Hamish Chamberlayne, Head of Global Sustainable Equities, discusses how businesses are changing the way we use and consume water.
- The world is facing critical water shortages, thanks to climate change and an increasing global population.
- The goal of building safe, sanitary and more sustainable water systems is vital in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
- Companies that can develop innovative solutions to some of the challenges around water scarcity, pollutants and the implications of climate change on water resources can help the world move toward a more sustainable economy.
Water is vital for life, supporting healthy ecosystems and ultimately driving economic growth. Safe drinking water and sanitation are fundamental human rights and are essential for nutrition, disease prevention, health care and ensuring that every individual can participate in society. Reliable access to purified water is also critical for industries to run effectively. With concerns over safety and sanitization at an all-time high due to the COVID pandemic, water disinfection systems are being relied upon to keep products, consumers and employees safe.
Today’s Water Challenges
In 2020, a United Nations (UN) report1 provided stark evidence that billions of people worldwide are still living without safe drinking water and sanitation. According to the report:
- 2 billion people (26% of the world’s population) lacked safely managed drinking water services
- 3.6 billion (46% of the world’s population) lacked safely managed sanitation services
- 3 billion people live in water-stressed countries
Climate change is also exacerbating the issues of water availability by causing less predictable and more extreme weather conditions, which impact the availability and distribution of rainfall. As a result, the number of water-stressed regions have increased and shortages in countries already facing water scarcity have been exacerbated. In addition, higher incidences of flooding and droughts threaten to destroy water points and contaminate water sources.
Elsewhere, developed nations face a different set of critical issues. The pollution of fresh water sources from industrial and agricultural waste jeopardizes the quality and safety of water supply, while the use of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), selenium, microplastics and other emerging contaminants drive the complexity of water treatment. The expanding global population has intensified these issues by putting greater demand on industries, agriculture and energy generation. Consequently, water management has emerged as the key factor in managing global risks related to global health, migration, inequalities between countries, political instability and natural disasters.
Importance of Water Management Recognized Globally
We believe that high-quality and evenly distributed water supplies are needed to drive both environmental and social development. The UN also considers clean water and sanitation a Sustainable Development Goal. This goal recognizes that water is fundamental across all sectors of society, while understanding that, if not managed safely, wastewater can create inefficiencies, inequalities and introduce hazardous substances into the water supply.
A Circular Approach to Water Management
Circular economy principles present an alternative to today’s linear “take-make-waste” model of production. In practical terms, a circular economy seeks to design products that reduce pressure on natural resources and minimize waste. We believe that by extending this model to today’s water issues, a circular approach could reduce stress through more effective reuse of water and efficient recycling technologies, helping to create a sustainable and resilient water system that benefits everybody.
Reliable, resilient and sustainable water management begins with water companies. For example, Evoqua Water Technologies develops solutions for industrial, municipal and recreational water companies that, in turn, deliver water to the masses. Its products and services span the entire water life cycle, from extraction and purification to waste treatment and reuse, thereby improving efficiency, reuse and recycling, and extending product life where water is a requirement in the manufacturing process.
Purification Rather than Neutralization
Modern wastewater and drinking water facilities face an array of complex and sometimes contradictory problems. For example, it has become essential to treat water for micro-organisms that have become tolerant to chlorine, which is a traditional method used to clean water. At the same time, new water contaminants continue to emerge, such as pesticides used in farming and land use and chemicals found in pharmaceutical products. Technologies that focus on purification – removing impurities from water rather than neutralizing them through the addition of chemicals – can be an effective method to minimize the use of unnecessary chemicals.
Ultraviolet (UV) technology is a chemical-free disinfection technique used to remove organic and inorganic contaminants found in drinking water. As well as being highly effective in treating a wide variety of micro-organisms, including chlorine-resistant bacteria, viruses and other pathogens, UV technology requires no storage, handling or transportation of toxic of corrosive chemicals. Importantly, by ensuring water can be reused, UV technology also helps companies make progress toward their sustainability objectives. High-performance UV systems can help improve the reliability and resilience of water treatment facilities without the use of harsh chemicals, all while maintaining a minimal footprint.
Maintaining Safe Drinking Water
Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are manmade chemicals used in the manufacturing of many day-to-day products including textiles, cosmetics, paints, non-stick kitchenware and even firefighting foam. Importantly, PFAS are water soluble and do not readily break down in the environment. Due to the broad manufacturing applications of PFAS, they are commonly found in water supplies near industrial facilities. Current scientific research suggests that exposure to high levels of PFAS could lead to adverse health outcomes, although the wider implications are unclear.
Recycling Wastewater for Hydrogen Production
Water is an essential component in the large-scale production of hydrogen, which is used in many processes, including manufacturing fertilizers, treating metals and as a source of fuel. Due to the high volumes of water needed, many hydrogen production companies look for ways to become more efficient with their water usage to reduce costs for the business and its customers. By creating efficiencies in water-intense industries, companies can “close the loop” in their water use and alleviate pressures in water-stressed areas.
While continued urbanization puts more pressure on our water supply, innovation is happening at a similarly fast rate. We believe that technological advances will be an integral part of the solution and, because of this, private companies have a key role to play in changing the way water is treated, distributed and consumed. Companies that can innovate to solve some of the challenges around water scarcity, pollutants and the implications of climate change on water resources can help the world move toward a more circular and sustainable economy.
1 United Nations, summary progress 2021: SDG 6 indicators, July 2021.