In March this year — just ahead of World Water Day and a major water summit in New York — the United Nations (UN) issued another warning about the current global water crisis and imminent risk of water shortages. The UN reported that the world is traveling a dangerous path of overconsumption and overdevelopment, with population growth fueling a predicted 40% global water deficit by 2030.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres commented that water is "humanity's lifeblood” but it is being drained by "unsustainable water use, pollution and unchecked global warming."
The report, which stated that about 10% of the global population currently lives in areas that are facing high or critical water stress, was full of powerful messages about how scarcity is becoming endemic because of overconsumption and pollution. It also detailed how global warming will increase seasonal water shortages in areas both with abundant water and those already strained.
The UN has established water and wastewater targets, known as Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which seek to ensure safe drinking water and sanitation for all, focusing on the sustainable management of water resources, wastewater and ecosystems. It says 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water, while 4.2 billion people lack safely managed sanitation.
Against this backdrop, converting wastewater through treatment for reuse is vital in helping bridge the gap between the growing demand and scarcity of water. Here in Mexico, 40% of our wastewater remains untreated. This puts Mexico ahead of some South American neighbors, including Brazil and Colombia, but behind others, such as Chile and French Guiana.
Earlier this year, ABB commissioned independent research into global wastewater treatment capacity. The findings of the economic modeling showed that treatment capacity needs to increase annually by 8.56 billion cubic meters and investment in an additional 469 treatment facilities per year is required to meet UN SDG goals.
However, treating wastewater is energy intensive, with the industry consuming up to 3% of the world’s total energy output and contributing to over 1.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Our calculations demonstrate that more needs to be done to help support the UN goals and accelerate progress in tackling water scarcity. But we need to ensure we are achieving these wastewater treatment targets in the most energy and resource efficient way possible to make it sustainable. This is where technology is key.
Increasing wastewater treatment capacity is a priority; however, the early integration of technology to drive efficiency at plants is also vital. ABB’s automation, electrification and digital solutions are helping monitor, analyze and manage wastewater plant operations. In association with crucial measurement and control solutions, which collect and transmit a wealth of operational and diagnostic data, ABB systems help optimize resource efficiency and reduce energy consumption.
As an example, ABB is helping protect the wastewater infrastructure in San Jose from cyberattacks. The San Jose-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility is responsible for cleaning Silicon Valley’s wastewater to protect public health. But as one of the world’s primary economic engines, Silicon Valley is a key target for cyberattacks and an attack on the facility could lead to significant downtime and result in wastewater polluting the environment. ABB modernized the facility’s systems and solutions to implement a world-class cybersecurity infrastructure — deploying security controls, applying more than 2,000 security patches, and conducting a cybersecurity assessment within just five days.
The scale of the challenge linked to UN SDG 6.3 is highlighted in a report from 2021 assessing the volumes of wastewater collected, treated, and reused. The research, which is used by the UN, concludes that 48% or 171.3 billion cubic meters of wastewater is uncollected or untreated annually. To meet SDG 6.3 — which targets halving the proportion of untreated wastewater by 2030 — these figures need to be reduced to 24% and 85.65 billion cubic meters.
In 2022, ABB’s Energy Transition Equation report analyzed how better use of wastewater could relieve pressure on water supplies through greater integration of automation and digital technologies:
Wastewater sites can reduce carbon emissions by up to 2,000 tons per annum, the equivalent volume of CO2 responsible for 30,000 tons of glacier mass lost every year
With over 50,000 plants worldwide, 100 million tons of CO2 could be saved each year
By applying a package of automation and digital solutions, water companies can reduce carbon emissions as well as deliver annual operational savings of up to $1.2 million per plant
When treated effectively, wastewater can be returned to the water cycle for reuse, proving a valuable but often untapped resource in tackling water scarcity. Importantly, it also lowers the levels of untreated sewage pumped into rivers and oceans, which have hugely negative impacts on public health, the environment and marine life.
By adopting a circular economy approach to wastewater, we can ensure that much of society’s wasted water can be reused for industry and agriculture, thereby safeguarding a greater volume of clean freshwater to supply our growing population with essential drinking water.