How to avoid wasting wastewater
On the 22nd of March, the world celebrated World Water Day. This year's theme was wastewater and to mark the day, UNESCO and UN-Water (the United Nations inter-agency coordination mechanism for all freshwater related issues, including sanitation) released their annual World Water Development Report. A report entirely dedicated to wastewater; a neglected resource that has huge potential to reduce water scarcity.
Wastewater is a valuable and sustainable resource from which energy, nutrients (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus) and other materials – most importantly clean water – can be recovered. However, as justifiably described in the report, wastewater remains an “untapped resource” in a world where water supplies are under constant and growing pressure, and supplies of resources essential to our lives and livelihoods (such as phosphorus) may run out within our lifetimes if alternative supply sources are not utilised. In this context, the reports highlighted the need to shift “the paradigm of wastewater management from ‘treatment and disposal’ to ‘reuse, recycle and resource recovery’”. And therefore, that wastewater “no longer is seen as a problem in need of a solution, rather it is part of the solution to challenges that societies are facing today.”
What actions are we taking?
In Europe, the implementation of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and other major pieces of legislation including the EU Water Framework Directive drove significant improvements in wastewater treatment, helping to protect surface waters from the effects of wastewater discharges. For example, the European Environment Agency (EEA) reports that approximately 80% of the Northern and Southern European population is now connected to a wastewater treatment plant. However, major challenges remain in a territory where it is estimated that at least 11% of the population is affected by water scarcity and the demand for freshwater from the general population and industry is constantly on the rise, resulting in over abstraction of groundwater resources in 60% of European cities.
In an effort to tackle these challenges, the EU has called for a transition towards a more circular economy, highlighting the needs to revise water management strategies by including wastewater reuse as a “means of increasing water supply and alleviating pressure on resources”  and encouraging investment in innovative new solutions to do so.
Working together to deliver change
In this context, a multinational, multi-institutional EU project called “DEMOWARE” was launched, delivering its results in December last year. Through the monitoring and testing of ten representative water reuse sites from across Europe and Israel, the project’s ambition was to enhance the availability and reliability of innovative water reuse solutions to overcome technological, economic and social barriers to the development and implementation of water reuse schemes. This collaborative project demonstrated the technical feasibility of a number of innovative technologies for water reclamation, such as next generation ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis membranes for industrial reuse. It also helped to establish recommendations for regulatory frameworks and business models that will contribute to the development of the water reuse sector in the future.
A new industry association for the water reuse sector
Perhaps the most high-profile outcome of the DEMOWARE project was the development and launch of Water Reuse Europe (WRE), a new industry association for the water reuse sector in Europe.
Officially launched in September 2016, WRE is an independent, not-for-profit company that’s on a mission to create a collective identity for the European water reuse sector and promote an innovative and dynamic water reuse industry. It represents the European water reuse sector’s interests, views, and aspirations and stimulates the growth and competitiveness of the sector through a range of initiatives, supporting its members by facilitating knowledge sharing and promoting European expertise and solutions in water reuse to global markets. Crucially, it also aims to raise public awareness and trust in water reuse practices, promoting the safe and effective use of recycled water. By assembling and summarising evidence and opinion from its members, WRE aims to play an important role in shaping any future EU legislation on water reuse.
So in a world increasingly faced by water resource challenges and surging demand, it is vital that we act collaboratively and imaginatively across disciplines and borders to resolve real-world problems such as water scarcity for ourselves and future generations. For this, new technologies and regulations are required, but more importantly we need a new mindset; we need to apply circular economy principles, which means promoting wastewater recycling and making it become the norm.
During its first few months WRE has already made a positive impact on the sector. It has received membership applications from SME’s, large multinationals, and a variety of public bodies, which all believe in the association’s ambition to make water reuse part of the solution for more sustainable water management across the continent. Encouraged by this success, the association now hopes to welcome over 100 delegates to its first conference and exhibition on Innovations in Water Reuse that will take place in Bruges, Belgium, on the 9th and 10th of October later this year.
By Dr Kristell Le Corre Pidou, Research Fellow in Water Reuse, Cranfield Water Science Institute