The International Water Association (IWA)

Transitioning to Circular Economy - Inspiration from Portugal

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Our grandparents focused their lives on making sure they had enough to live; our parents had the chance to start their lives with not much, and grow into a more and more comfortable life; we’re lucky to have been born to a comfortable life, but grew up realising we can’t just overuse natural resources, we need to protect them; our kids talk about their commitment to use less resources, produce less waste, pollute less, and ensure bees stay alive!

We are witnessing a societal change in the last decades. Cities, that have become the heart of this change, have evolved from water-secure cities, to liveable cities and (still struggling) to sustainable growth cities. There is an urgent need to accelerate the transition, and the water sector has an important role to play in it.

What are the barriers to this transition for the urban water sector? What are ways forward to address them?

The goal is no longer to only supply safe water, effective wastewater drainage and treatment. The water sector is deeply involved with societal goals and plays a key role to deliver on all three challenges: secure, liveable, and sustainable growth cities. By moving away from linear transitions, all cities can implement projects that deliver on these three levels of outcomes.

The Principles for Water-wise cities provide a framework to guide future actions in this direction, with a strong message that everything is integrated and interlinked. So even when we focus on the services provided by water and sanitation utilities, we need to keep in mind all interlinked systems. The key for successful circular economy projects is to leverage the value created for:

  • Health
  • Urban spaces (parks, heat mitigation, buildings comfort and esthetics)
  • Ecosystems
  • People well-being and sense of belonging
  • Economic activities and development
  • Other urban services and sectors

Circular economy starts with changing our perspective from use-to-dispose to reuse or generate new products and services: water, energy and materials; from having to deal with challenges to ensure quality water supply and urban drainage into opportunities to produce added value for people, businesses and ecosystems.

The City of Porto that just hosted a APDA event to support utilities in Portugal in their transition to circular economy, is exemplary in the way it structures its water management to enable a holistic approach: a single entity is in control of the water supply, the wastewater treatment, the storm water drainage and the quality control of the water in the streams and beaches of the city.

This city creates synergies within itself, and undertakes an unique strategy for water. Portuguese utilities at the APDA event pointed out the following barriers to implementing circular economy in urban water management we can all learn from:

  • Regulation and legislation towards a clear definition of the minimum quality requirements for wastewater reuse, and the design of an economic model that will adequately motivate utilities and other entities to start this path.
  • The difficulty to bridge the chasm between research & innovation agents and the utilities, who have to deal with operational, staff capacity, and budget constraints, not to mention the long service life of the infrastructure and the long lead time to get it built, which increase the inertia for water systems to embrace innovation.
  • The learning curve to approach the new projects both from a public service perspective and from a business case perspective. What do the customers want? How to reach out to them? How much are they willing to pay? How to package and market the product to make it attractive? This requires a complete different skill-set than what plant managers have been trained for. It also requires new tools from research to better quantify the value produced in terms of health, ecosystems and well-being.
  • A proper communication around this shift of mindset, to inform decision makers, promote partnerships inside and outside the water sector, and create a social awareness on the importance of this investment.
  • Professionals and their ability to collaborate and co-create across departments and institutions, learning to work towards the greater goal of a circular city, beyond their individual mandate, targets and KPIs.

With this Portuguese inspiration, looking around the sector, we clearly see that the transition has started. The signs are up on the road ahead, but there are still a lot of choices to be made. With the current unsustainable use of the resource, and the traditional inertia to embrace change, all of us need to work towards accelerating the transition and move to the “right” lane, each in our respective roles: regulators, operators, decision makers, scientists, and even the end user…

Ambition has become a key aspect for this entirely new approach on water. Being prudent is not a good choice when you realize the lane you’re in is no longer sustainable, and it is clear that, given the life cycle of the investments in our sector, the decisions we make today will enhance or restrict the citizen’s quality of life in the future.

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