This Tool Granted us 4 Years More to Live: Let’s Kill It!

200 years of Public Health has doubled our life expectancy – and among all the discoveries and changes it involved, centralized sewers arguably had the biggest impact. But is it because they were the best approach two centuries ago, that they still are today? And should we disrupt them to solve the Water Crisis in America?

Fixing the Broken Infrastructure

The next installment in our series answers this question: what’s the proper scale to solve for the broken pipes?

Key Learnings:

Centralized infrastructure was a major staple in humanity’s well-being, yet we might be at crossroads today.

  • The rehabilitation needs for the US water service networks rose from $140.5 billion in 1995 to $345.1 billion in 2015 and $470 billion over the next 20 years.
  • Digitization enables new approaches that may serve as an alternative to the centralized infrastructure.
  • Point of Use and Point of Entry water sector segments are growing at a much faster rate than the traditional central utility approaches.
  • A future-proof solution may involve the right mix of all the scales and approaches, with an increased emphasis on decentralized and distributed infrastructure.

We long ignored the importance of Sanitation

Here’s a fact, Josiah Cox shares:

From Homo Sapiens all the way to the 19th-century dandies in London, everybody was aware that drinking good water meant you survived and hence knew about the importance of access to clean water.

But on the other hand, the importance of proper sanitation in human health was totally ignored.

This is why most of our modern cities used to be swamps in the beginning; and why everybody found absolutely logical to dispose of their droppings on the streets.

And as a consequence, humankind learned the hard way how important wastewater collection and treatment is, as this had obviously serious impacts on public health, along with the environment.

Plague doctors used to be the proof that we misunderstood the importance of safe water
Plague doctors used to be the proof that we misunderstood the importance of safe water

But while numerous epidemics ravaged Europe through the Middle Age and until the 19th century, humans still tended to have short memories and easily forgot that inappropriate sanitation wasn’t helping – at all.

They also forgot that a centralized sewer used to be a thing as far as in the Babylonian ages in the Mesopotamian Empire (3500 BC).

And indeed, when the centralized sewer made its comeback at the turn of the 19th century, Josiah Cox was proven right: the adoption of wastewater collection was singlehandedly responsible for 4 years of additional life expectancy.

So why would anyone in his right mind even question the pertinence of centralized sewers?

Well, for one simple reason: they’re very expensive.

The expensive centralized water infrastructure

Upmanu Lall and his team at the Columbia Water Center ran the numbers:

But shall we really consider the costs for something deeply linked to people’s well-being? Theoretically no.

Unless we have a better alternative.

In other words, we can drop a tremendous portion of the 75% of costs linked to pumping water around long networks while operating similar treatment steps, just at a smaller scale.

Decentralized approaches are well-established in adjacent sectors

Now, if we’re honest, we haven’t really invented that concept in the water sector. As Damian Georgino recalls, we’ve rather been looking up the shoulder of our bigger brother: the energy world.

The same concept, applied to water, translates into a decentralized infrastructure close to people’s homes and industrial processes but centrally connected thanks to the digital revolution.

And the name for it is straightforward: distributed water!

Distributed Water is a growing segment of the Water Sector

$7.8 Billion will be invested in distributed water and wastewater systems in 2023 in North America. That’s a sizeable number, even though arguably lower than the $111 Billion Water Infrastructure Package we discussed in the previous chapter.

The difference reduces when you consider that those $111 Billion will be spent over five years, hence “reducing” to $22 Billion a year. It further reduces when you compound the implementation speed. While large infrastructure projects are rolled out in years, the agility of the distributed approach allows for reducing that time to impact to months.

Something else reveals when you further split down these $7.8 Billion – growing at a 6% CAGR. There’s a faster-growing sub-segment: the Point of Use application – aka all the shades of filters you’d install under your kitchen sink.

“Yep, that’s growing and selling like hot bagels right now!”

Some sub-segments, such as Point of Use and Point of Entry, grow even faster

That specific sub-segment grows double-digit every year and is expected to nearly triple between today and 2030.

In other words, investment in distributed treatments grows twice faster than investment in central infrastructure, and the specific Point of Use sub-segment grows three times faster!

There’s a simple way to tell those filters are the new cool kid on the block:

Now, Point of Use treatments also propose an ambivalent picture of the future.

Could it initiate the end of centralized infrastructure?

Yes, they unlock a World of water fit for purpose, where your kitchen tap gets to the highest level of drinking water – even knocking off PFAS and the like as a welcome side effect. And your toilet flush now can happily be done with lower-quality water.

But that’s also a double-sided sword. If the water infrastructure doesn’t need to deliver drinking standards to every tap, investments may further decline when we just saw in the previous chapter that the opposite must happen…

And central networks being slowly abandoned to turn into the post-utility era isn’t exactly science fiction:

These radically decentralized treatments hence potentially offer a better service level at a lower cost – but with possible class discrimination as all households won’t invest in it at the same speed – and won’t always maintain it appropriately.

How to maintain water safety in a utility-less world?

Sure, we can imagine workarounds, as Seth Siegel proposes:

Yet, a maybe better alternative would be to distribute the systems in a slightly less radical manner:

We’re talking here of systems to be located in a collective building’s basement (if you allow me that shameless plug, you may want to listen to my conversation with Aaron Tartakovsky from Epic Cleantec by Season 4, Episode 3 of my podcast to learn more about that approach!)

Establishing the best scale for decentralized or distributed water infrastructure to maximize its yield

An alternative yet close approach would be to aim for the size of the condominiums we see in other parts of the World. It may sound weird in the American context, yet what’s a condominium, if not a newly built suburban housing estate?

So, in a nutshell:

  • Distributed Water and Wastewater already receive a third of the Infrastructure investment today and grow twice faster than “conventional” central alternatives
  • As they skip a sizeable portion of the network rollout (or revamping), they arguably offer a considerably better value for money
  • Technically, the best size may be up to each Point of Use, yet if we compound in sociology, a better approach may be the small-collective layer.

Is Industrial Water already decentralized?

I feel like we’re really making a huge step forward here in our quest to rethink water! But let’s make sure we don’t miss the Elephant in the room:

Indeed, municipal water in the US represented 13% of the Water Use in 2015, while agricultural uses accounted for 37% and Industrial ones for the remaining 50%.

We can further split down this 50% by taking out the large chunk of water used in Thermo-electrical power generation. Like the toilet flush in our households, that water just needs to exist – not really to be treated to a high standard. (The same would be valid with irrigation water in Agriculture).

And in the remaining waters used in Industrial processes, but also Aquaculture or Mining, there’s a fascinating trend to observe. Between 1985 and 2015, the volume of water abstraction was reduced by 43%!

The volume of freshwater abstraction was reduced by 43% in Industrial processes between 1985 and 2015
The volume of freshwater abstraction was reduced by 43% in Industrial processes between 1985 and 2015

Industrial Water is water-effective for a reason

How is that even possible? Well, sure, some industries have moved out of the US, and some others have become more water-efficient. But the big chunk of that reduction is linked to water reuse and recycling within industrial facilities, both driven by environmental regulations and limited availability of freshwater resources in some areas.

As these constraints are here to stay in the new realm of Climate Change, that trend will keep on developing! As Damian Georgino recalls:

With all these drivers (water scarcity, environmental regulations, industrial resilience…), water reuse and short-loop treatments have a lot of wind in their sails.

… and yes, Industrial Water is already decentralized or distributed today

Remember the $7.8 billion distributed water and wastewater systems investment I mentioned earlier in this chapter? Well… 65% of it is going to industrial systems!

Now, that doesn’t mean either that industrials suddenly all became water and wastewater treatment experts. Their core competence remains in their industrial tool – so how can they ensure their water safety?

Simply by establishing Private-Private partnerships.

Private-Private water partnerships

Ok, that term doesn’t exist; I totally made it up to reflect on the Private-Public model we discussed in the previous chapter!

Still, the principle remains – a large entity (the industrial player) delegates the water topic to a specialist (a water industry player).

Industrials that follow that route prove to get better water resilience, environmental compliance, and overall integration within the community. What, you think that’s not an industrial’s first key performance indicator? Well, they get their water and wastewater sorted at a better cost too.

But wait, if distributed approaches get widely adopted, what does that mean for the existing networks and infrastructures? Is it a sunk cost that can’t be valorized anymore?

Not really; there’s still value to extract from our century-old workhorses.

It might be time to turn a workhorse into a digitized stallion!
It might be time to turn a workhorse into a digitized stallion!

A new role for the central water infrastructure?

Climate Change’s effect on the Water Cycle actually doesn’t stop at Water Scarcity: it also comes with more extreme climate events with higher frequency.

In that context, cities will not only have to mitigate the periods of droughts (the famous “Day Zeros” we’ve seen in Cape Town, Chennai, or Sao Paulo) but also deal with increased floods.

Nature-Based Solutions represent a potent complement to existing grey engineering approaches – yet they won’t be suited in every context. Think of New York City – where would you build the next green space on top of Central Park?

Guess what that builds up for?

Distributed Sewer Management

Exactly, distributed sewer management with several decentralized pump and gate stations and one centralized digital layer that follows meteorological trends and predictions to actuate and automate the network.

In the end, it’s not about opposing the centralized approach to the distributed one. Both assets have perks and limitations.

Leveraging the sunk cost of the one while redirecting more investment and beefing up the second will deliver an amazing synergy that finally allows the rethinking of water – and not disrupt it.

And now that we’ve agreed on the problem and examined how we may fix the broken economics and the broken pipes, it’s time to get to the last question that matters.

How do we get the ball rolling?

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