing the circular water economy

As part of the Netherlands’ national strategy aimed at fully embracing the circular economy by 2050, the city of Amsterdam is rethinking its approach to water use.

City authorities have adopted a combination of water reuse techniques, educational programmes and new procurement mechanisms to address the water challenge, notes UNESCO’s Water Reuse Within a Circular Economy Context report.

Policymakers aim to create closed water cycles in buildings to reduce domestic drinkable water consumption, working with utility companies and public housing associations to bring about change. This move could reduce Amsterdam’s typical single-person household consumption of 52,000 litres of clean water each year.

At the city level, authorities are working with utility companies to recycle Amsterdam’s used water within a contained closed loop, to extract nutrients - such as phosphates from sewage - that are found in wastewater but lost when using traditional sewer systems.

Phosphates are essential as fertilizers for food production, but the world’s reserves are beginning to become depleted. At the same time, excessive use of synthetic fertilizers has led to widespread pollution.

Amsterdam's authorities are promoting the use of organic waste and wastewater sludge as natural fertilizers in urban and semi-rural farming.

this child is carrying buckets to collect drinking water
For many people securing drinking water is a challenge.
Image: Reuters/Pawan Kumar

In the southern port city of Rotterdam, circularity plays a key role in plans to make its healthcare sector more sustainable.

water, health, environment

What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

Water security – both sustainable supply and clean quality – is a critical aspect in ensuring healthy communities. Yet, our world’s water resources are being compromised.

Today, 80% of our wastewater flows untreated back into the environment, while 780 million people still do not have access to an improved water source. By 2030, we may face a 40% global gap between water supply and demand.

The World Economic Forum’s Water Possible Platform is supporting innovative ideas to address the global water challenge.

The Forum supports innovative multi-stakeholder partnerships including the 2030 Water Resources Group, which helps close the gap between global water demand and supply by 2030 and has since helped facilitate $1Billion of investments into water.

Other emerging partnerships include the 50L Home Coalition, which aims to solve the urban water crisis, tackling both water security and climate change; and the Mobilizing Hand Hygiene for All Initiative, formed in response to close the 40% gap of the global population not having access to handwashing services during COVID-19.

Want to join our mission to address the global water challenge? Read more in our impact story.

A water-stressed world

While water overuse remains a global problem, there are vast differences in how it impacts the lives of people in developed and developing nations.

For residents of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and those living in high-income countries around the world, turning on a tap and expecting clean water to flow from it is a given. But in many parts of the world finding a source of clean water is not so simple.

this chart shows the share of the population with drinking water facilities in 2020
Almost 6% of people in low-income countries rely on surface water to survive.
Image: Our World in Data

In high-income countries, 98% of people have access to safely managed drinking water, compared to 30% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Almost 6% of people in low-income countries rely on surface water alone to survive.

Increasing demand, the impact of climate change and a global population set to reach 9.9 billion by 2050, are among many factors pushing the planet’s water resources towards crisis levels.

an infographic explaining the state of water usage and management across the world
The state of water usage and management across the world.
Image: United Nations water

2.3 billion people – from a global population of almost 7.9 billion – live in water-stressed countries, with more than 700 million in highly and critically highly stressed countries, according to the UN Water 2021 report. Securing drinking water remains a challenge for many people.

July 29 marked 2021’s Earth Overshoot Day, when human demand for natural resources exceeds what the planet can regenerate during that year. In short, the day we start borrowing resources from the future, which is not sustainable in the long term.

sustainability

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

The World Economic Forum has created a series of initiatives to promote circularity.

1. Scale360° Playbook was designed to build lasting ecosystems for the circular economy and help solutions scale.

Scale360° Playbook Journey
Image: Scale360° Playbook

Its unique hub-based approach - launched this September - is designed to prioritize circular innovation while fostering communities that allow innovators from around the world to share ideas and solutions. Emerging innovators from around the world can connect and work together ideas and solutions through the UpLink, the Forum's open innovation platform.

Discover how the Scale360° Playbook can drive circular innovation in your community.

2. A new Circular Cars Initiative (CCI) embodies an ambition for a more circular automotive industry. It represents a coalition of more than 60 automakers, suppliers, research institutions, NGOs and international organizations committed to realizing this near-term ambition.

CCI has recently released a new series of circularity “roadmaps”, developed in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), McKinsey & Co. and Accenture Strategy. These reports explain the specifics of this new circular transition.

Connect to Learn More

3. The World Economic Forum’s Accelerating Digital Traceability for Sustainable Production initiative brings together manufacturers, suppliers, consumers and regulators to jointly establish solutions and provide a supporting ecosystem to increase supply chain visibility and accelerate sustainability and circularity across manufacturing and production sectors.

Connect to Learn More →


Ensuring access to water and sanitation for all is the aim of UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number six.

But while the efforts of cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam to embrace a circular water economy could provide a blueprint for the developed world to follow, these same methods may not be suitable for many developing nations. Significant investment is needed in new water and other infrastructure in developing countries, according to the OECD, and it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to water scarcity challenges.