Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Singapore's International Water Week: Right Technologies for Developing Countries

While there are plenty of new water-related technologies that work well in developed countries, a key challenge for developing countries is how to choose the right ones and implement them well, according to a Singapore International Water Week Hot Issues workshop on Application of Technologies in Developing Countries, held on July 1.

A key choice is between easy maintenance and advanced equipment, said consultant Stephane Arbelot. Whereas maintenance in developed countries may be sub-contracted to the supplier, the operator more often performs maintenance in Asia, and the presence of the manufacturer is essential. Indeed, he and other panelists said operations and maintenance can be even more important than the technology in developing countries because skills are hard to get.

Asian Development Bank (ADB) Lead Facilitator Niels van Dijk said: “Partnerships are an ideal way to provide access for water utilities to new technologies.”

The concept of a water partnership is that a mentoring utility is willing to transfer its experience and best practices to utilities in developing countries. “What we’ve seen is that there is a much greater buy-in if a new approach and a new way of doing the work is explained and shown by an actual practitioner rather than a consultant,” van Dijk said.

Demonstration plants and pilots can also be successful for creating knowledge and capacity. In China, pilot projects have been set up in large mature treatment plants in Beijing and Shanghai to pilot using different technologies to treat sludge, ADB Senior Urban Development Specialist Jingmin Huang said. These pilots are connected to the national government, and the ADB is helping to provide guidance and a technical roadmap.

Access to new technology is not a problem, Huang said. Instead, the two key issues are the willingness of people to use the new technology and their capacity to operate it. Even if a utility is given a new technology, it may refuse to use it. Her experience in China showed that government support is very important for making sure it is used. Five years ago, the 

Chinese government implemented a stricter policy on discharge from wastewater plants, for example, and plants improved their treatment because they had no choice.

Huang said water operator partnerships can also work well. While many water supply companies want to use new technologies, they are afraid of risk and are uncertain whether the technology is reliable. A partnership builds their confidence because they see how the technology is applied and whether it is sustainable.  

Van Dijk agreed that governments can influence operators to look for better technologies; he noted that the clean water act in the Philippines is another example where government policy has been instrumental in forcing change in wastewater management.  

Panel moderator Jonathan Clement, of PWN Technologies, said procurement processes are also important, because coming up with a specific design can actually close out a lot of technologies.

Specifying the outputs and allowing the use of any competitive technology can enable a more open field, with more possibilities for the selection of new technologies, said Ram Gupta of the Indian Water Works Association said

Sometimes, older technologies might be the right ones, however. Clement noted that in a plant his company constructed in Indonesia after the tsunami, simpler membrane technology worked better than conventional drinking water plants that required “a huge amount of chemistry and biology.”

Francisco Areilan of Maynilad Water in the Philippines said it took about two months to import a part from Finland for his company’s new plant; he said older technologies can be acceptable alternatives.

Huang noted, however, that whether new or conventional technology is used depends on the local situation and need. In China, new technology is needed to bridge new requirements. Fast urbanization has put high pressure on water demand and treatment and traditional plants cannot meet the requirements to keep rivers and lakes clean.

“We need technology to deal with these new circumstances,” she said.

A second workshop on July 1 focused on rethinking the “3 Rs” and looking at wastewater as a recoverable, reusable resource  

CH2MHill Vice President Linda Macpherson said stigmatized perceptions hurt the ability to tap into wastewater recovery, but “planting the seeds of new associations could develop sustainable solutions.”

The pressure of rapid urbanization is making a more holistic way of looking at wastewater imperative, she said, and the public needs to understand that wastewater is actually a valuable source of water, energy, food and nutrients.

However, “we aren’t mining these resources,” Macpherson said, “because we tend to stigmatize what we want to promote -- we do it ourselves.”

The industry now needs to “change the way we talk and think about water.” One example would be to position water positively as “pure,” to enhance its acceptance.

CH2M Hill’s Glenn Daigger agreed: “We’re part of the problem because of our mindset.”

Yap Khen Guan of Singapore’s national water management agency, PUB, added that communication is critical, as is having advocates for wastewater recovery.

“We as professionals can’t do a complete job without support from other groups,” he said. In Singapore, “we had to convince the stakeholders that NEWater is a good product. Once you have advocates outside the profession, half the battle is won.”

Yap also used Singapore’s NEWater as a case study both in how to use wastewater and how to position it. NEWater is made from water that is cleaned and purified further, and it is a good demonstration of how to push the frontier. Singapore is now going beyond wastewater and starting to reuse rainwater. This process of reuse has relied on three key enabling factors – technology, management and public buy-in, he said.

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