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At first glance, Smart Water Management (SWM) and the Circular Economy might sound like panaceas. The race for water security – the reliable availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods and production – has sparked a plethora of theories and solutions. We should not forget that the water crisis is both a governance crisis and a systemic crisis. Moreover, a wide range of improvements is required to ensure water security, both in terms of technology and management.

In this post, I review two trend topics affecting water: Smart Water Management and the Circular Economy. But first it is important to understand water resource management and its impact on our environment and our economy.

Originally, water resource management was mainly developed for human consumption. This mindset created a linear water management process around the world.

The traditional stages are water catchment, treatment, consumption, wastewater treatment, and disposal.

Water Catchment

There are challenges in each of these water management steps. In the catchment step, where water is collected by the natural landscape, water stress is a big issue in a number of regions. Water is not equally distributed. Urban centers, marked by high population density, suffer from a lack of water. Another factor that impacts water stress is the poor quality of water bodies.

Water Treatment

In the second stage, water is treated in a water treatment plant (WTP). The linear mindset of conservative water planning and management plans meant that the focus was on achieving clean water consumption standards. In some countries, water treated to drinkable water standards is used for other purposes than drinking, such as industrial uses. Using drinkable water for different purposes causes economic, energetic and environmental losses.

Water Distribution

During the water distribution phase, a large volume of water is lost before it arrives to the taps. In some countries about 40% of water is lost due to pipe leaks and bursts. Network failures can lead to water supply interruptions. The loss of service can have a significant economic impact: loss of treated water, increased maintenance budgets, overtime hours for service personnel, traffic and business disruptions and damage to private property.

Companies in charge of water supply networks undergo a huge effort to optimally plan the repairs of their critical assets such as pipes, valves, pumping stations and water meters.

During the water distribution phase, a large volume of water is lost before it arrives to the taps.

Water Reclamation

After being distributed and consumed, water goes into the water reclamation phase – also known as the wastewater treatment phase – where it is finally discarded in wastewater treatment plants. Wastewater treatment is a process used to remove contaminants from wastewater and convert it into an effluent that can be returned to the water cycle. The disposal of wastewater does not always take place in the same watershed where the catchment happened. The transfer of large water volumes from distant sources also has a substantial environmental and economic impact

Watch Elisa Stefan’s interview on the importance of integrated data:

Is Water Reuse the Solution?

The United Nations International Conference on Water and the Environment (ICWE), held in 1992, represents a shift in the linear mindset described above with principles which established basic criteria for water resource management: “Fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment” and “water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good”.

These two principles have shaped the subsequent decision-making on water resource management, stimulating parsimonious use of water and lending the element the connotations of a “commodity” such as gold or oil.

This initiated a shift in mindset from the traditional, linear view I explained above. However, this concept has yet to be widely accepted.

Tom Freyberg explains this in his post: Why water reuse is a key to a circular future. Indeed, several of the issues listed above might be solved when a Water Reuse System is introduced, such as: 

  • The introduction of reused water systems positively impacts the water availability of the basins, as they act to directly reduce the need for water withdrawal and decrease the volume of effluents returned. This allows a larger volume of water to be available for other uses in the watershed. Treated sanitary effluent is no longer a disposal but a water resource with potential use for specific purposes.
  • Another positive impact is the environmental benefit, whereby water from the wastewater treatment plant is no longer discharged into rivers, which mainly reduces the input of nutrients into recipient bodies, thereby increasing water availability in terms of quality for other uses.

As a result, to enhance water availability it is of paramount importance to consider water reuse. However, water reuse is not the only option. Authors José Carlos Mierzwa and Ivanildo Hespanhol from the University of Sao Paulo, comment on this:

“(…) the practice of reuse should not be considered as being the main goal of a water and effluent management model (…). This is also justified by the investments needed to adapt the characteristics of the effluents to water quality requirements, as well as the flow to be treated. In addition, the practice in question is not as immediate as one can imagine since the reused water must have physical, chemical, and biological characteristics suitable for each use. It should also be considered that the concentration of certain contaminants might increase in each reuse cycle. If these points are not observed and the reuse practice is adopted anyway, all activities in which the reuse water is applied are compromised.”

The concept of a circular economy is based on economic and environmental sustainability. And as such, water reuse will not always be the best option. Each city needs to be analyzed to identify the solution that suits it the most. It is not just the process that needs to change from linear to circular, but also the way to think about solutions. It is necessary to think in a non-linear and non-reductionist way. Solutions need to be integrated and chosen based on whether they ensure the greatest levels of sustainability.

Water reuse explained. Credit: United States Environmental Protection Agency

Smart Water Management

In order to support the decision-making process, it is paramount to evaluate data. This is the convergence point between the Circular Economy and Smart Water Management (SWM). Water management has been developed in a linear process, as a consequence of the decision-making process that had been carried out without a full view of the entire process. To solve this issue, Smart Water Management Systems (SWMS) are being adopted by water utilities around the world.

Are Smart Water Management Systems that Smart?

There is a wide range of SWMS that contribute to solving the various water issues above. Some advantages of using SWMS are: big data analytics to improve the decision-making process, improving data quality, integration and greater agility.

However, SWMS might bring more problems than solutions if some crucial points are not considered:

1) Usability

It is not worth solving a problem while creating new problems. Some systems may be complex and difficult to use. Needing to hire a professional dedicated to using the system might be a sign that it is not well designed. Or else it might just be another piece of technology that sits on your shelf. As a result, it is important to evaluate the usability of a given SWMS before including it in a project.

2) Technical Support

In the same way, having technical support is paramount, might there arise any problems. Support can have different formats: advisor teams, bots/artificial intelligence, forums, or blogs. Therefore, before adopting an SWMS, check the full support availability.

3) Continuous Improvement

Eventually, you will find yourself saying the following sentence while using a Smart Water Management System: “It would be nice if this step was different”. A good SWMS is one that is being constantly updated to meet its user’s needs. Assess whether the system presents a continuous improvement plan.

4) Integration / Open Data

The system must integrate with the other tools you use. Preferably, it has automated integrations. After all, it might be a waste of time to have to convert data formats in order to be able to work with them. After the analyses, the system must allow you to easily export data in different formats to meet different use cases.

Are Smart Water Management and the Circular Economy buzzwords?

Yes, both concepts are buzzwords, but are also necessary changes. They promote solutions to various water management issues, allowing an increase in water availability, economic and environmental efficiency. However, it is important to be careful with trending topics and avoid implementing them in a way that will cause more problems than solutions. When well implemented, they contribute to better water management and provide water security to everyone.