There is a great solution out there to improving our water supplies. That solution is to reuse the waste-water we produce. As Paddy Padmanathan of ACWA Power pointed out today at the world congress in San Diego, only about 2.4% of our wastewater is currently reused. Much of our waste water (at least in the developed world) is already well treated, and, with just a little more effort it can easily be brought to drinking water standards. Clearly there’s a huge opportunity to reuse waste water in the way I’ve just described – known as direct potable reuse – so why aren’t we doing it?
One non-reason why we aren’t doing direct potable reuse is cost. When freshwater sources run dry and conservation measures come in, direct reuse is generally the next cheapest option. For example, desalination might come in at $1.60 per thousand litres of water while direct reuse might come in at $1.08 – these are the numbers Borja Blanco described today in his assessment of water solutions for La Serena in Chile. Wastewater has less salt than seawater and that makes it cheaper to purify. So, when water runs out economics say that we should be doing direct reuse rather than desalination – but we aren’t!
Another non-reason why we aren’t doing direct potable reuse is financing (i.e. finding the money to build the plant). Financing is a non-reason because society has become very good at figuring this out. In fact, it could be argued that water treatment companies now compete more based on their ability to do financial engineering (find the money) rather than technical engineering (find the right technology). At least that’s the impression I got from the CFO of IDE, Gal Zohar, who spoke today about project financing. Different governments have different requirements (e.g. being able to pay upfront vs pay annually) but Mr. Zohar seemed confident that, having experience with a wide variety of deal frameworks, there is usually a solution.
That leaves the main reason why we aren’t using the great solution of direct water reuse – marketing. Ultimately, in La Serena in Chile it seems (albeit anecdotally) that people are uncomfortable with drinking and using water that has been recycled from waste. This is true in the vast majority of countries it seems. In Singapore, by contrast, the approach has already been accepted. Why the difference? In my opinion it’s marketing. Singapore invested massively in a marketing campaign and created a brand of reused water called NEWater that gave comfort to people that water supplied was of excellent quality, in fact even better quality than what might otherwise be provided by the municipal systems.
For there to be a great step forward in society, there needs not only to be a new approach or technology but a clear articulation and justification to the public of why that change is fundamentally good for them and good for society. Right now some public infrastructure companies compete on financial engineering rather than technical engineering. The future, I believe, is one where companies will compete based on marketing – the leading company will be the one who can reassure us all, in a truly honest way, of a better future.