World water day: Water scarcity nurturing innovation

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Currently, over two billion people live with inadequate water supply. Climate change and demographic expansion is placing more pressure on existing water sources with potentially half of the world population living in areas facing water scarcity by 2025 (UNICEF 2022). Innovation is the key to providing an answer to these challenges and moving towards future-proof water management.

Current situation

Currently, over two billion people live in countries where water supply is inadequate, 80% of them are living in rural areas. Climate change and demographic expansion are putting more pressure on water sources with potentially half of the world population living in areas facing water scarcity by 2025 (UNICEF 2022). Besides the increasing predicted demands from the agricultural sector, currently responsible for 70% of the global water abstractions, also sharp increases in water withdrawal are predicted for the industry and energy utility companies (WWAP 2015, WWDR 2021). Also in Europe, at least 30% of the population and 20% of the territory is affected by water scarcity with an increasing number of severe droughts having caused an estimated cost of several 100 billion euros in the past 30 years (EEA 2021). In particular, in the EU, it is predicted that more than 50% of all river basins will be affected by water scarcity (Water Reuse Europe 2020). Water scarcity has also economic impacts as droughts can directly induce economic losses, for instance for farmers that feel the impact on their harvest, as well as indirect potentially even bigger losses, such as a reluctance to invest in an area at risk which directly impacts the competitiveness of the EU economy. Furthermore, water scarcity can easily induce geopolitical conflicts as even only in the EU 60 % of river basins extend beyond the borders of a single member state (EPRS 2020).

Groundwater: The invisible resource

Groundwater is globally the most widely used source of drinking water, either through central piped supply after treatment or through decentralized wells for the community, agricultural or industrial use. The main advantage of groundwater is the stability of the water quality when properly managed. However, groundwater levels are decreasing globally as abstraction rates are surpassing the replenishment rate through natural phenomena. Furthermore, decreasing groundwater levels also increase the cost for pre-studies and corresponding drilling depths and induce legal restrictions on withdrawal quantity and borehole depth (aquifer layer). Borehole water solutions are by far the cheapest, but only if the source is of drinking water quality and if it has enough pumping capacity. It was therefore already indicated back in 2011 by the European Commission that water abstraction should stay below 20% of available renewable water sources (EEA 2011).

The challenges on water scarcity are pushing policies and directly affected actors more towards the consideration of alternative water sources, such as water reuse. It is estimated that water reuse can decrease European water stress by 5% in the coming years (European Law Blog 2020). Water reuse can be either bounded to a single premise in which internal waste streams are valorized up to the required process water/drinking water quality or by collaborative projects in between companies and even public utilities in which process streams are interchanged and shared for valorization or consumption at maximum efficiency and as such increasing water availability in a sustainable way. The main challenges of water reuse are the financial feasibility, the need for infrastructure, the legal framework, and the public perception and resulting acceptance (for instance for drinking water production out of wastewater treatment effluent).

Solution: Innovation in the water sector

Innovations are key to providing an answer to these challenges and moving towards future-proof water management. The wide industrial application of membrane technology has been one of the main drivers for the adoption of water reuse for high-quality purposes as it provides a compact and reliable solution that is easily controlled by simple process parameter supervision and lots of opportunities for process automation. Until today, membrane processes are getting every day smarter, more efficient, more reliable, and with less impact on the environment through minimization of energy use, chemical usage, and wastewater discharge, by innovative technological solutions for monitoring, membrane cleaning, or remote standalone operation. Besides water reuse, alternative sources also include rivers, canals, and docks characterized by a large seasonal or tidal variation in water quality and therefore previously not considered as stable sources. Also on the level of site management synergies between domestic wastewater treatment plants and surrounding industrial sites are gaining importance. Also (sub)urban decentralized rainwater buffering, greywater treatment, and subsequent treatment to second circuit water and drinking water that can be even reinjected in aquifer storage layers are examples of future-proof water innovations that currently are already in the implementation process in green-field and brown-field construction projects.

It is the responsibility of governments to keep supporting these innovations by financing promising pilot projects and as such increase the sustainability of water provision to be able to face the upcoming challenges of climate change. The European Green Deal and regional Flemish Blue Deal, to specifically  overcome the consequences of drought, are very good examples of these future-oriented support policies.

BOSAQ’s circular water technology, Q-Drop systems, encompass the latest water technology innovations, to ensure a reliable high-quality water supply both for businesses (process water) and communities (drinking water).

Pieter Derboven

CO-FOUNDER & CTO

Dr. Ir. Pieter Derboven owns a Master degree and a Ph.D. in Engineering chemical technology at Ghent University.

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