What are the most critical water challenges in Singapore now and are they the same as in the rest of Asia-Pacific?
The demand for freshwater is soaring all over the world as supply is becoming more uncertain. However, the problem seems to be most acute in Asia-Pacific where many areas are significantly water-stressed, both in terms of water quantity and quality. This is mainly due to urbanisation and climate change but also because of the increased amount and sensitivity to micro-pollutants such as microplastic. We therefore need to use water sources that we normally wouldn’t think about using.
Could you give us an example?
Singapore Public Utilities Board (PUB) is leading regionally and globally in securing alternative water supplies. They have four sources: surface water, urban runoff, water reuse, and desalination. They realised early on that conventional surface water supplies would not be enough. They have achieved this with great success and others regionally and globally can learn from them.
What challenges does this situation pose to the market?
It is not that we lack water treatment technologies. We have had a lot of advanced technologies around for more than 20 years and we can easily treat any water and put all the energy and chemicals needed in to do it. But that would be neither sustainable nor cost-efficient, so we can’t afford to do that anymore. Thus, we need to push innovation forward and make sure that the technologies we are going to use in the future are much more efficient and sustainable than today.
Who should be responsible for driving this innovation?
We all should, and we should work much more together! All of us – utilities, technology providers, academic institutions, and consultancies – have important roles to play. It often starts with the utilities who need to be willing to test and invest in new technology. When doing that, they can benefit a lot from bringing in a consultancy that has tried to implement a particular technology in other places and therefore has the experience and knowledge needed about specific early technology issues.
A consultancy can also bring in independent academic experts with deep understanding of the technology. This is very important today where there are so many technologies on the market and so many claims being made! Many utilities do not have that integrated understanding when moving new technologies forward, but PUB in Singapore is very good at bringing the right parties together. This is one of the reasons why they are rather successful in technology investment and implementation.
Which advanced water treatment technologies are trending right now?
Let’s start with filtration, as this is the dominant way of purifying water worldwide. After having used sand filtration for many, many years, utilities around the world started using membranes, and the new big thing here is ceramic membranes. Where polymeric membranes can last from 3–11 years, ceramic membranes last indefinitely. This makes ceramic membranes a highly sustainable alternative as they rarely need to be replaced. And if they are replaced, it is still rather sustainable as the ceramic membrane material can be recycled.
Secondly, suspended ion exchange is another trend we need to be prepared for. Traditionally, we have relied on ‘coagulation’, but by using suspended ion exchange upfront, you remove the substances which are organics and make all the downstream processes, such as ozone, ultraviolet light, reverse osmoses, and hydrogen peroxide, operate much more economically and sustainably. We see that at a couple of plants as for example the Andijk III plant in the Netherlands, SouthWest Water in England, and the David L. Tippin Water Treatment Facility Tampa.
A third trend – or focus area that needs to become a real trend – is the pre-treatment part of desalination. As we, especially in Asia Pacific but also in other places, need to look more towards the sea as an important source of drinking water, we need to develop much more efficient and sustainable methods. So far, desalination has been a bit of a neglected child in the water treatment industry and we’ve only applied technologies that we’ve used for freshwater sources even though the chemistry of sea water is very different from freshwater. So, this is an area where we really need to get the ball rolling!
You talk a lot about utilising new water sources. What about water recycling and reuse?
We already have a lot of water recycling technologies and methods on the market, but the challenge here is that the industry in general is way too overcautious when it comes to reuse treated wastewater.
We want to remove everything from the water before we drink it, even though there are some rivers that are almost as polluted than the secondary effluent from a wastewater plant. The way wastewater is treated to be reused is really energy-intensive, and data show that we might be able to reduce the amount of treatment that we need for recycling. Water recycling is going to happen everywhere in the world, so we need to not overreact!
Finally, a bit about yourself. Why did you decide to join Ramboll?
I don’t see a consultancy working with water treatment that is doing so much within climate adaptation and sustainability that Ramboll is – and all there needs to be done within water treatment really needs to be done in that context. You just can’t do business as usual anymore, so Ramboll’s approach made this choice easy for me.
Jonathan Clement started as CTO of Advanced Drinking Water Treatment in Ramboll’s global water division, based in Singapore, in the beginning of 2022. He previously served as Global Technology and Business Development Officer leading the international business expansion for Nanostone Water. His focus included developing tailored offerings for the water treatment, municipal reuse, and seawater pretreatment markets that take full advantage of the unique properties and capabilities of Nanostone’s CM-151™ ceramic membrane product. Prior to that, he was Chief Executive Officer of PWN Technologies a subsidiary of PWN, a water supply company in the Netherlands. At PWNT he pioneered new systems with ceramic membranes and suspended ion exchange.
He has been ranked as one of the top 25 water leaders in the world. He is currently the chair of the IWA’s leading edge technology conference that will be held in Daegu Korea in May 2023. The conference will bring together top experts from around the world to bring together the most recent technological advancements in water.