Opening the scene: Brasilia
The 8th World Water Forum took place in Brasilia and was an action-packed week of sessions circulating around fresh ideas in the water sector. The main theme focused around nature-based solutions, an emerging approach which uses ecosystem-related, holistic, and natural approaches to solve the world's water issues. The high-profile international event focuses on key issues in the water sector, many of which are amplified by relevant current water events that have made headlines. These global events include sustained drought in the Middle East with little to no relief, and a dramatic and ongoing struggle with water availability in Cape Town, which witnessed great stress on water utilities and their dependent communities. It is clear that current systems are not fully prepared to deal with new changes in water availability. This set the tone for the World Water Forum 8, catalysing momentum for co-creating a better water management future.
Priorities of the future
During the forum, there were several key takeaway messages for future directions in strategy and mobilisation. Cooperation, co-creation, and cross-sectoral engagement are critical components of successfully taking progressive action plans forward. Likewise, the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus will be taking a priority spot in shaping the mitigation and adaption strategies of the future. As the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are also being carried forward into existing and new plans, these broad global initiatives are developing into policy initiatives and actions on-the-ground. The question remains, how do essential water sector players, such as water and wastewater utilities (WWUs), get involved in the progress?
What about water and wastewater utilities?
How do the many calls for action coming from the forum affect WWUs, which provide essential water services on a local level? For one thing, many people do not realise that the urban water sector has a key role to play in the Global Climate Agenda. The urban water sector contributes to 5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and cross-sectoral approaches such as the WEF nexus are relevant to explore synergies and implications of climate actions among sectors. Considering the relationship between water use for energy generation and energy use for water services is a key in nexus approaches. Therefore, the urban water sector is also presented with a unique opportunity to make a large impact towards reducing global GHG emissions and accelerating the global climate agenda forward.
Why would WWUs be interested in doing this? As the recent global water events have shown earlier, rise in floods, droughts and other types of extreme weather events are motivation to make the systems more resilient. This means that business-as-usual (BAU) does not necessarily cut it anymore in terms of meeting service performance while becoming more resilient to a shifting climate. GHG reduction measures can be achieved by working with WWUs in developing and emerging economies, where emissions are among the highest due to a large consumption of energy and the portion of untreated or poorly treated sewage. Utilities will need to become "climate smart" for an uncertain future.
Shifting Climate, Shifting Minds
WWUs have the means and motivation to become key players in the global climate agenda, in fact, GHG reductions in the urban water sector could significantly assist in meeting country's Nationally Determined Contributions, which are reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement critical in keeping our planet below additional average warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius. There is under-recognized potential for nexus approaches here, and all it takes to begin this transition is a shift to a low carbon mind-set, both from within and outside the industry, to see the challenges to the water sector also as opportunities. Below we explore how this mind-set shift can be applied to WWU, improving their service performance and simultaneously contributing to meeting the global goals of the Paris Agreement and 2030 Agenda going forward.
1. Redefining the problem
Water and energy are inseparably linked, in a relationship known as the energy-water nexus, a key relationship of the WEF nexus. It takes energy to pump, treat, and deliver water, while it takes water to generate most traditional forms of energy. Energy consumption generates GHG emissions, and these accelerate climate change. Simultaneously, 80% of wastewater generated in the world is still discharged untreated or improperly into sewers and receiving waters, which can also contribute significantly to GHG emissions via the chemical release of methane. Therefore, the global water sector has both a stake and a responsibility in taking on climate mitigation.
2. The utility perspective
From the utility's perspective, their primary concern is service performance. Since water is essential for life, the tap simply cannot stop running, especially as our cities expand globally. Therefore, utilities can only engage in activities which help them meet their service requirements and are financially within their reach. Progress can only be made when ideas for improvement are practical and assist the utility's mission. Fortunately there are many such solutions that can be implemented, as discussed next.
3. Solving global problems with local initiative
What starts to become clear, is that utilities can take on improvement projects, which make progress towards solving their critical challenges, while also lowering their GHG emissions from BAU. Solutions which are in line with this mind-set shift can help illuminate the opportunities created on the path to a more stable future. Solutions such as: increasing pump efficiency, pressure management systems, pipe infrastructure, shifting the energy grid matrix and more, are all in line with achieving a higher utility capacity and assisting climate mitigation. There are also emergent measures such as biogas valorisation, which can assist in both offsetting emissions and recovering energy. There is even the potential for reuse of captured water and nutrients towards agriculture, making progress towards the optimal WEF nexus and circular economy. In fact, a project has already begun to inspire utilities in the transition to becoming "climate smart", as described below.
4. WaCCliM & the pioneers
The "Water and Wastewater Companies for Climate Mitigation" (WaCCliM) project began initiation of this mind-set shift and implementation of improvement measures with four pilot utilities: in Jordan, Peru, Mexico, Thailand. WaCCliM is a joint initiative between the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and the International Water Association (IWA). This project is part of the International Climate Initiative (IKI). The German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) supports this initiative on the basis of a decision adopted by the German Bundestag. Read more about the pilot countries here.
In Mexico, the country has committed to reducing 25% of its current emissions, with the potential to increase this to 40% over time. The pilot utilities implemented measures to reduce their energy consumption and increase wastewater treatment, both of which have avoided over 2,500 t CO2 emissions per year, or the same amount as 650 individuals in Mexico.
Further south in Peru, one water and sanitation company alone has reduced its emissions by 20% after participation in WaCCliM, reducing 5,300 t CO2 e per year using measures such as biogas use. Later, they have ambitions to turn this biogas into electricity for their own use through cogeneration, which can lower their emissions even further. Utilities like this one will be better prepared to adapt to Peru's Mitigation and Adaptation Plan (PMACC), which is renewed every 5 years as a mandatory national regulation to institute GHG reductions within the water sector.
In a drier part of the world, a Jordanian pilot utility is moving forward with plans to install new pumps this summer, which will increase efficiency and reduce water losses, also lowering their overall emissions. Jordan is dealing with water shortages, and has therefore taken a proactive action at the government level through the "Water Substitution and Reuse Policy," stating that all water in Jordan must be reused. This will affect all utilities in Jordan, and therefore initiatives like WaCCliM are useful in helping them along this transition.
The potential for further uptake of this project is growing with expansion to other utilities and the solidification of a knowledge platform "Climate Smart Water", with guiding resources to help kickstart the transition to a holistic and low-carbon mind-set for future utility projects.
5. Where do we go from here?
As the World Water Forum demonstrated, the need is pressing now for new solutions to a sector facing new challenges. The directions are promising in both nature-based solutions and finding innovative solutions through new initiatives such as WaCCliM. The challenge for each key player in the water sector is to embark on a mind-set shift that can illuminate new directions and opportunities for cooperation and growth. As global climate issues accelerate, so too do the solutions needed to address those challenges and innovate for the better.