New Capacities for Utilities in Transition

Current water management offers examples of how we can foster responsibilities, capture opportunities and deliver new water solutions. To truly achieve a sustainable water future, however, utilities need to innovate beyond current practices.

Utilities and the cities they serve can turn the tide on unsustainable water management. This requires fostering responsibility, capturing opportunities, and promoting new solutions to water challenges at different levels. To do so, water utilities need to embrace an approach that reaches across the entire water value chain from water source, through supply, to consumers.

This requires working across the 5 R’s of IWA’s new water management framework; to focus on the water – energy nexus; and to become drivers of building a circular economy. In particular, the 5R’s of reduce, reuse, recover, recycle and replenish offer a solid platform for change.

Reducing water loss and boosting water efficiency provides opportunities for utilities to reduce costs and lower water stress. Reusing water, to augment supply and in cooperation with neighbouring industries, towns and farmers can unlock gridlocks and be truly transformative. Recovering water, energy, nutrients and other materials from used water is becoming economically viable, and forms to basis of recycling valuable materials.

Finally, the future of water management is here in the form of successful pilots and large-scale applications replenishing the environment through restoring watersheds, lakes and groundwater. Cities and utilities can be instrumental on all 5 R’s to scale up sustainable water solutions.

Energy security is a key driver: creating a buffer against fluctuating energy prices, and making water sector operations more robust and financially viable. The IWA is developing the urban water – energy framework that supports utilities in transition towards energy and carbon neutrality. We are testing this framework in Peru, Mexico and Thailand, and see that a 20 – 30% energy efficiency gain can be made relatively easily by most utilities. Going beyond this, however, will require a sustained effort over ten to twenty years.

Pioneering utilities are not stopping at energy and carbon. Recently I visited utilities in Copenhagen and Odense that are working towards full nutrient recovery and recovering other materials from used water. Such an effort requires utilities to work through how they become producers of materials that fit into a market, be it specialised fertilisers, plastics or cellulose. They have to transition from being a service provider and “only” safeguarding public health and the environment, to supplying bulk materials to detailed product specifications.

Now this is a vision for the future: utilities driving a circular economy that reuses and recycles water, energy and materials! To realize this vision, utilities will need to address a number of things.

There is an urgent need to strengthen the cooperation between research and development institutions, technology companies and public and private utilities. Creating regional or national water innovation platforms could well be a driver to foster cooperation and drive technology innovation.

Developing the right public policy and regulation is key to making the sector fit for the future. The IWA’s Lisbon Charter, recently adopted by Water Ministers from 85 countries, defines the roles and responsibilities of various actors in developing and implementing public policy and regulation on drinking water, sanitation and wastewater management. The Lisbon Charter can support a new policy and regulatory context that stimulates innovation and enables utilities to transition to a circular economy.

Utilities cannot do this alone. Cities and citizens are integral to the transition. Utilities must engage more with city planners, architects and urban designers to develop cities of the future. The IWA’s Cities of the Future programme works with a growing number of cities around the world that aspire to be water sensitive cities. These cities have an integrated approach to the urban water cycle. They look beyond their city boundaries to replenish their groundwater sources and restoring their upper-watershed areas.

Leading utilities are dramatically changing current practices and building up a truly engaging way of interaction with their customers. Water savings at home can reduce a consumer’s costs drastically; this can extend to energy cost savings as well. To build an understanding and acceptance of investments in the water and used water systems, customers need to be a part of a utility’s day-to-day practice and for there to be an on-going dialogue.

This is certainly challenging, but is it achievable? To get anywhere close to this vision we need a major effort in building new capacities for utilities in transition. Training on the leading technologies and solutions and building these into tender documents; developing enabling conditions; creating institutions focused on innovation and learning that work across the industry, from operations to technology and applied research.

Only by working together will we have any chance of tackling the enormous challenges, and seizing the emerging opportunities ahead of us.

Ger Bergkamp

Past IWA Executive Director
Ger Bergkamp is the former Executive Director of the International Water Association. He held the post between the years, 2012 and 2017. Connect with Ger Bergkamp on IWA Connect.   Read full biography