By Cindy Wallis-Lage, Black & Veatch
As we face a new decade, hampered by the maelstrom and uncertainty of COVID-19, and inspired by a renewed drive to create a more sustainable world and circular economy, will integrated water planning emerge as the most pressing issue facing the global water industry? In a recent webinar poll attended by almost 500 water leaders from every continent of the world, integrated planning emerged as the top issue facing us today.
This data point is noteworthy because the same question has been asked of water leaders in North America for Black & Veatch’s annual Strategic Directions: Water Report. Since 2012 to our latest report in 2020, aging infrastructure has been consistently identified as the most pressing issue we face with integrated water planning placing ninth of the 11 issues this year.
Why such different outcomes? The topic of the webinar may provide some insight.
Co-organized with Singapore International Water Week (SIWW), the webinar explored Resource Resilience: Moving from Linear to Circular Resource Management. The water industry needs new thinking and implementable solutions to overcome and achieve resilience – across financial, operational and strategic dimensions. This webinar served as an introduction to new, circular economic thinking and alternative approaches to improve the effectiveness of managing our water cycle as well as other critical resources like energy, nutrients and carbon.
It is likely that the webinar attendees were predisposed and primed into thinking a little differently about the future. When asked at the beginning of the session what single word came to mind when we talk about “resource resilience” and the “circular economy,” “sustainability” was the clear word of choice. It received 2.5 times more votes as compared to other popular terms like “conservation,” “environment,” “no-waste” and the “green economy.”
The data is represented in a new visual format differing from the in-webinar representation.
The nature of addressing circular resource management and sustainability tends to challenge us to broaden our thinking. Although the terminology may seem new, closer consideration and discussion reveals that much progress is, in fact, already under way. Leaders from three utilities joined the webinar as panellists, and each of them are on different pathways and at different stages of their journeys to more resilient, sustainable and circular resource management. The utilities included PUB in Singapore, Singapore’s National Water Agency, Manila Water in the Philippines and Clean Water Services from the West Coast of the United States.
Almost 60 percent of water leaders in Black & Veatch’s 2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report admit they are unfamiliar with the term, “circular economy,” while only six percent claim to be very familiar. However, the industry is embracing many circular resource management approaches, including reducing water loss and water use, adopting different forms of potable and non-potable reuse, recovering nutrients, and generating energy through the treatment processes.
Dr. Pang Chee Meng, Chief Engineering & Technology Officer, PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency highlighted during the webinar PUB’s innovative methodologies to manage water in an integrated loop and the vision that made it happen. He also shared examples of how Singapore agencies work together to close the water, energy and waste loop, through leading-edge thinking and stakeholder collaboration. Under the Tuas Nexus project, PUB is currently building the Tuas Water Reclamation Plant which will be co-located with an Integrated Waste Management Facility to harness electricity and steam, generated from the waste-to-energy process, to power the operations in the facility. Black & Veatch has been fortunate to play a part in this journey, helping both Singapore’s National Environment Agency and PUB conceive of resource synergies across both facilities at the to-be-built Tuas Nexus, where over $5 billion in tenders was announced at the SIWW 2018, as well as many other water reuse and reclamation projects under the NEWater program.
The topic of resource resilience and circular economy led to an engaging discussion for participants attending across multiple time zones.
Manila Water Company operates in a challenging socio-economic and geographical landscape. Despite this, it has been successful in seeing support for investment in water infrastructure through consumer education and diversifying its use of waste. Jose Rene Gregory D. Almendras, President and Chief Executive Officer Manila Water Company, Inc., shared during the webinar about the organization’s sustainability journey of 10-plus years and how it engaged one community, in particular, after a devasting volcanic eruption. He said, “There are thousands of hectares of ground covered in lahar in the areas near Mount Pinatubo [where] nothing would grow. And we talked to the farmers to help them grow crops again. From a by-product that nobody wants, now they are asking for the waste as fertilizer.”
From the Fernhill Natural Treatment System, which demonstrates water reuse from the perspective of ecological restoration, to the Pure Water Brew challenge, Clean Water Services in Portland, Oregon, is an innovator in environmental sustainability, water resources management, research and development of new technologies, and digital solutions. Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, Chief Executive Officer Clean Water Services, Portland, Oregon, shared during the webinar, “We now produce 45 percent of our electrical needs and offset 70 percent of the natural gases needed for heating of the digestion systems. We set audacious goals and make the journey to get there by improving year after year.”
The journey – no matter where on the pathways – was a common theme that emerged from the webinar. While surveying may reveal that some terminology is not fully understood, the webinar demonstrated that, in fact, many principles and innovations of the circular economy are well progressed. Fully moving from linear to circular resource management will take time, of course, with the attendees citing (1) technology and innovation, (2) education and changing mindsets, (3) enabling regulations and policies, and (4) partnerships with industry and related sectors as the top four barriers to overcome.
Such themes point to thinking about the future in a much broader and inclusive manner, indicating a large degree of industry, government and general economic transformation ahead. These themes put into context why attendees identified integrated water planning as the single biggest issue facing the water industry.
As water leaders look beyond the day-to-day and consider resilience and sustainability, they must plan in a more collaborative and inclusive manner with many partners whom they have never traditionally engaged. In turn, they must overcome the capital and operational constraints that persist and the perennial issue of aging infrastructure. However, with a new mindset and growing list of innovations to emulate, the opportunities to enable circular resource management at scale will continue to grow.
About the Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) Webinar Series
The SIWW Webinar Series is a year-long series of webinars that SIWW is curating with our partners, including Black & Veatch. The next edition of the Singapore International Water Week will be held from 20 to 24 June 2021. Save the Date!
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*Black & Veatch’s Strategic Directions Report survey was conducted between 3 March through 30 March 2020 while the webinar data poll took place on 7 July 2020.