Wise Water Management to Push a Low-Carbon Economy

The Paris Agreement reached last Saturday provides an unprecedented opportunity to keep the global temperature rise well below 2 ºC and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 ºC. This is a major step forward to a low-carbon economy. The ambitions of the Paris Agreement are widely applauded by political, business and NGO leaders. We have a fantastic opportunity now to act and act with urgency!

Thus, very good news for the planet, its inhabitants and all those concerned with the future of water. Water is fundamental for prosperity, human wellbeing and environmental sustainability. It is the lifeblood of human kind and our planet. Now, adapting water management systems to a world that is within 2 ºC warmer than pre-industrial levels is a major challenge, but one that can be achieved. Let’s get started!

Additional financial resources, of at least USD 100 billion per year from 2020 onwards, are a welcome contribution to address the projected increase in floods and droughts related to climate change. Such spending should be targeted towards those most in need and without the ability to master the finances to adapt.

Financing adaptation of our water systems is fundamental to address water as a global risk. Without these investments no economy and society will be able to thrive. Yet we have to keep in mind that climate adaptation comes on top of dealing with other pressures on water systems: rising populations, changing consumption patterns and continuously growing water demands from cities, industries and agriculture. Combined, these provide not only a major challenge but also a major opportunity for the water sector to engage and raise the stakes on water adaptation.

The water sector also has an active role to play in climate mitigation. Reducing energy consumption and producing energy from the urban water cycle can make a significant contribution to a low-carbon economy. Water utilities like Ruhrverband in Germany are leading the way. Over the last decade Ruhrverband has reduced their energy consumption and started producing renewable energy from wastewater generated bio-gas. Others are following suite, raising the possibility of carbon neutral water utilities becoming the norm rather than the exception.

The greatest opportunity to achieve this comes from utilities in cities were wastewater is not yet treated – accounting for 80 per cent of all wastewater globally. Up to 45kg of carbon dioxide per person per day is emitted from untreated wastewater. And here is where global agendas connect to create a win-win solutoin.

The Sustainable Development Target 6.3 aims to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater, requiring the building of wastewater treatment facilities world-wide at a pace never seen before. The scale of the SDG commitment is enormous. It requires us to build wastewater facilities for approximately 0.6 million people every day until 2030. This is huge! Delivering at scale and within the set timeframe will require an unprecedented effort that delivers transformative financing, technologies, policies and practices. Let’s ask ourselves: how are we going to deliver on this promise?

While utilities can do a lot to reduce their own carbon footprint, a real breakthrough in reducing carbon emissions can come from working with customers. On average, a household emits approximately 10,000 kg CO2 per person per year. Water heating and consumption is about 10% of this emission. With smarter homes, efficient boilers and shower heads, thermostat mixers and heat recovery from drainage water, the household carbon footprint of water use can be dramatically reduced.

The key is for utility leaders to step up and transform their business into being truly service oriented by helping customers to make the change. It might sound farfetched but Sydney Water in Australia puts its customers first, and is reshaping utility services as a true customer service enterprise. It is one example of providing practical pathways to establish sustainable lifestyles and ways of consumption that can become a truly transformative force.

With the Paris Agreement, the goal posts for transitioning to a carbon free economy are set. Current voluntary commitments aren’t enough to realise this. So, let us show that the water sector is able to step up and lead the way towards a carbon neutral economy that won’t reach beyond +1.5 ºC. Let’s pull together and show the world that we have, and can develop and apply at scale, the technologies, management and know-how needed to achieve a carbon neutral water sector. A wise water world that is fully capable to adapt to the changes to come.

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