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A shift to a circular economy could help save more than 400 billion m3 of water every year

Reusing, Recycling, Reclaiming Water

Reusing resources is the foundation of a circular economy. In a circular system, wastewater can be treated for reuse in irrigation, aquifer recharge, and more, turning a liability into an asset.

While oceans cover more than two-thirds of our planet, only 2.5% of all water on earth is fresh water. With billions of humans seeking water for their personal, agricultural, and commercial needs, the demand for sustainable water resources is at an all-time high.

A recent report by ING, a Dutch multinational banking and financial services corporation, concludes that while a circular economy may not succeed at eradicating water shortages around the world, it can reduce those shortages by focusing on water-use reduction, as well as water storage, wastewater treatment, and reclamation.

What is a circular economy? In contrast, a traditional, linear economy is one where an asset is produced, used, and then disposed of. In a circular economy, a resource is kept in circulation as long as possible through recovery and reuse, extracting maximum value.

Researchers examined six regions of the world: California, Ghana, Bangladesh, Northern India, the Netherlands, and the United Arab Emirates. These areas were selected because they all are prone to water shortages due to either meteorological or geographical conditions.

Emilio Tenuta of Ecolab, a provider of water technologies and services that collaborated with ING on the report, believes that while a circular approach to water systems may not solve all water shortages worldwide, it is still very promising, especially when the future of linear water systems looks bleak. He said:

Living with water stress is not very appealing, insurance often impossible, so mitigation is the way forward. The circular economy opens up new ways to mitigate risks.

Infrastructure and Technology Opportunities

When it comes to transforming linear water systems into circular ones, the first step is to improve the technology used in the current systems. That includes installing water-saving irrigation systems in agricultural areas, and wastewater treatment and reclamation plants in highly populated areas.

For example, in Northern India and Bangladesh, whose economies heavily rely on water-demanding agricultural and textile industries, the easiest infrastructure changes to achieve a circular water system are bringing water to the area and building facilities to treat wastewater for reuse.

One particular technology that can bring water reuse to remote locations is Fluence’s membrane aerated biofilm reactor (MABR). By using passive aeration, MABR slashes the energy needed for aeration by 90%. MABR can treat sewage and other wastewater to the point that it can be used for crop irrigation, closing the circle.

The Need for Behavioral Changes

In areas where water infrastructure and water irrigation systems are already advanced, the impact of technology won’t be as effective. Instead, a shift toward a circular economy will require an emphasis on behavioral changes to cope with water shortages. That includes reducing water demand and water pollution, improving the retention of water, and reclaiming or reusing water.

Gerben Hieminga, the report’s author, explains that encouraging the reuse of water is one of the most challenging aspects of those necessary behavioral changes:

It is very well possible to make drinking water out of sewage water, which in many cases is purer than the current drinking water. But we’re confronted with the ‘yuck-factor’: people still think that purified sewage water is of less quality.

Obstacles to Circular Water Systems

While parts of the world with dire water needs can import technology and knowledge to transition to circular water systems, educating the local labor force will have a more powerful impact in the long term and guarantee the success of the circular economy.

Ron Bolmeijer, Senior Global Lead Water Specialist at Heineken, understands that collaboration with local suppliers is key to his company’s success and to solving ongoing water challenges.

Water management in water-scarce areas is all about collaboration. We try to motivate suppliers to work as water-efficiently as possible. One player can’t do everything. We should work together.

As more and more areas of the world are affected by climate change, including global warming, droughts, and sometimes overwhelming floods, adopting circular water measures will help relieve not only water stress, but also the potential for financial losses.

While the implementation of circular water systems faces many obstacles, such as infrastructure costs and skilled labor training, the benefits are plentiful when it comes to improving the livelihood of local populations, businesses, and the environment.

The full report, “Less Is More: Circular Economy Solutions to Water Shortages”, is available from ING.