As we all experienced the pandemic lockdown this spring and wondered what was coming next, some enterprising scientists were contemplating tracking the COVID-19 virus through our wastewater systems. Researchers at Montreal’s École Polytechnique and McGill University were among the first scientists in Canada to entertain the idea of testing wastewater to track the spread of the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, researchers at McMaster University have been investigating how municipalities across the province of Ontario could begin to test raw sewage for the coronavirus and quickly identify outbreaks. Ontario’s wastewater system may provide new insights and a non-invasive approach to detect the community spread of COVID-19 — one the biggest challenges facing public health experts.
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in collaboration with agencies throughout the federal government, are initiating the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The data generated by NWSS will help public health officials better understand the extent of COVID-19 infections in communities.
We still have the luxury of using our water and wastewater infrastructure for such innovative and worthy objectives. However, upon reading the myriad articles regarding this topic, I could not help but take pause. Below us, the backbone of our water infrastructure is under tremendous stress. Globally, and as a result of growing scarcity, reduced access, aging infrastructure, and rapid urbanization, continued provision of water services represents one of the greatest global challenges of the 21st century. These issues are exacerbated by the varying and largely unpredictable impacts of climate change.
Clean, accessible water is critical to human health, food security, environmental quality, poverty reduction, a sustainable economy, and peace and security. However, over 40% of the global population does not have access to sufficient clean water (Government of Canada, 2017). According to UN-Water, by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity. Developing nations are most affected by water shortages, flooding, and poor water quality. Up to 80% of illnesses in the developing world are linked to inadequate water and sanitation.
In developed countries, leakage is the major component of water loss, representing up to one quarter of total water supplied (WHO, 2001). The average age of the 1.6 million miles of water and sewer pipes in the United States is 45 years, with every mile of water pipe suffering a break every six years. In Toronto, the city experiences an average of 1,400 watermain breaks annually.
In the US and Canada, between 2012 and 2018, overall water main break rates increased by 27% (Folkman, 2018) . Even more concerning is that break rates of cast iron and asbestos cement pipe, which make up 41% of the installed water mains in the US and Canada, have increased by more than 40% over a six-year period. As a result, it is estimated that the US loses 1.7 trillion gallons annually at a cost of US $2.8 billion (Deloitte, 2014).
Projections from independent groups indicate that global financing needs for water infrastructure are significant and increasing. Estimates range from US $6.7 trillion by 2030 to US $22.6 trillion by 2050 (OECD, 2016). These figures are significantly larger than for telecommunications, land transport, or electricity transmission and distribution (OECD, 2006) and do not cover the development of water resources for irrigation or energy.
Although the long-term impacts of climate change are difficult to predict, they are generally anticipated to exacerbate water scarcity, increase the vulnerability of aging infrastructure, and exhibit a high degree of regional variability (Deloitte, 2016). These challenges emphasize the need for resilient, sustainable, and adaptable water supply systems that can monitor and anticipate changes resulting from both internal and exogenous factors. Simultaneously, these systems must optimize water and wastewater conveyance, consumption, and reuse across multiple suppliers, consumers, and regulators.
These seemingly overwhelming challenges can only be addressed by embracing water stewardship practices; both government and industry need to focus on sustainable water management. Innovative approaches to infrastructure funding and management derived from actionable insights and the power of data analytics will drive this shift.
Water tech innovation and the companies developing the tools at the heart of this transformation must therefore have access to public and private investment in order to sustain local and global communities.
About the Author
Jim Perrone is a partner in Innovobot and an advisor at Innovotive. A water and clean technologies expert, Jim has years of experience in P&L oversight, financial and strategic analysis.