Using technology in the water cycle –
Natural resources vs fabricated water

By Mark Smith

CEO, WRc plc

I am writing this a few days after the excitement caused by the announcement that NASA claim to have found compelling evidence that liquid water exists on Mars. Whilst this is very interesting, I cannot help but wonder when we became interested and not to mind excited about anything to do with water. Meanwhile, here on earth, we are very lucky because we have water in abundance, and boy do we act like it!

We actually have about 1.4 Mkm2 of water. This mostly consists of seawater or is in the icecaps leaving approximately 35,000 km2 available as freshwater. That’s a lot of water, so I think I can conclude that the world is not water scarce, it is simply that water is not freely available where we want it or is too polluted to use as we would wish. Given that water is relatively heavy (1Tonne/m3), it is not feasible or desirable to transfer it over large distances so the problem of scarce or poor water resources is a local one. It follows that the solution must also be a local one.

Water is not just the enabler that drives the food and energy cycles, its presence will determine where and how future economic growth occur. Moreover, our response to climate change and human security challenges over the next two decades will also be caused by the presence, or lack thereof, of suitable and usable water. Indeed, 68% of Global 500 respondents in the CDP Global Water Report 2014 believe that water availability poses a substantive risk to their current business, operations or revenue, never mind any future growth opportunities. Left unaddressed, water scarcity could literally evaporate economic growth

Water resources usually become depleted because of malpractice, mismanagement, lack of replenishment policies and lack of enforcement schemes targeted at large consumers. All of these can be readily addressed with sufficient political will. Unfortunately, water scarcity and corruption often go hand-in-hand. If precious water resources are to be used sustainably, technology will have a big role to play. We need to approach the problem in a systematic fashion.

The first duty of any water department must be to minimise leakage from municipal networks. The amount of potable water that leaks into the soil is both criminal and utterly unnecessary. Leakage reduction can be successfully carried out through detection (either physical or data-predictive methods) and repair techniques. Urgent research is needed into in-pipe repair and self-healing pipes as well as active management of the networks. Cities of the future need to look after the underground to grow the above ground assets or else they are building on sand.

Treatment technology, particularly membranes are becoming more efficient and cost-effective. Large water consumers should use treated effluent instead of potable water. Local irrigation schemes and aquifer replenishment should be carried out with treated effluent and smart irrigation techniques are well advanced and ready to deploy. Desalination also has its place, but only where all other methods have been exhausted. Too often, it has been easier to build a shiny new plant to supply more water to a leaky network rather than fix the network. Easily deployable storm water collection systems and grey water treatment systems for residential and commercial use are available but planning laws and old standards are preventing their widespread implementation. It is still preferable to build a huge tunnel in London rather than treat rainwater locally through a series of Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDs) mainly because engineers and politicians like big solutions. We must change our attitude towards water because more and more pressure will be placed on resources and there is a finite amount available on earth. Maybe we all need to follow the Mars story more carefully.

Biography – Mark Smith

Mark is a chartered chemical Engineer who has spent his entire career working with Utility companies to help them design, develop and implement interesting and innovative solutions to often seemingly insurmountable problems. He has spent the last 15 years of his career working on the commercial side of things both in the UK and overseas and was appointed CEO of WRc plc in April 2015.

He feels that the changing face of innovation in the water sector is driven not so much by the increasing regulatory requirement to find innovative (cheaper) solutions to problems and more by the ever increasing emphasis being placed on customer service across all sectors. In any case, it is an exciting time to be working in the utility sector as they search for more and more innovative solutions to their problems.