How does the cost of building a water infrastructure impact global access to safe drinking water?

Centralized water systems dominate in economically advanced nations. However, alternative models are now emerging that may save substantial amounts of money and help alleviate pressure on water supplies across the globe.

Water – it's essential to life but it's not a cheap resource to manage and provide to populations. There are still many parts of the world without access to safe, clean drinking water and those with the necessary infrastructure in place often struggle to maintain their systems and have costly mechanisms in place.

Centralized water systems dominate in economically advanced nations. However, alternative models are now emerging that may save substantial amounts of money and help alleviate pressure on water supplies across the globe.

Costs of a centralized water system

 Centralized water systems are publicly-run infrastructures that are in place in many nations across the world. They treat and supply water across large areas – nationally or regionally – using extensive piping networks and large-scale treatment plants.

These systems are costly to install and maintain. Research has highlighted that centralized infrastructure spending will total around $41 trillion globally between 2005 and 2030. Costs can be broken down into the following key areas:

  • sourcing – water has to be initially sourced, mainly from groundwater sources that are finite in their supply and involve expensive techology to extract and pump the water. Research has already highlighted the need to move away from dependence on these water sources in order to save money and protect the environment.
  • transportation – centralized systems rely on large underground piping networks to carry water supplies over large distances. These systems are costly to maintain and update and are prone to leaks. Over 45 million cubic meters of water are lost each day due to leakage.
  • treatment – industrial water treatment plants treat and purify water supplies including wastewater before redistributing it back into the water system. These plants take up a lot of space and resources, with installation, operation and maintenance costs for each country running into millions annually.
  • other operational costs – this includes the costs of connecting water to individual buildings, production and installation of water meters, dealing with consumer complaints, etc. which can cost up to €250,000 per kilometer

These costs are passed onto the consumer, resulting in higher water bills. On top of this are the costs associated with the private bottled water industry that runs alongside centralized public water supplies. Water is often shipped across the world at great financial and environmental cost.

Examples of centralized infrastructure costs include:

  • USA – the American Water Works Association (AWWA) has estimated development and repair costs for US drinking water to total over $1 trillion over the next 25 years. A discussed pipeline transporting water from Boston to water-starved California was estimated to cost $5.2 billion to build and a further $487 billion to ship the water.
  • Europe – research has found that infrastructure spending needs to increase by 23% to $525 billion by 2025 in order to deal with the continent's ageing and leaking pipeworks in countries including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK.

How decentralized systems can save money

An alternative to the centralized method is to produce water in a more localized and decentralized way. This is done in some developing countries that lack the infrastructure for centralized infrastructure, but technology is now becoming available to enable economically advanced nations to utilize water provided through a decentralized supply.

Decentralized systems use smaller-scale and more environmentally sustainable methods of sourcing, purifying and distributing water among more local populations. They can use advanced technology to treat any water supply (wastewater, rainwater, water sourced from local lakes and rivers) and turn it into premium drinking water.

Although there is an initial outlay to install systems, money can be saved in all of the above-mentioned areas:

  • sourcing is less reliant on expensive groundwater extraction. Instead, existing water supplies can be treated to create a “circular water loop” that not only saves money but is kinder to the environment.
  • the need to transport water over long distance via extensive piping networks is eliminated, saving millions in maintenance costs and preventing huge leakage waste.
  • treatment costs are greatly reduced through the use of smaller-scale and more efficient on-site treatment systems.

These savings can be passed onto households and businesses. For example, the Q-Drop project -which offers new ways for drinking water to be produced and consumed at a local level – now successfully runs in places such as Gust'eaux, Belgium, enabling businesses to provide a sustainable water supply at reduced costs.

Because of more efficient methods that vastly cut down on waste, savings can be made that are passed onto the consumer. This means that the final cost for one bottle of drinking water (1L) can be lowered to less than €1. The savings to our beleaguered environment will be far greater.

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