Rethinking the urban utility: a climate smart approach

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How IWA is supporting the progress of climate smart utilities. By Kambiri Cox and Katharine Cross.


Water and wastewater utilities can play a key role in shaping a city’s climate agenda. As well as working to adapt and cope with the impacts of climate change, utilities are increasingly transforming wastewater into green energy that not only satisfies wastewater treatment demands but also generates surplus energy to return to the cities’ grids and help offset overall carbon emissions.

Utilities also contribute to global emissions through energy use, as well as production of nitrous oxide and methane from wastewater systems.

As they seek to reduce emissions, some low-carbon measures also support utilities in adapting to climate change (for example, reducing water loss improves water availability and reduces energy use for pumping). However, many adaptation measures such as desalination tend to be achieved through more energy intensive processes.

The links between adaptation and mitigation are where opportunities arise for utility leaders to rethink urban water, and in particular wastewater treatment as a resource factory to support emerging adaptation needs while decreasing their carbon footprint. Water utilities moving towards carbon neutrality can become leaders in proactive climate change mitigation and adaptation, inspiring the entire ecosystem of urban stakeholders.

The IWA Climate Smart Utilities initiative

The IWA Climate Smart Utilities initiative will allow water utilities to share their experiences and have a space to learn from each other. Climate smart utilities are those who are improving their climate resilience while contributing to significant and sustainable reduction of carbon emissions. These utilities are public, private, and mixed companies that deliver services in drinking water, wastewater, sanitation
and/or urban drainage.

The recently launched initiative comprises a web presence, a community of practice focused on utilities’ needs, and a sustainability approach through sound financial planning and a strong governance. The initiative is led by a steering committee of utility leaders to provide sound governance. The member-based leadership provides the orientation on the priority topics, refines the initiative strategy together with IWA leadership, engages new and existing participants to be active, and shapes the outputs that best support utilities in their transition to being ‘climate smart’.

Steering committee members further contribute diverse perspectives and utility experiences from across the world: Mr Xiaojun Felix Fan (Macao Water, China); Dr T Prabhushankar, IAS (Chennai Water, India); Ms Lara Olsen (South East Water, Australia); Mrs Jabulile Mashwama (Eswatini Water Services, Eswatini); Mr Alexandre Trevisan (CASAN, Brazil); Ms Paula Kehoe (San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, USA); Ms Regina Gnirss (Berliner Wasserbetriebe, Germany); Mr Joao Feliciano (AGS, Portugal).

Through the initiative and with the support of climate smart utility leaders, IWA can better support water and wastewater utilities on their climate smart journey and inspire all water professionals to embrace this change. A workshop on Climate Resilient Water Utilities is planned to take place at the 2021 IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition in Copenhagen. This workshop, co-convened with WaterAid and the World Health Organization, will highlight cases from across utilities where actions to adapt to climate impacts are being implemented which are also low energy and low carbon. l


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Kambiri Cox is Specialist Groups Officer and Katharine Cross is Strategic Programmes Manager with IWA.