Additional 8.56-bn cubic metres of wastewater a year needs to be treated

Global wastewater treatment capacity needs to increase annually by 8.56 billion cubic meters and investment in an additional 469 treatment facilities per year is required to meet United Nations (UN) goals. These are the findings of independent research commissioned by ABB ahead of World Water Day (WWD) on 22 March 2023.

22 Mar 2023 | By Rahul Kumar

With over 50,000 plants worldwide, 100 million tonnes of CO2 could be saved each year

As the UN prepares to report on progress made against its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), ABB’s research focuses on SDG 6.3 which aims to improve water quality by halving the proportion of untreated wastewater globally, increasing recycling, and minimising the release of hazardous materials. The UN says 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water, while more than 4.2 billion people lack safely managed sanitation.
However, treating wastewater is energy-intensive, with the industry consuming up to 3% of the world’s total energy output and contributing to over 1.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“This research proves more needs to be done to help support the UN goals and accelerate progress in tackling water scarcity,” said Brandon Spencer, president of ABB Energy Industries. “But we need to ensure we are achieving these wastewater treatment targets in the most energy and resource-efficient way possible to make it sustainable. This is where technology is key.”
While increasing wastewater treatment capacity is a priority, the early integration of technology to drive efficiency at plants is also vital. ABB’s automation, electrification and digital solutions are helping monitor, analyse and manage wastewater plant operations. In association with crucial measurement and control solutions, which collect and transmit a wealth of operational and diagnostic data, ABB systems help optimise resource efficiency and reduce energy consumption.
Development Economics, which has over 20 years of research experience, utilised the same data employed by the UN to assess what real-term measures are needed. Based on modelling using a 50-million-litre daily capacity wastewater treatment plant as the benchmark, a further 469 treatment facilities — the volume equivalent of 3.4 million Olympic swimming pools — is required each year.
The scale of the challenge linked to UN SDG 6.3 is highlighted in a report from 2021 assessing the volumes of wastewater collected, treated, and reused. The research, which is used by the UN, concludes that 48% or 171.3 billion cubic meters of wastewater are uncollected or untreated annually. To meet SDG 6.3 – which targets halving the proportion of untreated wastewater by 2030 – these figures need to be reduced to 24% and 85.65 billion cubic meters.
In 2022, ABB’s Energy Transition Equation report analysed how better use of wastewater could relieve pressure on water supplies through greater integration of automation and digital technologies:

  • Wastewater sites can reduce carbon emissions by up to 2,000 tonnes per annum
  • With over 50,000 plants worldwide, 100 million tonnes of CO2 could be saved each year
  • By applying a package of automation and digital solutions, water companies can reduce carbon emissions as well as deliver annual operational savings of up to USD 1.2-million per plant