Isn’t it ironic that our beautiful blue planet, covered 70 percent with water, is struggling to meet citizens’ water needs? Yes, and the reasons are obvious. Out of the Earth’s total water, less than 3 percent is available as freshwater, and a portion of it is actually accessible. Uneven distribution of fresh waterbodies and population across the globe further skew water supply and demand ratios. Also, climate change, deforestation, desertification, droughts, floods, and depletion of natural waterbodies resulting from anthropogenic and natural activities add to these miseries.
Countries from Asia, Africa, and Middle East regions have been significantly impacted by water crisis. Also, regions from Australia, Brazil, Spain, and the U.S. have experienced droughts in certain regions. Global water issues are rising and reaching new levels that demand immediate attention. Faced with multidimensional challenges, scientists, researchers, and regulators are exploring avenues to alleviate water problems. Sustainability and water management topics are dominating water industry discussions as never before. Among many initiatives, the “circular economy” concept is creating a lot of buzz these days. And why not? Applying these economic principles to the water sector holds promise to lessen grave environmental problems.
Historically, communities have relied upon the linear economic model of “extract, make, use, and discard” for resources, goods, and services to achieve growth. In such systems, resources are utilized to manufacture products, use them, and eventually dispose as waste. The focus is on maximizing production or service values with higher yields. Instead of recycling, the raw materials or wastes generated are typically rejected. Such economies tend to generate huge amounts of waste and create pressure on raw material supplies. Since the resources available on Earth are finite, the linear economy model cannot continue indefinitely. These practices lead to unsustainable situations and put human beings at risk.
The circular economy provides an alternative approach to overcome these shortcomings and create a more sustainable system. It is based on three basic principles: designing out waste and pollution, retaining resources in use, and regenerating natural wealth. The circular economy aims to optimize supplies, achieve the most out of the extracted resources, and recycle and reduce wastes. Such an approach also cuts down on environmental pollution. Overall, the circular economy yields reforms that overhaul the system at ecological, social, and financial levels. The key difference between linear and circular economies lies in sustainability and reuse practices.
So, the question is how these economic values can be applied to the water industry. Like many other sectors, the circular economy can become an effective tool for water management. It can encompass water-related products, infrastructure, equipment, and services. Applying the basic principles of the circular economy to the water sector means optimizing water extraction from sources, improving water-use practices, recycling of used water, as well as recovering and reusing valuable constituents from wastewater to develop a closed loop within the system. These opportunities for a circular economy exist at every stage of the water cycle, from extraction to treatment, distribution, use, and waste generation.
Looking into global water consumption, about 70 percent is used in agriculture, 20 percent by industries, and 10 percent for domestic use. The agricultural sector is the largest water consumer. Water demands associated with food production are growing rapidly to feed the rising population. By applying circular economy aspects, water use and pollution can be optimized via effective irrigation techniques, increased produce yields, improved food quality, wastage reduction, controlled fertilizer use, system automation, permits, and best management practices. With regard to domestic and industrial users, water can be kept in a closed loop via proper usage, treatment, reuse, and retention until its full potential is reached. Improving water infrastructures, especially in urban and manufacturing areas, can minimize water leakages to the environment. Heavily industrialized countries can yield greater benefits from these initiatives.
With the investments in upstream reservoirs and basin management, water extraction can be lowered to an extent that they can be regenerated. In addition, rainwater harvesting can reduce erosion, contamination, and increase available water volume within communities. As far as wastes are concerned, provisions for industrial and domestic wastewater source separation can cut down on the downstream treatment costs. With the circular economy model, wastewater can be treated as a resource and valuables such as minerals, chemicals, and nutrients can be recovered. Commercialization of these recovered products and the creation of markets can prove beneficial for returning resources back into the system. Energy recovered from wastewater and sludge can lead to carbon footprint reduction. Also, reclaimed water can be used for many important purposes.
Overall, circular economy schemes can trade water, related products, and services in closed cycles to increase their life and achieve highest value. Such initiatives can stop waste, emissions, and leakages from leaving the water system’s closed loop as all streams are considered as resources. The water circular economy can eliminate end-of-life concepts, attain higher resource usage, add value to the existing water practices, and create long-term solutions.
Obviously, the circular economy approach for developed and emerging economies will be different. Countries with poor water infrastructures and management systems will have an uphill task in implementing such programs, whereas regions with well-established infrastructures can create closed-loop water systems more successfully. Finances, government priorities, culture, and awareness are the key driving factors. No matter the degree of challenges involved, transitioning to a circular water economy offers encouraging prospects to solve water problems. It can reduce water scarcity to varied extents, reduce resources exploitation, and provide an opportunity to increase water abundance. By eliminating toxic substances and wastes, cleanup and pollution abatement efforts can be significantly minimized. Jobs creation, cost savings, and economic opportunities further add to the benefits.
Water management efforts are already in full swing. Municipalities, townships, and cities in various nations have begun sustainability programs. As of today, many success stories of circular economy have been documented in different regions. No doubt, implementation of environmental policies, regulations, and legislations to promote the circular economy framework will go a long way in this direction. However, active participation and cooperation from the public, policymakers, and stakeholders will be required to ensure effective execution. Being diligent citizens and water practitioners, it is important that we all carry our share of the burden and duty towards creating a sustainable water future around the world.
Archis Ambulkar is an internationally acclaimed water expert and author of the well-received book “Guidance for Professional Development in Drinking Water and Wastewater Industry”, published by the International Water Association (U.K.). He has made vital contributions towards Oxford University’s Research Encyclopedia on the topic “Nutrient Pollution and Wastewater Treatment Systems” and Britannica Encyclopedia for its "Water Purification" and "Wastewater Treatment" sections. Mr. Ambulkar has written numerous international publications and participated with United Nations programs.