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Circular Water Management: A framework for the transition

Lead contributor: Dr. Hernan Ruiz Ocampo

The chapter aims to address the transition of the water sector to the circular economy paradigm. Thus, the approach for the design of the chapter follows a strategy based on three main pillars: principles, levels, and enablers. The principles relate to the ones proposed by the Ellen McArthur Foundation (design out of waste and pollution, keep products and material in use, and regenerate natural systems) adapted to the water sector. The principles intersect with the water sector activities at various levels (micro, meso, macro), aiming to englobe and create specific focus topics divided into technologies & processes, implementation, and water management. The enablers refer to implementing digital technologies to foster the circular economy adoption and circular business models that aim to create value from the different circular strategies. 

The chapter’s introduction describes the natural water cycle and how human activities create a linear approach in the water sector by using the water only once, from the abstraction to the disposal to the natural environment, usually without treatment. And climate change, population growth and unadopted water infrastructure to actual conditions reveal the needs and pressures in the water sector. 

Therefore, introducing a circular economy water framework aims to set up the scenario to the shift from a linear to a circular approach. Even if circular concepts are common in the water sector, a framework will better define the strategies for a successful shift to the circular economy. The water framework described in the chapter follows a combination of various propositions from the literature, including the principles from the Ellen McArthur Foundation. Six strategies emerge from the principles based on Reduce, Removal, Reuse, Recycling, Recovery and Rethink transversal to the other strategies. Implementing the strategies will enable the circular economy in the entire value chain of the water sector. 

The design of hybrid grey and green infrastructures needs to ensure the removal of pollutants and water quality. Applying multistakeholder governance will allow rethinking the entire water cycle with a collaborative approach, targeting the reduction of water consumption by implementing digital solutions for smart management, allowing the multiple uses of water through reuse and recycling. The recovery of resources and energy will reduce the carbon footprint of water utilities to offer zero-carbon water services and create value from water by rethinking the business models for water utilities based on the products and services derived from the successful application of strategies. Thus, implementing innovative water technologies aims to transform the water utilities into smart assets capable of ensuring the removal of pollutants and offering reuse, recycling, and resource recovery from the water streams. 

At the micro-level, the first group focused on technologies & processes for the water sector, and aims to introduce to the reader the different technologies for wastewater treatment, reclaimed water, and the recovery of energy, nutrients, minerals, and metals from water streams. The description of various legislative instruments has in view to introducing the standard limits that technologies need to accomplish to guarantee the quality of the treatment. 

At the meso level, the second focus group aims to show the implementation of the different technologies in practice. The examples include circular strategies to develop innovative solutions for decentralized domestic wastewater, wastewater in agriculture and the tourist sector, industrial symbiosis, and the recovery of resources from desalination processes. 

What's inside

Is the natural water cycle circular?

The water cycle is circular by nature, involving flux and storage processes. However, only 1% is accessible surface water for human activities. Explore the challenges of the water sector and the importance of using water wisely for the years to come.

How climate change affects the water sector?

Weather, climate, and water hazards accounted for 50% of all disasters, 45% of all reported deaths, and 74% reported economic losses at a global level. Extreme drought has even longer-term effects. Discover now the different impacts on the water sector.

Is the water sector applying the circular economy?

The water source comes from the natural environments (take). Water treatment (make) allows human consumption (use). Finally, water is returned (discharge) to the natural environment with or without treatment, using water only once. Learn how using water more than once is critical to support the circular economy.

Do you want to know the main components of water in the circular economy?

Discover the water framework for the transition in the water sector supported by three dimensions: at the systemic level (micro meso, macro), applying circular principles adapted to the water sector, and the enablers that will potentiate the circular economy transition.

Which are the circular strategies applied to the water sector?

Learn how circular strategies support the implementation of the water framework and explore how to include reduction, removal, reuse, recycling, recovery, replenishment, reconnecting, and rethinking concepts to develop innovative solutions for the transition in the water sector.

Is it possible to design water utilities out of waste and pollution?

Implementing tailored technologies needs to comply with the legislation to preserve the quality of natural water bodies. Learn through various examples how modular and decentralized systems design should exploit the potential of water as a carrier of valuable resources.

Can water and wastewater utilities keep products and materials in use?

Discover here the smart water factories that will facilitate the local flow of resources and materials (water, energy, nutrients, minerals, and metals) to create a systemic collaboration and foster the management of services in the water sector.

Which are the products and services expected from water utilities by applying the circular economy?

Explore how it is possible to obtain different products such as nutrients, minerals, metals, energy, and water for various applications (potable and non-potable) from water utilities and the synergies created with other sectors like industry, agriculture, energy, tourism, etc.