Water is essential for life on Earth, but it is a fragile resource beset by problems which vary from region to region. Some people have no access to it at all, while for others, it is becoming increasingly scarce. We take stock through the lens of various projects that Egis is managing both in France and worldwide – from building dams to recycling water.
We are in an era of significant upheaval – and water scarcity is one of the symptoms. Factors such as global warming, population growth and overconsumption of intensive farming and industry are all exerting more and more pressure on the natural environment. “18 months ago, I told somebody in an interview that we were going to run out of water before we run out of oil. And now I am being proven right!”, said Xavier Lazennec, head of the Water Service Line at Egis. “Water – a resource that we thought inexhaustible in France and throughout the world – is becoming increasingly scarce, and supplying it is becoming more and more difficult”.
Two figures are evidence of this: only 1% of our planet's water can be used by human beings! And that figure is on its way down: by 2030, water requirements will exceed available resources by 40%. What solutions will we need to put in place then?
Water: challenges that vary from region to region
To properly understand the challenges, two areas for action need to be identified. On the one hand, countries where access to water is a major difficulty, and where getting water to people is a priority. On the other hand, countries that have implemented high-performance water distribution systems – France, for example – where saving it has become a matter of urgency… This is the end of the era of abundance, as the media likes to put it!
Bringing water to the people
Again, one figure is particularly meaningful: 2 billion people throughout the world do not have access to drinking water, according to the 2020 United Nations Report on the sustainable goals. As far as these issues are concerned, the Water Service Line at Egis is managing a number of major projects with its subsidiaries.
- Several programmes have been implemented in India as part of the Water4all India project, the aim of which is to improve water quality in various regions throughout the country. India has had a number of fierce droughts over the past few years and many of its regions find themselves grappling with water stress – including Madhya Pradesh, a densely populated region in the centre of the country. People go off in search of water with all sorts of containers – such as buckets and Jericho cans – and even put their lives in danger by venturing to the bottoms of wells! The Water4all India project being run by Egis and its partners involves renovating dams, supplying drinking water and implementing drainage systems.
- Another example is the construction of a seawater desalination plant in Barka (Oman) in the Middle East. Egis has worked with Suez on developing the designs, monitoring the works and starting up the plant. In these dessert and mountainous regions, which can be increasingly humid the nearer to the coast one gets, the idea is to treat seawater, rather than drawing on underground water tables which can sometimes be several kilometres below the ground, and which take a very long time to replenish.
Reducing water consumption
The examples above show that the challenges are not purely technical – they are also profoundly human. There are different problems at play in countries where drinking water capture and distribution systems are in place. Water is nevertheless becoming increasingly scarce from year-to-year – because of increasingly frequent periods of drought.
Modifying our water culture
“A major change needs to take place! We are accustomed to using drinking water for everything. We drink it, but we also use it for sanitation purposes and domestic tasks, as well as filling our swimming pools and watering the garden! We need to completely overhaul the way we do things and find alternative solutions”, said Xavier Lazennec, head of the Water Service Line at Egis. One of the first areas that we need to look at is building design. In the same way that certain innovations reduce a building's carbon footprint, designers need to be able to offer project owners systems for saving water across-the-board.
More effective water management
“Currently in France, 20% of water is lost to leaks – that is equivalent to the water consumption of a country like Belgium”, said Xavier Lazennec. From an environmental perspective, that is something of a double whammy: energy is needed to operate the whole water chain… even though some of it is wasted! Ageing networks are a major reason for these leaks.
Action plans are being implemented in towns and villages to renovate facilities, but these are often still insufficient. Egis is sharing its expertise with public and private management companies, helping them to develop master plans in order to undertake an inventory of needs, structure requirements, select the best technologies and prepare their rollout. Beyond renovating the networks, innovative digital tools are also required – such as leak sensors, smart meters and data management systems.
This is the third area for action. Once water is better managed, high-performance water recycling solutions can be implemented. “There is still some reticence regarding water recycling in France: only 1% of water is recycled, whereas the Spanish recycle between 30 and 45% of what they use. This figure increases to between 80 and 90% in Israel, and in Singapore it is also hovering around 90%”, said Xavier Lazennec.
Usually, waste water is treated and then discharged back into the natural environment. But increasing water scarcity means that new approaches are required – particularly since recycled water can be useful in a number of areas. Egis is working in Oulan-Bator in Mongolia on designing a recycling plant so that treated wastewater can be used for the city's industrial facilities.
Renaturing natural environments
There is a final area which touches on water scarcity: renaturation “Our lifestyles are negatively impacting the environment in numerous ways – everything from urbanisation to intensive farming, which is depleting the soil or making it impermeable to water. The result is increased evaporation. And water vapour is the most abundant greenhouse gas on the planet!”, says Xavier Lazennec.