By Ralph Exton
Water has become one of the foremost challenges affecting the world today. In developing countries, millions of people lack access to clean, safe water. Weather extremes, such as drought are creating dangerous situations; meanwhile, a new released report predicts that by year 2060, more than a billion people worldwide will live in cities at risk of major flooding as a result of climate change.
Then there’s the rapid population growth and economic development in regions, such as the Middle East, where water resources are being pushed well beyond natural limits. And as cities’ aging piping and distribution infrastructure continues to crumble, trillions of gallons of water are lost.
Municipalities in particular are taking the brunt of these challenges. Yet, I believe some of the greatest opportunities for solving the problems exist within their wastewater treatment plants. Last month, leaders in the global water sector convened in Munich, Germany, for the 50th anniversary of IFAT – an influential conference for innovation in water, sewage, waste and raw materials management. Three wastewater treatment trends – and solutions – dominated the discussion.
The vast majority of treated municipal effluent is discharged into a local receiving stream. Technology exists to take this wastewater and treat it to a quality suitable for other, non-potable purposes: agricultural needs, groundwater recharge, industrial applications. In fact, wastewater can be treated to a quality suitable for drinking (if we can get past the “ick” factor of the toilet-to-tap water recycling concept).
Historically, policy has focused on effluent quality, pushing for discharge limits to protect the environment. This is important – and necessary. However, policy and regulation need to catch up with the growing acceptance of water reuse and begin to structure guidance around its implementation. It’s starting to happen in several corners of the world. For example, Saudi Araba increased its water tariff to encourage water reuse. The United Arab Emirates is opting for stronger conservation and reuse rather than investing in desalination technologies, which are effective but expensive.
But resource recovery goes beyond water reuse. It also means we can capture other valuable byproducts from wastewater. Energy is one of them.
It’s a revolution in water resource recovery – and it’s underway. Some utilities are already energy neutral; many more are in some stage of planning, designing and constructing water resource recovery systems.
The benefits of energy neutrality extend beyond the individual wastewater facilities. Water resource recovery is a vision and a strategy that is encouraging greater adoption of water reuse around the world. And as a result, water resource recovery is helping to propel a circular economy where water is a valued, well-managed resource sustained by advances in science and technology.
Micro pollutants – commonly originating from sources such as pharmaceutical residues, personal care products, various household chemicals, and biocides/pesticides, these pollutants – are a group of more than 10,000 substances with various chemical properties affecting the environment. The impact of the contaminants’ release into the environment, where they may cause adverse effects on aquatic ecosystems (reproduction issues in fish, among other things), depends on how they are treated within wastewater treatment plants. Many facilities, however, aren’t adequately equipped to handle them.
There is a growing focus, mainly in Europe, on removing micro pollutants from wastewater streams. Switzerland and Germany are two such countries leading the way. Certain regions of Germany, for example, have adopted targets for removal and are providing significant funding for research, feasibility studies and plant upgrades. Advanced technologies like GE’s MBR with MACarrier, which combines membrane bioreactor (MBR) technology with powdered activated carbon (PAC), may be a simplistic, stable and cost-effective process scheme for the removal of micro pollutants. This technology is also proving beneficial for the treatment of other contaminants of emerging concern.
Up until just a few years ago, water-related challenges and solutions such as those above interested only specialists and scientists. They’re now a central concern for many more, including public and private operators, elected officials, associations, and even the general population of involved and concerned citizens. As a society, we’re now recognizing that water management affects us all.
Image credit: Pixabay
Ralph Exton is the chief marketing officer for GE Power, Water & Process Technologies. Ralph also serves as the business program manager for the GE Experienced Commercial Leadership Program (ECLP). Follow Ralph on LinkedIN and GE Water on Twitter.