Climate Action

How can the water sector become renewable and circular?

Circular economy strategies are needed in the water sector.

Circular economy strategies are needed in the water sector. Image: Unsplash.

Will Sarni
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Water Foundry
Austin Alexander
Vice-President, Sustainability and Social Impact, Xylem
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  • Water must transition from an extractive to a renewable, circular sector to help tackle climate change.
  • Technologies and industry strategies can help solve water scarcity, quality, access and affordability.
  • We can accelerate this process through education, transparency, and democratized access to information.

Invest in our planet is the theme of Earth Day 2022. It's a call to act boldly, innovate broadly and implement equitably. The water sector is at an inflection point where it must transition into a renewable sector. Circular economy strategies have now taken hold in historically unsustainable resource sectors like mining and forestry. Leading companies in these industries are transitioning to a more sustainable business model that delivers long-term economic, environmental, and social value.

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The water sector is on the cusp of the same transition to being renewable and circular. This is a dramatic shift for a sector that, historically, could have been viewed as extractive. As a society we have interrupted the natural hydrologic cycle for too long, both directly and as a consequence of climate change. We've also failed to integrate renewable and sustainable practices into this “intervention," focusing on searching for more water supplies instead of reducing demand, scaling reuse and recycling what we have.

What does a renewable water sector look like?

A 21st century renewable water sector has the opportunity to increase water security, resiliency, and equitable access to safe drinking water. But this transition has to be accelerated to race against the ticking clock of climate change. For the water sector to transition from being extractive to renewable, we need to focus on adopting the technologies and strategies that will make our industry:

  • Circular and diversified: This includes increasing water recycling and reuse in homes, cities, and industry sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing. In the US, we're seeing a renewed interest and adoption of water reuse in regions like the American West in response to the impacts of climate change. The region has historically focused on supply-side strategies with little progress in demand reduction, reuse, and recycling. This is changing.
    We must also diversify water sources and tap localized water supply and treatment systems. For example, we now have the ability to deliver safe drinking water throughout homes and neighbourhoods through innovative technologies such as air moisture capture and to treat water for multiple purposes at the residential scale.
  • Digital: Digital technologies are critical for the transition to a renewable water industry. These include remote sensing, IoT devices and edge computing, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality/augmented reality for applications in the industrial, utility, and public sectors. These solutions enable real-time water quality, water quantification and asset performance monitoring to improve the sustainability of water resources and resiliency of infrastructure. They also provide stakeholders with real-time water quality data so they can be informed about lead and other contaminant concentrations at the tap, for example.
  • Democratized: Data and actionable information need to be readily accessible to consumers, customers, NGOs, civil society, and other stakeholders to both accelerate the adoption of renewable water technologies and also innovative business models, financing, and public policies.
    Currently, water data and information are difficult to access from public sector databases and, more importantly, difficult to understand for the layperson. Easily accessible data which is simple to understand for all stakeholder groups has the potential to reveal the problems with an extractive water sector.

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

How can we accelerate progress?

In order to speed up the transition from water as an extractive industry to a sustainable and resilient one, our path forward must be rooted in education, transparency, and democratized access to important information about our water systems. We must do the following:

  • Acknowledge and educate: The sector must come to terms with the reality we are facing. Water can no longer be considered an unending resource to be extracted from the environment. If the sector does not come to grips with this, we cannot move onto the next important step to continue to engage and educate the broader public. While we have seen many education efforts across the sector asking people to assign value to their water resources, true education comes with data transparency and actionable information.
  • Learn from other sectors: The transition of the energy sector provides lessons learned and a roadmap for the water sector. The sector's adoption of solar and wind technologies and smart homes provide valuable insights for the water sector. The rise of digital technologies and renewables has provided consumers greater choice in how their energy is delivered and consumed. It has also increased resilience from extreme weather events through the adoption of off-grid technologies such as solar, wind and batteries. We're seeing a similar transition in the water sector with the adoption of home water conservation, leak detection, real-time water quality monitoring and in-home water reuse.
  • Increase transparency: To most people, the water sector is “invisible”, as was the energy sector decades ago. There is a lack of transparency on the cost of water infrastructure, the full cost of water, and the value of water. Greater transparency is needed to identify what is broken in the system and what is needed to consistently deliver water for economic development, business growth, and social well-being. The sector needs to abandon the myth of low prices for water and resultant underfunding of infrastructure. While investment is certainly required for our over-aged infrastructure, proper recognition of pricing drives innovation and allows new, more affordable technology to arise.
  • Democratize access to data and information: Water data and actionable information need to be available to end-users. This means aggregating publicly available data and translating it into readily understandable information about water quality and quantity in real time. Currently, data is difficult to access and understand for the layperson, but it has the potential to help accelerate innovation in public policy and technology adoption. Democratizing access to data and information will also increase connectivity to customers and consumers.

This transition is not only possible, it’s critical if we are to solve water scarcity, quality, access and affordability. The water sector has the advantage of learning from other industry sector transitions and to build on the unique characteristics of water. To stop being an extractive sector, and to become a renewable one, we must act with urgency to transform ourselves.

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