Lessons learnt during Covid 19 pandemic can help us tackle climate change issues

As we are entering Week 6 of the lockdown here in the Netherlands, I find that my prevailing emotions of the moment are gratitude and pride. I am grateful that my family has not been affected by the coronavirus, and proud of my sister, who works in healthcare and is helping to keep the most vulnerable people in our society safe. I am grateful that I get to contribute by continuing to deliver knowledge and expertise on water quality monitoring for the water industry. It keeps me busy and leaves no time to fret about being cooped up at home. At the same time, I am super proud of the countless operators and other staff who keep our water utilities running under these unusual circumstances. Life at home would be so much more difficult without running water to shower, flush the toilet, or – very importantly – wash our hands regularly.

When it comes to expressing our gratitude, we rightfully think first of all the healthcare workers risking their lives at hospitals and care homes to fight this disease. But, as I stated in our previous newsletter, water utility staff also deserve a huge thank you. The fact that we hear little or nothing about (drinking) water in these unprecedented times is essentially a good sign, and an indicator of the continued seamless provision of drinking water and processing of wastewater. But that does not mean that it is business as usual for the water utilities. With our new routine of staying at home, our water use patterns have been scrambled, and drinking water use in the Netherlands has increased by 7%. So, while water utilities have had to reduce the number of staff working at treatment plants and take measures to minimise risks for staff out and about, production has had to step up its efforts to meet the increased demand.

The good news is that currently, there is no immediate concern for our water quality. But this does not mean we can all sit back and relax. A Dutch water utility warns that the risk of Legionella outbreaks has increased as a result of the current measures to curb the virus outbreak. With restaurants, bars, sports facilities, etc. closed, we have inadvertently created a massive increase in dead-ends of drinking water pipelines, where Legionella bacteria can proliferate. When we start talking about easing the lockdown measures and making efforts to establish an “anderhalve-meter-economie” (which loosely translates as “6-feet-distance-economy”), we thus also need clever flushing strategies to ensure the coronavirus outbreak is not followed by a Legionella outbreak.

Unfortunately, we currently do not have many online, automated detection technologies available which could provide us with real-time data on Legionella densities in drinking water distribution networks. The ongoing development of handheld and benchtop instruments, however, looks promising, and such technologies may come in handy in this situation, especially if these are able to detect Legionella pneumophila specifically, and distinguish viable from non-viable cells. Therefore, Sensileau and BlueTech Research are joining forces to identify available technologies, their performance characteristics, and unmet needs in this area. We will keep you updated on our progress and findings.

Legionella bacteria

Paul O’Callaghan, CEO of BlueTech Research, also sees an increased role of digitisation and automated systems in his Linked-in column ‘Seeking Anti-fragility in a Black Swan event – strategies for the water sector’. He points out that water innovation is often crisis-driven, and thus, this seems to be an excellent time to adopt new technologies and strategies. Sensor technologies are indispensable in this respect. Despite the fact that up to 40% of the regular sampling and monitoring programmes for drinking water have been cancelled in order to minimise health risks for utility and laboratory staff, utilities with remote control options can still rely on their sensors to provide them with essential water quality data and information on control parameters. Critical control parameters, such as pH, are measured in triplicate, with at least two instruments having to show results within the same bandwidth in order for the result to be classified as reliable. This enables the utilities to continue to ensure drinking water quality for consumers and buys the skeleton crews at the water treatment plants some time to replace or repair any faulty equipment.

Under normal circumstances, utility staff have very little time to take a helicopter view of daily operations, but working from home literally provides the opportunity to take a step back and look at the entire process from a distance. This ‘stress-test’ for remote operations using sensor technologies offers numerous options to assess what works and identify (critical) gaps in the collection of actionable data. In order to facilitate this learning process, Sensileau is developing a step-by-step guide to carry out such an evaluation, both for drinking water and wastewater utilities. Additionally, Sensileau is going to present post-Covid 19 optimisation tools during an upcoming webinar, co-organised by wastewatereducation.org. Despite the terrible consequences of this worldwide virus outbreak, it also offers us the possibility to learn essential lessons about the automation process in the water industry and enables us to make the necessary improvements for the future which will inevitably bring many more challenges.

One such challenge, which seems to have taken a backseat during this pandemic, is climate change. For some time, climate experts as well as school kids have pointed out the lack of a sense of urgency when it comes to taking climate action. In his article in Smart Water Magazine, Jan Krejcik of DHI points out that, currently, data collected at wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) is not necessarily used to support actionable insights in real-time. Conventional measures to handle increased demands for wastewater processing are not only very costly, but also likely to lead to higher energy consumption. Krejcik’s solution to ‘go digital’ and optimise WWTPs with the help of digital solutions (including sensor technologies) will not only lead to more stable and robust treatment under variable conditions (such as those experienced during the pandemic), but will also contribute significantly to a reduction of energy and chemicals consumption, thus helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. If it takes a crisis to beat another crisis, we should take that opportunity with both hands, and make sure we are (even) better prepared for the next challenge that lies ahead.