“Too much water, and not enough of it”

These two sides to the global water crisis reflect the uneven distribution of the precious resource across the globe, but Ulrik Gernow, Grundfos’ group executive vice-president and COO says dialogue through digitalisation, collaborative efforts and the circularity approach can restore balance.

By Amira Yunos

Ulrik Gernow, group executive vice-president and COO of Grundfos

What water crises need to be addressed urgently?

Ulrik Gernow: Water and climate change are interlinked, and that has led to two sides to the global water crisis — too much water, and not enough of it.

On one hand, countries around the world are experiencing extreme weather events such as flooding because of climate change. This year alone, catastrophic floods have hit Pakistan, impacting a third of the country; Australia’s southeast has experienced some of the nation’s worst recorded flood disasters, while heavy monsoon rains have also affected about 450,000 homes and more than 100,000 hectares of farmland in Thailand.

On the other hand, water is a scarce and rapidly depleting resource. Demand for water is soaring alongside population growth and economic development. The situation is particularly acute in Asia, where up to 3.4 billion people could be living in water-stressed environments in Asia by 2050.

Water demand is forecasted to increase by 55% by 2030 as more cities in Asia urbanise and populations increase.

Coupled with challenges such as increasing droughts globally, water pollution, and ageing water infrastructure that subsequently leads to water loss within the system, also known as non-revenue water. This means we are losing more of the precious resource.

This is further exacerbated by our continued linear approach with regards to water use. In the linear approach, water withdrawn from natural water bodies or harvested from rainwater is used and then disposed, treated or untreated, into waterways that flow into the ocean eventually.

I believe this consumption model of ‘take, make, consume, and waste’ is unsustainable, and has contributed significantly to the current water crises we are facing, as it has led to a strain on our finite water resources in addition to generating waste and causing environmental degradation.

We see it more crucial than ever to shift our approach to water use to a higher level of circularity and reuse.

In your opinion, how prepared is the global water and wastewater industry in mitigating these water crises?

Gernow: I am encouraged to see that the water and wastewater industries are acknowledging this and acting purposefully to take increased responsibility. Further, companies continuously innovate and incorporate new technologies including artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), and big data, which have contributed to the sectors’ preparedness to tackle ongoing water crises.

Grundfos’ digital dosing pumps ensure accuracy in addition of chemicals to treat water and prevent contamination

At Grundfos, we are leveraging innovations such as intuitive and intelligent dosing pumps to maximise the efficiency and reliability of dosing equipment, allowing us to get the most out of the water we have used by harnessing it repeatedly.

Additionally, cognisant that organisations cannot work in silos and collaboration is critical to the success of solutions aimed at mitigating water crises, industry players are increasingly leveraging partnerships with customers and end-users to tap on synergies in R&D as well as the exchange of best practices.

Grundfos works with manufacturers to reduce resource consumption in industrial processes. As part of a network of consultants, universities, and technology providers, Grundfos supports Carlsberg’s total water management treatment plant in Fredericia, Denmark with optimal pumps and dosing systems, enabling the plant to recycle up to 90% of its process water.

Grundfos dosing systems are found both inside and outside of the Carlsberg total water management plant

Grundfos also partnered with Arla Foods to achieve substantial reductions in energy use, emissions and costs at its Westbury dairy site in the UK by delivering a turnkey end-to-end system for chilled and ice water featuring intelligent pumps and controls. The new system helped the site attain savings per year of 481,800kWh energy and 194 tonnes of CO2, with a return on investment of less than two years.

How does water circularity mitigate the water crises?

Circularity in product lifecycle

Gernow: Integrating circularity into the way we approach water is integral to ensuring sustainable water management. By transitioning to a circular economy for water, we reduce water consumption, reuse and recycle water and wastewater, and recover materials such as minerals and nutrients from water and wastewater, which contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. This helps diversify our water supply and enhance our resilience to the threat of water insecurity.

It is crucial for the water and wastewater industry to embed circular principles throughout its business to tackle such water crises. Circularity focuses on designing waste out of the resource ecosystem and maximising the value of resources by keeping them in use for as long as possible.

Water reuse is a big part of circularity. By ensuring wastewater is effectively treated to a quality that makes it possible to feed back into our water cycles, it allows water to be saved in times of scarcity. Water treatment solutions are capable of empowering companies to reuse their wastewater, reduce costs, and do their part to ensure that our natural water sources are not unnecessarily exploited.

How does digitalisation contribute to better water circular practices?

Gernow: Through digitalisation, we can approach water use more strategically. Traditionally, humanity’s relationship with the water system has been a one-way process, moving water from supply to demand. Now, new digital innovations are able turn this relationship into a dialogue — by retrieving feedback throughout the process. At Grundfos, we innovate across the water cycle and apply digital technologies with the aim to improve water circularity and efficiency.

Grundfos Utility Analytics software strengthens a water utility’s ability to monitor, diagnose, predict, and plan for responses to leaks and bursts by providing real-time data and insights into network behaviour

For instance, real-time sensors and data analytics are increasingly used globally to conduct pre-emptive and predictive maintenance of the entire water system. These intuitive technologies help to enhance sustainable operations and resiliency of infrastructure, ensuring that water is used and managed optimally by preventing wastage of resources and energy.

What are the benefits and challenges of transitioning to a water circular model, and what advice do you have for companies who encounter such challenges?

Gernow: Besides the environmental value generated by a water circular model, the business case of transitioning to a circular economy for water is clear. Embedding circularity allows businesses to improve efficiency and sustainability, reduce water and energy consumption and increase the reuse of resources, which in turn helps to cut down on operation costs. This enables companies to create more value while reducing their dependency on the dwindling and costly resource of water.

The key challenge for water industries to adopt a circular model has moved beyond convincing them ‘why’. It is now understanding ‘how’ — while businesses are clear that operating sustainably is no longer a ‘nice to have’, the next step is raising greater awareness and education on how circular principles are key areas of consideration for businesses when embarking their sustainability journey.

Going green is undeniably a big task. For businesses that do not know where to start, tap on relationships with aligned partners within the industry and both the public and private sectors to benefit the trajectory of the circular water system.

Such strategic partnerships can help businesses understand the complexity of shifting to a circular model, come up with solutions more quickly, and capture the best value out of the circular transition. At Grundfos, our ambition is to help industries globally to save water and energy, thereby reducing climate footprint, while proving such solutions are financially attractive through a total cost of ownership valuation. These solutions exist today, and at Grundfos we work with industries to apply them.  

What does water circularity mean to Grundfos?

Gernow: Sustainability is part of Grundfos’ DNA. We recently became the first organisation in the water solutions sector validated for our 2050 net-zero target by the science-based targets initiative (SBTi), a climate action organisation that enables companies to set greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets grounded in science. SBTi also validated Grundfos’ near-term 2030 emission reduction targets.

In addition to our emissions reduction target, we also aim to transition to a circular economy for water by making sure that we use water resources efficiently, while increasing reuse.

First, we aim to optimise solutions for our customers at every stage of the operational water cycle, including water intake, water consumption, water treatment, water reuse and water replenishment. One of our goals is to save 50 billion m3 of water by 2030 through the development and installation of water efficient and water reuse solutions. We also aim to ensure year-on-year reduction of our own water withdrawal; having now halved our own water consumption by 50%.

For instance, we built a wastewater treatment and recycling system in our factory in Bjerringbro, Denmark to recycle water used for cathodic electrodeposition (CED). The system sends wastewater through a three-filtration system, then to a Grundfos reverse osmosis unit, before the purified water is returned to the CED tanks. We believe that used water is a resource that can be reused when it is treated and can be looped back into production — thereby closing the water circuit and capturing the full value of water.

CED wastewater treatment and recycling system in Grundfos’ factory in Bjerringbro, Denmark, which enables water reuse

Second, we strive to save energy through smarter pump and water treatment solutions. Traditionally, massive amounts of energy are required to move and treat water. We believe that this can and must be done more efficiently through our pump solutions such as speed-regulated pumps and highest energy efficient motors which allows us to reduce our carbon emissions.

Finally, beyond addressing our carbon footprint by being a water steward, tackling our vast use of resources is equally important. As manufacturers, we have the responsibility to ensure that every step of the product lifecycle promotes reuse, repair, remanufacturing, and recycling.

We are in a process to reduce our global footprint by enabling a wider green supply chain and continue to explore how to embed circular principles throughout our business to reduce impact on the planet.