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“Nature Reuses Water Endlessly, Why Don’t We?”


Jacobs Global Director of Water Peter Nicol shares an insider’s recap from Singapore International Water Week and the Water Leaders Summit Insights session on water reuse.

Earlier this month, I had the invigorating opportunity to attend Singapore International Water Week and chair the Water Leaders Summit Insights session on “Recycling and Reusing Water Endlessly.”

Water reuse as a disruptive approach to water supply management has been through the classical technology innovation phase where innovators and early adopters have developed several exemplary full-scale projects in the past two decades. Despite the success stories and the widely acknowledged technologies currently available to implement water reuse projects, the growth of reuse around the world is still relatively uneven.

This reuse workshop carried over from last year’s Singapore Spotlight 2017, where I participated on a reuse panel. Moderated by my colleague, Jacobs Asia-Pacific Regional Director Subbu Kanakasabapathy, this year’s panelists included:

               Ng Joo Hee (Peter Ng), Chief Executive, Public Utilities Board (PUB), Singapore.

               Miguel Angel Sanz, President, International Desalination Association and Director of Strategic Development of Treatment Infra Division, Suez.

               Jane Nishida, Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for International and Tribal Affairs, United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

               Bruce Gordon, Coordinator of Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Health, World Health Organization (WHO).

               Diane D’Arras, President, International Water Association (IWA).

               Allard Nooy, CEO InfraCO Asia.

               Dr. Sanjay Mukherjee, Additional Municipal Commissioner (Projects), Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.

We hoped that by gathering water leaders from around the world, we could spark a discussion focused on the steps to change the narrative and reiterate the real value of water reuseand their conversation certainly hit the mark.

Leading the panel was PUB CE Peter Ng, who emphasized the value of reuse and its important role in Singapore’s water management. Following Peter Ng, a theme that surfaced among all the panelists was how critical public perception is to potable reuse program successes, agreeing that it is the single biggest barrier to reusing water endlessly.

The truth is, all water is reused since there is truly no new water on the planet. Organizations, such as PUB, have safely reused wastewater to augment their water supplies for decades. The technology is there, we all noted, but the real challenge is developing a thoughtful way to implement potable reuse programs because of public acceptance.

A popular recent public acceptance tactic in the reuse movement is using reclaimed water to brew beer. Last year, we led the effort to bring Colorado its very first craft brews from reuse water and PUB led a similar effort at this year’s Singapore International Week with their New Taste Challenge.

In the challenge, participants got to blind taste and guess the difference between NEWater, PUB’s own brand of high-grade reclaimed wastewater, and regular tap water; and the difference between regular beer and beer brewed from recycled water. More than 1,500 guests took the challenge, including several of Jacobs own, including NC Tan and John Poon pictured to the right.

The challenge results were very interesting: 60 percent of participants could not tell the difference between NEWater and regular tap water, and 70 percent could not tell the difference between regular beer and beer made using recycled water. Efforts like these truly enhance visibility and public acceptance of potable water reuse, and they’re pretty tasty, too!

In Singapore, 40 percent of the country’s water is NEWater. By pioneering a hands-on transparent approach to public outreach and promoting water supply solutions needed to address shortages of fresh water, Singapore received unprecedented public acceptance demonstrating how technology and public education can be successfully aligned.

Peter Ng highlighted the key reuse outcomes that inform PUB’s public outreach efforts:

  1. Reuse is drought resistant.
  2. Reuse is endlessly sustainable.
  3. Reuse technology is affordable, is constantly improving and getting even cheaper.
  4. Turning used water into drinking water requires less energy than turning seawater into drinking water.
  5. Recycling used water and introducing it back into the system reduces storage needs. If you can recover half of wastewater output and reuse it, you double your water supply and you don’t need huge storage facilities because the water is kept within your system.

He also shared one of my favorite soundbites from the session, “Reuse is not unnatural, it’s what nature does. Reuse is copying nature and using technology to make it happen faster.”

Additionally, we talked about other barriers holding us back from more widespread implementation, spending time on current policies and regulations around the globe. The U.S., doesn’t have national standards yet for potable reuse, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does support the technology. Instead, reuse is handled at the state level.

Currently, 14 states are exploring policies and regulations for indirect potable reuse, which introduces treated water into an environmental buffer such as an aquifer or river before it’s brought back into the water supply. Four more states have guidance for direct potable reuse, which is just that – directly introducing purified water into the water supply.

Our consensus was that learning from other countries and best practices is key to developing feasibly, actionable guidelines – no matter the location.

We discussed how essential reuse is and will continue to help cities deal with resiliency, climate adaptation and other water security and urbanization challenges. Access to water has a major impact around the world and connects directly to cities and sustainable development goals, specifically, sustainable development goal six (SDG6): ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Because water supplies are limited, we know we need a more integrated approach to water management and planning. Earlier this year, I highlighted one such approach, known as One Water, as one of the trends I see “making a splash” in the water industry. This approach challenges everyone around the globe to view all water as a valuable resource, something Singapore has embraced for more than 25 years.

This discussion brought out another one of my favorite soundbites from the session – a response to the question of what we need to do going forward: “Value water better, manage it better and collaborate to innovate.”

I’ve written before about how passionate our company is about water reuse, having led the industry in potable reuse for the last half-century – and that’s why I found chairing this session so valuable. Hearing the panelists discuss how to achieve more widespread adoption of water reuse as a key tenet in water supply strategies, while recognizing that its adoption has not yet matched the growth of populations and their economies, became one of the highlights of the entire week for me.

Singapore International Water Week took place July 8-12, 2018, in conjunction with the sixth World Cities Summit and the fourth CleanEnviro Summit Singapore. Together, the events welcomed more than 24,000 participants from 110 countries and regions.

The Jacobs team was active at the conference – which celebrated ten years of water excellence this year (the first SIWW took place in 2008) – receiving an award honoring our continuous support during the last decade, presenting several technical papers and in the example of our work serving PUB to develop the Tuas Water Reclamation Plant & Integrated Waste Management Facility. One of Singapore’s most iconic current projects, it will become the largest membrane bioreactor facility in the world –  and will continue their reuse efforts!

Peter Nicol currently serves as Global Director of Water at Jacobs and was formerly CH2M’s Global Water Business Group President where he had full profit and loss responsibility for the $1.4 billion global water business, including leading more than 5,000 water professionals, in 175 offices, in more than 50 countries worldwide. Under Peter’s leadership, CH2M solidified its brand as the global market leader in water and wastewater design work, and he continues to lead Jacobs’ industry-leading water efforts. Peter joined CH2M in 1980 after receiving his bachelor of applied science degree in Geological Engineering and Applied Earth Sciences from the University of Toronto.