July 3, 2015 Society

Leading the Way to Water Innovation

We live in a world that is rapidly changing, one where water management, or to be more accurate, ‘mismanagement’, is likely to define future human health and wellbeing, environmental sustainability, regional stability and economic performance. Global population growth, and an expanding global economy over the last thirty years, has witnessed unprecedented increases in water consumption and wastewater production. Leaving the water sector facing multiple challenges simultaneously.

Responding to this, the water sector has a pivotal role in finding solutions to these challenges; a primary focus for the recent IWA Leading Edge Conference on Water and Wastewater Technologies. The conference brought together water leaders, technicians and academics to focus on both innovation and scaling up from pilot to full application. Many of those attending came from regions where these issues are not only emerging policy priorities, but have long been a breeding ground for successfully implemented water management solutions.

At the conference, science, social sciences and the business perspective coalesced to highlight solutions through sharing experiences and lessons learned. While we may think of solutions coming exclusively from industrialised countries, Africa, Asia and Oceania offer good examples of testing and implementing to scale using new technologies and best practices; including innovative solutions like alternative water resources or integrated water cycle management.

The use of alternative water sources such as recycled water is being explored almost everywhere, but in many regions cases of full-scale application already exist. Since 1965 Hong Kong has started requiring the installation of dual plumbing systems in new buildings and using seawater for toilet flushing [1]; in Japan, recycled water has been used for toilet flushing since 2000. South Africa’s integrated water cycle management offers another good example of water innovation.

What is clear is that the success of any technological innovation is dependent upon its social acceptance. Trust between consumers and water utilities is a key ingredient in making water solutions work. The experience from Singapore, where recycled water has been used for domestic consumption since 2000 [2], shows that while water scarcity is an important argument to convince people to accept new water sources, there needs to be regulations and standards in place to inspire real trust amongst citizens.

Transparent communication is critical, showing people the treatment processes and risks, rather than exclusively telling them the benefits was one strategy used in Singapore. Similarly, understanding people’s motivations and working with, rather than against, their biases and preconceptions can be vital to success.

Insights of social and environmental behaviour presented by Kelly Fielding elucidated some of the challenges and future directions of promoting public acceptance of water reuse. According to an Australian survey [3], consumers are more willing to use recycled water than desalinated water for external uses, like watering gardens, washing cars or flushing toilets. When it comes to water for drinking, cooking or other internal uses, they prefer desalinated water. Another survey [4];revealed that consumers are more comfortable with rainwater usage than treated stormwater, desalinated water or recycled water. The same survey concluded that consumer perceptions of recycled water health risks were highly distorted.

Improved water management and the use of alternative water resources often require new technologies, presenting opportunities for water sector stakeholders. However, as Reinhard Hubner stressed, the experience of applied leading edge technologies offers insights into potential pitfalls for innovators: utilities have a long term perspective, and innovations must bring short-term results for a utility to implement them; and utilities often don’t have technical expertise to facilitate the technology adoption.

There may be no magic receipt for successful implementation of leading edge innovation, but we know what some of the ingredients are.

It may seem obvious, but a new solution needs to solve an existing problem. Once you have a reason for a new solution, don’t forget financial incentives. As Hubner made clear during his presentation at the Leading Edge Conference [5], if a new solution is to replace a previous system or technology, it must cost at least 30 percent less.

Importantly, new solutions must come with good references and case studies, and be able to show a high level of field-testing. It is also important to create a solution applicable to a large number of people, including by creating synergies. Never forget the operator because he or she will be the one that makes a success or failure of the technology;

Finally, innovators should seek a good partner and apply to as many funds as possible. This will enhance the financial viability of the innovation, and enrich its development from accumulated knowledge and experiences.

The 13th IWA Leading Edge Conference that will be held in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain from 13th to 16th June 2016, will focus on Evaluating Impacts of Innovation. For those who are looking for new concepts and ideas, or bringing them forward, this is a unique event that cannot be missed.


[1]“Long Term experience of seawater toilet flushing in Hong Kong”, presented by Mabel Lam on 30 May 2015, LET2015.

[2] “Building confidence in adopting new technologies”, presented by Harry SEAH on 1 June 2015, LET2015.

[3]Dolnicar & Schafer (2009), in “Promoting public acceptance of water reuse: insights, challenges, and future directions”, presented by Kelly Fielding on 1 June 2015, LET 2015.

[4] Fielding, Gardner, Leviston & Price, in “Promoting public acceptance of water reuse: insights, challenges, and future directions”, presented by Kelly Fielding on 1 June 2015, LET 2015.

[5] “Leading edge but market failure – From new technology to successful product” on 1 June 2015, LET2015