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Jokin Larrauri: "Technology is key to the success of the circular economy in the water sector"

  • Jokin Larrauri: "Technology is key to the success of the circular economy in the water sector"

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Spanish nonprofit Conama's Working Group on Water and the Circular Economy, comprising experts in water, innovation and environment, has prepared a report on Water and the Circular Economy, a document that explains the relationship between both concepts, ongoing projects in this area, and the barriers ahead (lack of appropriate regulation, financing and social acceptance).

To find out a bit more about this report, we have interviewed Jokin Larrauri, Water & Wastewater Segment Vice President Global Sales and Business Development at Schneider Electric.

Question: What led you to participate in the Water and Circular Economy Group led by the CONAMA Foundation?

Answer: Five years ago I had the chance to listen to Ellen MacArthur talk about the circular economy, and I was very much impressed by her message and what her foundation had been doing for the past 5 years. That first time I could not help but see the connection between the circular economy and the water cycle I work on, and both cyclical concepts have been in my mind since then, while I tried to look for symbioses and synergies to enhance both concepts. It was at that time, in 2015, when a great friend of mine, Eduardo Perero, of the CONAMA Foundation, told me they were interested in creating a working group on Water and the Circular Economy for the CONAMA 2016 congress, to analyse the circularity of the water sector, its impact on other sectors, and present and future barriers and opportunities. Without hesitation I joined the Working Group on Water and Circular Economy led by the CONAMA Foundation, and I have been working with them since.  

Q: The group has recently released a report. What are the main conclusions on an international level?

A: There have been several conclusions on an international level. First, integrated water cycle management should apply the principles of the circular economy in all its phases, in all countries; moreover, the remaining industrial and socio-economic sectors must include water and its management by-products (water, organic matter, nutrients, energy, etc.) in all production processes. This is the only possible path if we want to move towards a sustainable future where we make the most of inputs and the waste generated becomes in turn an input for other processes.

A second conclusion is that the circular economy in the water sector is not limited to waste water treatment and reuse, but also to water resources planning, water abstraction, water supply, and the interaction with other sectors such as the energy, industrial or agriculture sectors.

Integrated water cycle management should apply the principles of the circular economy in all its phases, in all countries

Similarly, and as a third conclusion, there is a need to adapt and include indicators that measure water circularity, in such a way that by using basic and strategic indicators that involve the different phases of the water cycle, we can measure the progress and the benefits of applying the principles of the circular economy to water cycle management, in order to transition to an economic model that uses efficiently the least amount of raw materials and maintains them for as long as possible in the economic cycle.

As a fourth conclusion, after more than 30 projects received by the CONAMA Foundation on circular economy in water cycle management, we have been able to see that the key to the success of projects that apply circular economy principles lies in a close collaboration among a broad range of actors (private and public companies, universities, research centres, etc.) and in the applicability in an environment close to those project stakeholders. Closeness and collaboration are essential to extract concrete benefits that can be later be measured and communicated, to then replicate and scale up those initiatives in a broader setting. Likewise, we have seen in the projects that there are numerous barriers, some are financial, some have to do with the scalability of the proposed applications and with knowledge transfer, but in many cases they have been successfully sorted out, and that is what we must learn from and replicate. And we cannot stop communicating.

Finally, the report concludes that there are regulatory, financial, and social acceptance challenges, which stop the development of projects that apply principles of the circular economy. The report proposes specific lines of action for the water sector that can be included in national circular economy strategies, analyses existing financing tools at both the national and the European level, and gives examples of application in other countries, where public participation has been key to raise awareness so the public can accept the new uses of water.

Q: What do you think are the biggest difficulties countries face when it comes to integrating water management in a circular economy?

A: The biggest difficulties countries face when it comes to integrating water management in a circular economy are regulatory and financial in nature. Sustaining in the long term a stable regulatory framework and financing tools that enable the development and scalability of the technology and the projects is maybe the most important aspect we have to deal with. We need a context that encourages partnerships between actors, fosters innovative projects, knowledge transfer and enough time for projects to come to fruition, and the results should encourage the expansion of solutions applied at a larger scale.

The key to the success of projects that apply circular economy principles lies in a close collaboration among a broad range of actors and in the applicability in an environment close to those project stakeholders

Currently, there are almost no countries with a conducive environment in terms of regulations, financing instruments, tax incentives, and research, development and innovation (RDI) subsidies, to encourage the application of the circular economy principles to water cycle management.

We have realised that in many cases the technology exists, or at least we have the technology to make great progress, but the applicability of the technology and the possibilities of scaling it up to the industrial level are stopping the development and success of further projects. We have also realised that social acceptance is on the rise, as people are increasingly more aware of the need to change our development models into sustainable and circular models, and thus our main focus should be creating the appropriate regulatory framework to enable projects to proliferate, and enough incentives to ensure they are scaled up. With this, we will also make room for new business models that encourage the exchange of information among stakeholders, and will have a value chain that is more integrated and aligned with the principles of the circular economy.

Q: What do you think is Spain's position internationally in terms of policies that concern the circular economy in water management?

A: Spain's position internationally in terms of policies that concern the circular economy in water management varies. On one hand, in Europe Spain is the leading country in water reuse, and ranks fifth worldwide in terms of installed water reuse capacity. However, this translates into only about 10% of the treated waste water being reused (www.aedyr.com). Therefore, even though Spain is a leading country, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Furthermore, most of the focus is on reuse, as if it was the only circular economy activity within the water cycle, but there are many more.

The biggest difficulties countries face when it comes to integrating water management in a circular economy are regulatory and financial in nature

Spain seemed to be committed to a circular economy strategy, and in early 2018 a draft of the Spanish Circular Economy Strategy was prepared, together with a first Action Plan (2018-2020), which already underwent a public participation process, but implementation is pending. However, we should note that within this Action Plan, which comprised 70 lines of action, only one dealt with water, line of action no 41 on 'Water reuse actions included in river basin management plans', which refers to the investments included in the second cycle of River Basin Management Plans, 2016-2021. Therefore, it does not entail new investments in water infrastructure, but refers to those already included in River Basin Management Plans.

These two aspects, on one hand Spain's leadership in reuse, and on the other the draft Spanish Circular Economy Strategy, I believe are examples of how we can build on our achievements and use them as leverage to expand the use of circular economy principles in water cycle management, beyond water reuse. There is hence a lot to do and to communicate, in areas such as energy generation and use, waste management and valorisation, nutrient extraction, efficiency improvements in transport processes for example by reducing leaks, improvements to urban drainage to make it more sustainable, intentional aquifer recharge, and so on and so forth.

In Spain there is a lot of work to be done to set up a regulatory and financial framework, with tax incentives, to help all stakeholders collaborate in order for water to become the main part of the national circular economy strategy. Water and its management are at the core of the climate change challenges we face, and given its circular nature, we must use it wisely, ensuring water use is more efficient in any sector.

And not everything is gloomy. Many Spanish companies are world leaders in water management, and things are under way, inside and outside our borders, that make me optimistic to believe that, if in Spain we provide the right environment, we can do great things concerning the circular economy in water cycle management. 

Q: What is the role of technology when it comes to applying measures to promote the circular economy in the water sector?

A: Technology has played, is playing and will play a key role in the promotion and success of the circular economy in the water sector, and I would dare say also in other sectors where water plays a key role in production processes. And by technology I mean different things. On one hand, water treatment technology, whether for desalination, drinking water treatment or waste water treatment, using new techniques for filtration, disinfection, etc. On the other hand, technology to use renewable energies in water conveyance and treatment processes. I am also referring to information technologies, big data, IoT, the application of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, etc., that enable extracting valuable information from processes, processing that information and predicting and improving processes so we can be more efficient when it comes to decision making and thereby improve the efficiency of all processes in the water cycle.

We can thus connect processes that used to operate individually to establish relationships, we can understand the impact that some of them have on others, how they relate, and simulate and build better scenarios to optimise the use of materials, increase efficiency, and ultimately, do a lot more with less.

The digital transformation which is presently having an impact on various sectors, included the water sector, will be key to achieve a circular economy in the water cycle and to optimise the use of water in other sectors in the future. 

Q: What international examples of integration of water management into a circular economy strategy would you highlight?

A: Every time I think about excellence in water management at all levels, I think about Singapore's public water company, the Public Utilities Board (PUB). For decades, and out of sheer need, the PUB has applied principles of circular economy to the management of the entire water cycle, with emphasis on harvesting rain water, on the application of separate sewer networks, on adapting the regulatory framework to reuse waste water even for potable uses, providing the country's industrial sector free consulting services concerning water management and use, on leak management, on public awareness about the value of water, etc. Ultimately, placing water at the core of national policy as a key factor for the country's development and survival.

Now, given the forecasted sea level rise due to climate change, and the country's coastal location, the PUB and Singapore's government have been working for years on a national strategy for several decades, to fight against temperature rise and the risks it entails for the country's safety and subsistence. Singapore, and specifically the PUB think that the future of the country's water security will involve the use of science, innovation and technology, and they don't have a choice but to enable the development, application and financing of these three areas.  Unfortunately, we will begin to see other countries who also have no other choice, and the financing arguments will become secondary, because there will be no alternatives.

The digital transformation presently having an impact on many sectors, included the water sector, will be key to achieve a circular economy in the water cycle in the future

With the circular economy and its application in the water cycle we have a wonderful opportunity to reverse the climate change trend, and do our bit to fight its effects and reduce, from our sector, the temperature rise, to try not to exceed the 1.5 0C that experts have set as the threhold before we get to a point of no return where the consequences of climate change would be irreversible. In Spain we can learn a lot from our colleagues from Singapore, California or the Netherlands, and from many other countries and regions who have been applying the principles of the circular economy to water management for years, so that the industrial fabric we have in Spain can take a qualitative leap in the future.

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