A Smart Water-Energy-Carbon Nexus Approach for Post-2015

Good news for the sector: water is well represented in the newly launched Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This led to shared optimism during the World Water Week 2015 in Stockholm, this August. Not only is there a specific goal (SDG 6) devoted to water; but water also features prominently in four of the other SDGs.

The number of SDGs, seventeen in total, reflects well the importance and urgency of the sustainability agenda. Moreover, it indicates the interconnectedness and complexity of the issues to be tackled in the next 15 years. Not a minor task. But the question is, are these goals far-reaching enough? Which ‘smart’ measures can we practically take to achieve actual sustainable (urban) development?

Killing multiple birds with one stone

To meet all targets by 2030, and avoid focusing too much on certain aspects and neglecting others, a holistic approach is required. An integrated strategy of energy efficiency aimed at reducing energy consumption and reducing operating costs, combined with the critical aspect of reducing the discharge on untreated sewage is needed.

One example of this approach is the Water and Wastewater Companies for Climate Mitigation (WaCCLiM)* project. This has highlighted the fact that carbon emissions from untreated wastewater represent a major source of greenhouse gas emissions from the urban water cycle. Implementing the SDG 6 goal ‘smartly’ can potentially reduce these emissions to zero, contributing to the carbon reduction goals discussed at the upcoming COP 21 in Paris.

Smartly means a manner in which energy production from wastewater is implemented and efficiency increased, without compromising the service level and even reducing costs. Cost reductions from energy savings provide an opportunity for utilities to expand their service cost-effectively. In addition, if we were to find a way of ‘pricing’ greenhouse gas emissions from untreated sewage, we would further incentivise both the extension of wastewater treatment and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Do-It-Yourself for utilities

A great challenge for utilities lies in finding and implementing suitable measures to realise such ‘win-win’ situations. The WaCCliM project specifically aims to facilitate this process. Its objective is to support utilities on the path towards climate neutrality. Pilot projects in Peru, Mexico and Thailand show high potential for successful implementation of ‘energy efficient’ and low carbon measures. These measures include biogas co-generation, increased pump efficiency, a reduction of leakages and sending treated effluent to crops. All of which can contribute to reduce operational costs, improve utilities’ service to the public and protect the environment.

Identifying such practical opportunities requires the correct interpretation of sufficient ‘reliable data’. This is why the Energy and Carbon Emissions Assessment and Monitoring Tool has been developed to assist utilities to make the most of available resources and monitor their progress. Motivating utilities to implement a low energy – low carbon approach can be a stepping stone to inspire a change of mindset when planning replacements or extensions, and eventually a stepping stone to carbon neutral cities.

Although this ‘DIY’ tool for utilities can be an impactful starting point, an enabling environment, in which all stakeholders are involved is also critical. Engaging with national governments and the international water and climate community is essential.

The adoption of this smart water-energy-carbon ‘nexus’ approach by water and wastewater utilities around the world won’t happen by chance. It needs multiple stakeholders to commit to the post-2015 sustainability and development agenda to ensure a sustainable urban water cycle. Only then can the journey towards regenerative cities make real progress.


*The Water and Wastewater Companies for Climate Mitigation (WaCCLiM) project is implemented by the International Water Association and GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit), on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB)