5 water trends to watch in 2023
Digital Solutions Europe Water treatment

Leaks, peaks and New York: 5 water trends we’re watching in 2023

Wednesday, 4 January 2023

Now seven years away from the SDG target of 2030, what will 2023 bring for the global water sector? From methane to solving water loss, to PFAS and the digital derby, content director Tom Freyberg looks at the year ahead.

1) Big water in the big apple: a watershed moment? 

Punctuating a busy event season, the UN 2023 Water Conference will take place in New York in March, kickstarting on the 22nd - official World Water Day.

Co-hosted by Tajikistan and the Netherlands, the high-profile event will position water firmly at the heart of the agenda.

Being labelled water's "watershed" moment, a lot of attention is being put on the event to unite high-level decision makers.

Estimates from the UN already show that unless efforts are quadrupled over the next seven years, we will be way off the mark in meeting Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.

The way things have been done won’t suffice to meet the targets.

At the current rate, it’s estimated that by 2030 around 1.6 billion people will still lack safely managed drinking water; 2.8 billion will lack safely managed sanitation, and 1.9 billion will lack basic hygiene facilities.

Clearly, the way things have been done won’t suffice for what’s needed to meet the targets. The question is will the New York gathering result in accelerated action?

What’s required is action: tangible, unorthodox partnerships and investment where it’s needed, not endless hyperbolic discussions.

Before the summit, water stakeholders were invited to contribute proposals for the themes through an online consultation, with the results published here.

2) Methane: more than flatulent cows

Mention methane and most people will immediately think of flatulent cows. Yet, methane could be water's biggest challenge and opportunity when it comes to climate change.

As we creep towards the 2030 SDG target of ensuring everyone on the planet has access to water and sanitation, there's an unexpected consequence to this: namely, the additional emissions from processing water and wastewater.

By adding water treatment capacity, there is the added energy requirement, together with process emissions.

Research has shown that 50 per cent of a utility’s direct emissions could come from sewer methane.

To date, the sector has been and will continue to be a huge consumer of fossil fuels to provide the necessary energy for water treatment services. A recent GWI study prepared for COP27 in Egypt showed the water sector's impact is 4.7 per cent of global methane emissions.

Why is this a concern?

While most greenhouse gas inventories use a global warming potential of 100 years to evaluate GHG impacts, methane is particularly potent in the first 12 years in the atmosphere.

Research has shown that 50 per cent of a utility’s direct emissions could come from sewer methane. In less developed countries, produced methane escapes from inefficient treatment plants, septic tanks and wet pit latrines.

“Tackling wastewater’s methane problem can more rapidly mitigate the effects of climate change,” GWI said. 

The question often asked is, what is the water sector's role in mitigating climate change? Sorting out the methane paradox could be at the heart of the answer.

3) Water’s gain from solving its losses

With conventional water sources under strain, there will be increasing pressure to improve the efficiency of existing networks. Simply put: saving lost water results in more water now available for domestic and industrial use.

The numbers surrounding water loss are staggering. Water losses from creaking, and archaic infrastructure, together with theft, continue to plague the industry. World Bank estimates suggest that up to 30% of water is lost daily in the network. 

2023 could be the year for action on water loss due to a perfect storm of elements.

Across England and Wales alone, it’s estimated that around three billion litres of water are lost daily. While 2050 commitments to half water loss are admirable, they are so far off in the distance.

2023 could be the year for water loss action due to a perfect storm of elements: increasing pressure on utilities from regulators to invest in improvements, coupled with new tools available to help pinpoint leaks. This includes AI, better sensors and acoustic technologies, satellite imagery and even thermal drones.

Further innovation and related investment can be expected in this area. The BBC recently covered a new generation of underground robotic pipe patrollers being tested at the University of Sheffield.

Water loss may not be the sexiest of topics, nor does solving leakage result in the most visible result from spending ratepayers' money (it's underground, after all). Yet, it needs to be a cornerstone of future water strategies.

Take Southeast England’s regional blueprint produced by Water Resources South East (WRSE). The plan is to generate 70 per cent of the additional one million m3/day required between 2025 and 2035 through leakage reduction and a lowering of consumption.

4) Problematic PFAS: calling time on forever chemicals

PFAS could become one of the biggest headaches for utilities around the world. What are PFAS? 

Nicknamed “forever chemicals” due to their manmade, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of manufactured chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals.

Almost unbreakable bonds have rendered PFAS popular for non-stick pans, waterproof clothing and other items. The engineered chemical is a victim of its own success: so strong that it’s become ubiquitous in manufacturing but also extremely challenging to remove when it ends up in the environment. 

Water treatment plants cannot be held responsible for generating or adding PFAS into the waters. They are the gateway through which PFAS flow after entering the water from the environment. Despite this,  the industry remains responsible for removing PFAS before putting water back into the environment or network cleaner than before.

As one consultant previously told me, “if you look for PFAS, you’ll find it”. In the US, it’s estimated that there are over 2000 confirmed PFAS contamination sites across 50 states.

The engineered chemical is a victim of its own success.

In 2023, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s PFAS roadmap will continue as part of the 2021-2024 plan to commit to bolder new policies.

Ahead of the movement of federal limits for PFAS in water, certain proactive water authorities have been moving ahead with treatment processes, such as the Orange County Water District (OCWD) with granular activated carbon and ion exchange products.

While cleaning up PFAS inputs into the environment may seem a herculean task, there was a recent moment of hope. At the end of December, chemical giant 3M announced it would stop producing PFAS by 2025 at the cost of up to $2.3 billion.

Will others follow?

5) Digital innovations: the strongest will survive

From leak detection to digital twin (DT) capability (or at least DT-washing), there’s been a plethora of new digital companies entering the water space.

In 2021, it was estimated that a staggering $470 million was raised by water start-ups across 90 countries, according to GWI WaterData. Within this space, digital offerings attracted a significant amount of capital.

Companies that crossed the chasm from start-up to scale-up phase will be best placed to hire, scale and continue rolling out solutions perceived as proven.

As Aquatech Online previously covered, a smart water meter company closed a $35m Series C funding round, with other double-digit series A raises recorded shortly beforehand.

Now jumping into 2023, the year ahead looks very different. Despite the pandemic largely now in the rear-view mirror, the world is reeling from the follow on geopolitical challenges. Take the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, continued supply chain disruption, record inflation and energy prices. 

Companies that have successfully crossed the chasm from start-up to scale-up phase, securing chunky funds in 2022, will be best placed to hire, scale and continue rolling out solutions now perceived as "proven" rather than those still in the piloting phase.

Digital solutions will no doubt continue to boom as water evolves digitally, yet there is likely to be a more cautiously optimistic uptake.