Is wastewater on the verge of a golden decade?

Published March 8th, 2018

Cg head

Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

Spending on drinking water infrastructure tends to grow incrementally. Wastewater has always had a tipping point. It starts off as somebody else’s problem – an ugly by-product of urbanisation and industrialisation – but steadily it becomes everyone’s problem, and governments are forced to act. In London, the tipping point was the Great Stink of 1858, when Parliament was overpowered by the stench from the River Thames. Early in that sweltering summer, the minister for public works was asked what he was going to do about it. He replied that the river was not the government’s responsibility, and therefore he would do nothing. Two nauseous months later, he surrendered, and Parliament voted to spend £3 million on building sewers.

In the US, the tipping point for wastewater spending came after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. The Clean Water Acts were pushed through during the early 1970s, and federal money was made available to build out wastewater treatment capacity across the country. Japan got by largely without sewers until the 1970s, and in the 1980s and early 1990s invested massively in wastewater collection and centralised treatment plants. The big build-out in Korea took place roughly a decade later. China largely addressed its wastewater problem in the decade 2005-2015. Who is next?

Looking down the list of governments and utility leaders presenting their investment plans at next month’s Global Water Summit, it seems to me as if just about every middle-income country in South East Asia and Latin America has decided simultaneously that large sums need to be spent. India, too, is becoming committed: the programme to clean up the Ganga river is just the beginning of what needs to happen in the sub-continent. In the longer term, the move to end open defecation will feed through into wastewater collection and treatment spending across the lower-income countries in Asia and Africa.

It is not just that a number of middle-income countries all seem to be reaching their tipping points at the same time. Increased investment in wastewater infrastructure is coming from another direction as well. Right across the world, countries are simultaneously beginning to understand the value of water reuse. Take a look at our water reuse tracker: the market is advancing from Taiwan to India, across the Middle East and Africa, all the way to California.

It seems to me that we could see a confluence of benevolent circumstances driving the wastewater treatment market towards a golden decade of spending, in much the same way as high oil and mineral prices, booming real estate markets, and savage droughts made 2002 – 2012 the golden decade for desalination.

One thing is missing however: technology. What primed the desal market for growth in the early 2000s was a dramatic reduction in the energy required to desalinate water as a result of improved membrane flux rates and isobaric energy recovery devices. On the wastewater side, the obstacle to growth is not really lowering the cost of the process. Wastewater can be treated very cheaply. It is about technologies that help change the paradigm. Specifically, we need decentralised systems that reduce the need for investment in collection networks, real-time water quality monitoring systems which give the public confidence in direct potable reuse, and waste-to-energy systems that ensure that the whole treatment process is energy-positive.

My feeling is that all of these technological advances are within our grasp. Besides inviting governments and utility leaders to present their investment plans to the Global Water Summit, we are also running a workshop on blended finance with the World Bank to help ensure that the money is there to finance them. If you think you have something to contribute, too, we will see you there.