Water and circular economy; Water and circular economy;

A circular economy: the only way to keep the water flowing?

Business planners looking at the next decade could be forgiven for drawing one very obvious conclusion. In a world beset by climate change and dwindling natural resources, what’s beneficial, what’s acceptable and what’s profitable are changing. There’s a growing sense of urgency about the need for new models of production, less profligate consumption, and ultimately a switch to more sustainable models of production. In all of these, water is central.

For some years groups like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) have been exploring how a more ‘circular’ economy might be achieved, moving to a system of practices that are less wasteful of materials, energy, and water. At Arup, as a knowledge partner to EMF, we’ve been wondering how water, our most precious natural resource, might join this circular economy. Pivoting away from habits and practices that have endured for over a century will not be easy. But there’s clearly value in examining how change might be achieved. 

The word circular is appropriate for a natural resource that moves through the natural world and our lives in the way water does. A circular water economy would eliminate the waste, pollution and unsustainable usage practices that too often result from today’s system. But to achieve a situation where people, industry, farming and environment work in harmony, requires that we integrate responsibilities and actions in new ways. Fortunately the logic of a circular water economy is becoming increasingly persuasive.

From ideals to realities

Before major change happens, incentives will be needed and opportunities must be recognised. In our latest report From Principles to Practices, EMF and Arup have revealed what we think these might be. An important conclusion of our work is that, as ever with the circular economy, one can realise valuable business benefits even before true circularity is achieved. We believe that there are three highly commercial reasons why a circular economy for water is probably inevitable:

1. A circular business is a more efficient one
2. A circular business is prepared for a tougher regulatory era
3. A circular business will be more innovative and find new ways to generate value

Water stewardship is leadership

At whatever point in the natural water cycle an organisation is placed, from supply to downstream use, to treatment or distribution, doing a better job of preserving usable water represents valuable efficiency gains and a healthier bottom line. This is basic, but an important first step.

With climate change inevitably comes water shortages or increased risk of flooding. In this context, businesses that can demonstrate great stewardship practices will also in time become more influential.

Regulation is innovation

Media coverage of climate change is now continuous, the protests larger and longer. And when major cities experience unexpected droughts as in Cape Town in 2018, we should expect public demand for action on climate change is likely to intensify. That means deeper and more stringent regulation. A circular business, particular ones whose practices harness resources once considered waste or pollution and transform them into new productive uses, will benefit from reduced costs of compliance. 

Beyond being a good corporate citizen, as a circular economy for water develops, it will likely lead to a recognition of the systemic benefits. For example, in India alone, over 580 million cubic metres of water is used by the textile industry each year. Freeing up this resource by using waterless dyeing will help meet the daily water needs of 32 million people while also reducing the risk of pollution of rivers and lakes, a major issue in India and other developing countries. 

The systemic change we need

As the twenty-first century reshapes our thinking about sustainable development in general, the urgency and scale of the issues we face logically leads to demands for system-level change. We already know that individual actions won’t be enough to arrest carbon emissions or ensure countries retain their access to drinking water. Ideas like the circular economy, which at one point seemed almost utopian in their level of ambition, are increasingly being seen as a viable roadmap out of a crisis. 

Water is high on the agenda for the decision makers at 2019’s COP25 gathering in Madrid. It’s time to recognise that a circular economy approach to the use of vital natural resources like water, really only means adopting what we already know are the best ideas and the highest standards.