Applying the Circular Economy Lens to Water

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Author: Nick Jeffries | Published: January 26, 2017 

Water is in many ways a poster child for circularity. For the last 3.8 billion years, the earth’s stock of water, a constant 1.4 billion km3, has continuously circulated through the many stages and processes of the hydrological cycle, powered by the energy of the sun. In the last hundred or so years, a blink of an eye in planetary time, human activities have started to disrupt this well-tuned circularity in ways that risk our future prosperity as well as the health of the planet.

Water is a remarkable substance. Its apparent simplicity belies its raft of peculiar properties, many of which are crucial to life on earth. These idiosyncrasies include the fact that its solid state – ice – floats on its own melt (insulating any life beneath it); its boiling point is much higher than similar hydrogen compounds (so it exists at a liquid within a temperature range ideal for life); and it dissolves more substances and stores more energy than any other liquid (making it an extremely useful medium for many of life’s processes). Water’s strangeness not only supports the processes of life, but is a major constituent of it – a new born child is 75% water. Perhaps oddest of all, water in its purest form (two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen) is hypertonic: if imbibed, it will strip the water out of your cells and could kill you.


We live on a blue planet, but most water is not in a form or a place that can fulfil easily the basic needs of humankind. The great majority of it is seawater – only about 2.5% is freshwater and most of this is out of reach, locked up in icecaps, glaciers or deep underground. The actual percentage easily accessible to us is more like 0.007%. Luckily, this is a small fraction of a very large number, so there is in fact more than enough volume to meet the needs of the human population. The challenge lies in managing this water well.

In many areas of the world this challenge is not being sufficiently met leading to a multiplicity of lost opportunities and negative impacts. These consequences inevitably become more severe as the level of economic development reduces.

In 2014, a drought in California led to the loss of 17, 000 part-time or seasonal jobs and $2.2billion in agricultural revenue. In the UK, leakages from the water network is equivalent to 20% of the nation’s water supply or 21.5 million people, thereby increasing the cost of providing water. During a recent dry period in Sao Paolo, low rainfall and polluted reservoirs meant daily shut-offs to urban water supply, electricity prices to rise by 80% and businesses to scale down or even close. In China, a major problem relates to the contamination of surface water and groundwater by industrial effluent, driving water scarcity and creating a significant public health risk. It is estimated that 11% of cases of cancer of the digestive system may be attributable to polluted water.

However it is the poor who suffer the most extreme consequences of inadequate water resources. In many African countries, people must walk for many hours each day to fetch water from sources that are often contaminated. This task often falls to women who are vulnerable to attack, or to children compromising their education. Poor quality water causes illness, leading to a loss of work productivity and requiring expensive treatment. Worse still, according to the UN, water or waterborne diseases lead to the deaths of over 3.4 million people per year, the majority of these deaths are children under the age of five. The rising severity of consequences as economic level falls offers a good illustration of the paradox: the poorer you are the more you pay for things, relatively speaking.

Considering all of this it is easy to understand why the World Economic Forum cites “a global water” crisis as the biggest threat facing mankind in the next century.

Therefore we should ask whether the circular economy, a new framework for thinking about the economy that has already helped identify potential solutions to other big global resource challenges, could contribute to creating a better relationship between people and water: one that is resilient, regenerative, and works in the long term.


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