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Providing healthy drinking water could be the innovation opportunity of this century

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By Yamuna Vadasarukkai

The rate of change is staggering. It is unyielding, ubiquitous and demanding. It forces global industries to push the limits and revolutionize the way we live. Aerospace. Medicine. Transportation. Communications. Only those that keep up are competitive. Why then is the water industry behind?

It is no exaggeration to say that our future depends on water; yet, the dominant attitude in the water industry is what was good enough 100 years ago is good enough today. It is more than a matter of innovation for innovation’s sake. The water industry, especially potable water, desperately needs a revolution.

Infrastructure

Based on survey results of 106 municipalities, the 2016 Canadian Infrastructure Report Card says that 29% of potable water assets are considered to be in fair, poor or very poor physical condition. The estimated replacement value of this 29% is $60 billion. Total replacement of all potable water assets is projected to be $207 billion. At the current rate of reinvestment, the net condition of all potable water assets will continue to decline.

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Disinfection

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A 2012 article by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called chlorine water treatment “one of the ten greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.”

Disinfection in drinking water hasn’t had an overhaul since 1908, when chlorine was first introduced. While new methods, such as reverse osmosis, UV, ozone and hydrogen peroxide, have been incorporated in disinfection systems within the past 100 years, none have had the singular impact and level of adoption as chlorine.

Yet, for almost 50 years it has been known that chlorine creates disinfection byproducts (DBPs) which have been linked to the risk of cancer and miscarriages. Also, it is ineffective against Legionella, is pH dependent, loses effectiveness in high temperatures and it is corrosive.

It may take decades for the consequences of chlorine disinfection to be manifested, but the same urgent responsibility to public health that sparked action a century ago remains today. We must no longer focus on “water that won’t make you sick”. We need to ensure that “water will make you healthy”. The responsibility to public health motivates the industry to innovate, yet cautions it from doing so too fast. There must be room for innovation approached in a sober, scientific, single-minded fashion.

The solution

The widespread implications of “bad” water are well documented on mainstream media and within scientific communities. Canada presents a prime testing ground for innovation. It has the water resources, the geographic and temperature diversity, an overreliance on chlorine disinfection, and the means to do something about it. It also has diverse socio-economic representation as seen in the First Nations communities, where some homes do not have electricity or indoor plumbing.

What better country is there to be a leader in drinking water innovation? It stands to reason that if it can be done in Canada, it can be replicated elsewhere.

However, this important and monumental task requires a measured, long-term, forward-thinking approach. The innovation necessary to meet the challenge of Canada’s drinking water must address the following five considerations:

1. Sustainable, effective and safe disinfection. The next innovation in public drinking water must include sustainable, effective and safe disinfection that accounts for acute and chronic risks to public health, while also considering the needs of infrastructure.

Alternative methods of disinfection have been introduced, but have not had the same widespread adoption in water treatment as chlorine. On their own, many do not provide sufficient assurance of the quality of water and the standard of safety required for drinking water. However, coaction of two or more together, or coaction with chlorine, could provide a safer and satisfactory alternative to chlorine alone.

Ottawa-based SanEcoTec Ltd. has had success in three municipalities using a water treatment process of secondary disinfection which incorporates a new generation of stabilized hydrogen peroxide. The process includes controlling a peroxide residual that removes excess chlorine, and carefully managing other water quality parameters, like pH. In the case of the three municipalities, this process reduced DBPs by up to 80%. This system has potential to be paired with other alternative disinfection systems currently in operation to provide a safer and reliable water treatment process.

2. Diagnose and reduce non-revenue water. According to the International Energy Agency, just over a third of globally processed and treated water is non-revenue water (NRW) which, quite literally, represents money lost. Effectively diagnosing loss, whether physical or apparent, and rectifying the situation improves return-on-investment and services to the end-customer.

The 2013 white paper by the Rethink Water Network & Danish Water Forum provides Denmark as an example of NRW reduction. It states that the country’s average NRW sits at 7%, with some cities as low as 5%. Utilities could realistically reduce NRW by 50% in two years.

Some of the benefits of reducing NRW include: optimizing disinfection and water quality; reduced stress on water sources; and reduced energy consumption and related costs.

3. Achieve full cost recovery models. Most parts of Canada currently operate under an unsustainable model of distribution. The price people pay for their treated water does not cover initial capital, annual operating, or the reinvestment costs of upgrading the system.

Wouldn’t the money Canadians spend on bottled water be better spent on tap water and ensuring consistent, safe distribution? In many cases, tap water is comparable if not superior in quality to bottled water and hundreds if not thousands of times more affordable. Why then do people not drink it? More important, why do people not value it?

The disconnect between the public’s perception of tap water’s value and its actual value is a matter of communication breakdown. And, until this disconnect is addressed, people won’t be willing to pay as much for an essential resource and service as they do for their hydro, Internet or cell phone.

A 2016 briefing from EurEau stated that “…artificially low level of water prices would not only lead to the depletion of water resources, but fail to secure investments in infrastructure maintenance, leaving a heavy burden of investment for future generations.”

Once the communication gap has been appropriately addressed, several different tactics for implementing pay-per-use can be considered. The easiest would be to put meters on homes, not all that different than what was done in Cape Town, South Africa, recently, before Day Zero came.

In research published by the University of Southhampton in the U.K., residents reduced their water consumption by 16.5% after being connected to meters. Three months in, they had reduced their daily water use by 50 litres.

In Australia, Sydney Water conducted a smart metering trial in 630 households and found that, compared to the control group, households with in-home displays for their meters consumed 6.8% less water. When metering is introduced, consumption goes down as an invisible and undervalued commodity becomes visible and valued.

4. Bring forward alternative capital funding models. As previously mentioned, lack of reinvestment capital in potable water assets means that they will continue to decline and the proportion of fair to very poor infrastructure will increase. Eventually we’ll face an infrastructure deficit of potable water assets of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Traditionally, municipalities have relied on investment from the government for maintaining and repairing their potable water assets. However, the government never has and never will be able to foot the entire bill. So, where does the money come from? Eventually, it will have to come to pay-per-use.

The challenge is to offer something worth paying for. Consumers must understand and value the impact that water has on their health. There are certain acute risks that water treatment needs to address, such as E. coli and plague-like viruses, and the chronic risks from disinfection byproducts, endocrine disruptors and the risk of heavy metals leaching from old infrastructure.

The Netherlands practices cost-recovery. The average person there uses approximately 43,500 litres of treated water per year and pays $107. The cost per litre of treated water, roughly $0.0025/litre, covers the cost of producing it. No government subsidy is provided.

The Canadian average for water consumption is just over 120,000 litres per year. Using Ottawa water rates, as of March 1, 2019, potable water costs approximately $0.0016/litre.

Canadians have some of the lowest water rates in the world. These rates do not reflect the real cost of running potable water services or the rising cost of maintenance as infrastructure ages. We pay full cost recovery for hydro because it provides a service we can’t do without. However, we can’t do without water either.

5. Advanced instrumentation, monitoring and analytics. For any of the above possibilities to become reality, the right technology must be in place to ensure quality and safety through real-time online monitoring and analytics.

An advanced online colorimetric solution for monitoring water quality and controlling disinfectant residuals and water quality parameters, like pH, flow and temperature, is key to managing water quality. The new generation of colorimetric/photometric systems ensure that external factors, like pH, water impurities and flow, do not affect disinfectant and other key measurements and that a process can be remotely monitored and controlled.

This is just one example of the type of technology that can be easily incorporated into existing systems to ensure that customers are receiving high quality water, efficient distribution and well-informed water management.

Measuring success

The final requirement is to evaluate the success of the system or technology, and the following questions can be used as guidelines for measurement:

  • Does the innovation reduce the life cycle cost of infrastructure – short- and long-term?
  • Does the innovation reduce the amount and cost of non-revenue water?
  • Are the acute needs of public health taken care of – microbial safety, no risk of sickness?
  • Are the chronic risks of public health taken care of – disinfection byproducts?
  • Are the pleasing qualities of tap water appealing enough to promote a consumer “switch” in buying patterns?
  • Does the new treatment and management ensure the well-being and rejuvenation of the water source?
  • Does the innovation provide value capture opportunities that can help finance capital costs?
  • Does the innovation reflect Sustainable Development Goals in terms of environmental impact and social dividend?
  • This kind of approach will show that the water industry can be the next great source of global innovation.

Yamuna Vadasarukkai, PhD, P.Eng., is with SanEcoTec Ltd. This article appears in ES&E’s August 2019 issue.

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