As the world adjusts day by day to the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, research findings from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment have driven home the importance of smart water and wastewater utilities across the globe. The presence of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in Dutch wastewater outflows and Treatment plants, flushed down the toilet by infected people, is a useful way for researchers to chart whether the disease is present in specific populations – a strategy that has been used for other viruses in the past. However, the fact that SARS-CoV-2 can persist in wastewater signals a larger worry for populations around the world that lack the facilities and protocols in place in the Netherlands. These uncommon times highlight inequalities in access to safe water and sanitation that are, unfortunately, quite common.

With whole economies coming to a halt, greenhouse gas emissions have stalled. But this does not mean climate action should be put on hold during the present crisis triggered by COVID-19. In the longer term, we don’t need to choose between the health of people and the health of the planet. Smarter systems, such as those advocated by WaCCliM, can easily serve both. When a resource-constrained utility is able to increase water and energy efficiency by replacing old pumps or fixing leaking pipes, it can also extend water and sanitation access to more households at a lower operating cost, and boost their resilience to the challenges posed by diseases such as COVID-19. Similarly, better wastewater treatment that prevents contamination and disease transmission can also enable a drastic reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions that otherwise seep out of untreated wastewater.

Case Study Mexico (2018)

WaCCliM pilot utilities have proven that cross-sectoral results can be achieved by interventions in the water and sanitation sector. For example, two utilities serving San Francisco del Rincón, Mexico, the Wastewater Treatment and Deposition Service (SITRATA) and San Francisco Drinking Water and Sewage System (SAPAF), have together achieved emissions reductions that are equivalent to planting 12,400 trees every year – and they have done it by expanding wastewater treatment coverage from less than half of their city to more than 80%, making San Francisco del Rincón cleaner, safer and greener all at once.

The governments and water ministries with whom we partner have their own essential roles to play: expanding desperately needed water and sanitation access; adapting systems to climate risks that threaten shortages or water contamination; and enabling utilities to shrink their carbon footprints. Understanding the linkages between sectors through the challenges and solutions to health crises such as COVID-19 involves recognising that individual precautions are important, but we also need systems that can sustain communities in the long term.

 

Finally, the crisis has put one other old truism in a new perspective: that water connects everyone. Water ties people together in health, in vulnerability, and not least in responsibility. At WaCCliM, we are proud to give water and wastewater utilities the tools to make those connections work for the common good, both at this crucial time and far into the future.

As global temperatures rise, it is the water cycle that is changing most dramatically, most unpredictably, and with some of the greatest consequences for people everywhere. Climate change is disrupting water availability and quality, amplifying floods and storms, and increasing the frequency of droughts. For water-sector decision makers, all of these impacts add up to a fundamental disruption: decisions that were once based on historical data are now afloat in uncertainties about the climate of the future.

At the same time, the water sector is, itself, a place to take on the drivers of climate change. The sector currently contributes up to 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and with demand for water set to increase by 20-30% [1] in the next 30 years, its emissions will only rise – unless something is done.

Municipal systems, global commitments

Strong mitigation potential lies in urban water and wastewater systems, whose energy consumption, mostly driven by fossil fuels, makes up as much as 40% of municipal energy use in some cities. In developing and emerging countries, water and wastewater utilities often rely on inefficient pumps, leaky distribution lines and dated treatment technologies. They emit carbon dioxide from their energy use, and even more potent greenhouse gases – methane and nitrous oxide – from the breakdown of untreated or poorly treated sewage. Since 2014, the project Water and Wastewater Companies for Climate Mitigation (WaCCliM) has been working with selected countries and utilities to prove that in the urban water sector, climate mitigation action can be achieved alongside, and in harmony with, climate-resilient sustainable development.

WaCCliM’s experience has shown that the flow of water into, through and out of cities connects some of the largest commitments of developing and emerging countries. Among these, two stand largest: the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that governments have pledged in order to reach the climate targets of the Paris Agreement; and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that they are striving to achieve by 2030.

Clean water and sanitation command their own SDG, Goal 6, but in truth water runs through nearly all of the goals, and unites them with success or failure in climate action. Even in a stable climate, countries would be facing an enormous challenge just to reach Goal 6 – availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Billions of people still live without safe water, sanitation or both, and the effects undermine other goals like health, equality and the vision of sustainable cities. Now the uncertainties of the climate require thinking even harder about water insecurity, including in cities; about which people have as much water as they need without having more than they can manage, about how clean that water will be under all possible conditions, and about how to generate the energy that will get it there.

A climate-smart roadmap

WaCCliM’s Roadmap to a Low-Carbon Urban Water Utility, a tool for water and wastewater utilities with mitigation goals. © GIZ

The NDCs that countries have submitted reveal an awareness of just how central water is to climate adaptation. According to a Global Water Partnership analysis of 80 NDCs, investing in water infrastructure, institutions or governance is a key priority in 89% of the surveyed countries, and practically all countries indicate that some kind of water action is necessary for adaptation. Far fewer NDCs, however, mention the substantial opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions found in the urban water and wastewater sector. It’s here that WaCCliM is guiding countries to mitigation opportunities, starting at the utility level.

The Project has introduced a roadmap of systematic steps and measures towards low-carbon water and wastewater utilities that can also plan for climate risks and improve their services to better support sustainable development. Helping utilities on this path is the project’s Energy Performance and Carbon Emissions Assessment and Monitoring Tool (ECAM), which any utility can use to assess its emissions and pinpoint opportunities to use less energy – or even generate its own energy.

From the utility up

WaCCliM has piloted mitigation solutions, ranging from energy-efficient pumps to technologies for generating power with wastewater biodigesters, with utilities in Jordan, Mexico, Peru and Thailand. The measures prioritised in these pilots have achieved total mitigation equivalent to 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide – or planting 50,000 trees – per year. WaCCliM is also introducing adaptation thinking by helping the pilot utilities develop climate risk plans, advising utility personnel on ways to build water system resilience to the risks identified, reducing water losses and recycling treated wastewater. The toolbox of both mitigation and adaptation planning measures will be available to utilities everywhere on the knowledge platform Climate Smart Water.

Water metering in Moroleón, Mexico. © GIZ/Maurice Ressel

Through these tools WaCCliM´s approach can substantially help meet NDCs across developing and emerging countries, and by building climate-smart urban water systems, it can help achieve the SDGs, too. This is a big vision, and it has to be achieved on a local, national and global scale. So while WaCCliM works with national and international partners to enable local action, it does this with a larger transformation in mind. The water and wastewater utilities using WaCCliM tools to pioneer greenhouse gas benchmarking and climate-smart planning are becoming national sector leaders, and they are providing evidence for an increased consideration of water as a sector for combined mitigation and adaptation action in the next round of NDCs. As that happens, they will also be poised to make a significant contribution to the sustainable development agenda.

 

Sources:
[1] UN Water (2019): World Water Development Report 2019

The transition to low-carbon urban water utilities is an innovative idea, currently embraced only by a few forward-thinking utilities. Early adopters of the WaCCliM Roadmap to a Low-Carbon Urban Water Utility are well positioned for an uncertain water-climate future. This roadmap is directed at urban water utility managers in charge of planning future actions, as well as at the stakeholders who will support the utility’s action plans.

“The Roadmap to a Low-Carbon Urban Water Utility, a legacy from the WaCCliM project, builds on the experiences gained during the implementation of the project. It will support water utility managers around the world in their efforts to improve performance and achieve carbon neutrality of their utilities while raising the awareness of policy-makers to the substantial contributions the water sector can provide in meeting greenhouse-gas reduction targets. Local action is needed to support global targets!”

Thomas Stratenwerth, Head of Division – General, European and International Water Management Issues
Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Germany

 

The Roadmap to a Low-Carbon Urban Water Utility presents water professionals with an approach to address their most pressing challenges, while reducing carbon emissions through measures that either have a return on investment through energy or water savings, or that correspond to planned investments as part of the asset management plan to maintain or improve their services. Utilities adopting this approach are contributing to a carbon-neutral future, by instigating a change of mind-set, not only in urban water management but also by inspiring all other urban services through sharing the risks and the urgency to act to avoid aggravated impacts of climate change, from which water utilities are among the first victims: water scarcity, flooding and deteriorated water quality.

Why a roadmap and for whom?

The transition to low-carbon urban water utilities is an innovative idea, currently embraced only by a few forward-thinking utilities. This roadmap is directed at urban water utility managers in charge of planning future actions, as well as at the stakeholders who will support the utility’s action plans. Since only a few ‘early adopter’ utilities have embarked on a low-carbon transition, this roadmap intends to support other utilities in understanding and championing the need for contributing to a carbon-neutral future, and to guide them through a process of change. This roadmap can be applied to all utilities worldwide, but was specifically developed with utilities in emerging economies in mind, because the service performance and data management challenges are often prominent in their operations and future planning.

Setting a path for utilities to transition to low-carbon

The Water and Wastewater Companies for Climate Mitigation (WaCCliM) project supports potable water and wastewater utilities –also referred to as urban water utilities – with the implementation of measures that enhance their service performance and lower their carbon emissions. The project is a global initiative, with the overarching goal to transition to a carbon-neutral urban water sector. The approach laid out in this document was specifically developed with water utilities in emerging economies in mind within the context of the WaCCliM project, but it can serve utilities anywhere as climate change is a global problem. It targets reducing the water, energy and carbon footprints of urban water utilities through an iterative five-step process which may be used by utilities to find their own path to a low-carbon future. The roadmap is intended to guide urban water utility managers through these steps and leads to resources hosted on the Knowledge Platform ‘Climate Smart Water’, which follows the same structure as this roadmap.

The Roadmap to a Low-Carbon Urban Water Utility is available in English, Spanish and Thai.