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Billions of cubic metres of wastewater must be treated to meet United Nations’ goals

UN to make its report on progress made to meet sustainable development goals

March 21, 2023  By Ground Water Canada

Zurich, Switzerland – An additional 8.56 billion cubic metres of wastewater a year must be treated to meet United Nations goals, according to ABB, a technology leader in electrification and automation.

Additionally, 469 treatment facilities per year are required to meet UN goals. These are the findings of independent research commissioned by ABB ahead of World Water Day (WWD) on March 22.

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 minimizing 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 three per cent of the world’s total energy output and contributing to more than 1.5 per cent 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,” Brandon Spencer, president of ABB Energy Industries, said. “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, analyze 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 optimize resource efficiency and reduce energy consumption.

Development Economics, which has more than 20 years’ research experience, utilized 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 per cent or 171.3 billion cubic metres of wastewater is 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 per cent and 85.65 billion cubic metres.

In 2022, ABB’s Energy Transition Equation report analyzed 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 tons per annum
  • With more than 50,000 plants worldwide, 100 million tons 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 $1.2 million per plant

In Canada:

  • Canada has one-fifth of the world’s freshwater
  • Despite this, indigenous First Nations communities have suffered and some still do not  have reliable access to safe drinking water with advisories in place.
  • There are still 34 long-term drinking water advisories on reserves including some that have been in place for more than 25 years.
  • A single drinking water advisory can mean as many as 5,000 people lack access to safe, clean drinking water
  • There is also a deficit in funding for the maintenance and operation of drinking water systems on reserves, which the Parliamentary Budget Officer identified as amounting to $138 million per year.
  • 73 per cent of First Nations‘ water systems are at high or medium risk of contamination

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