on March 14th, 2023

The role of engineering in sustainable water management becomes more critical as concerns about the long-term availability of water supplies, utility rates of water, stormwater collection, and wastewater treatment are expected to increase.

Water and its long-term availability and the environmental effects of stormwater collection and wastewater treatment have been receiving increasing attention recently. But this is not a new concern considering that the United Nations has, since 1993, declared the 22nd of March as World Water Day.

This year, the UN observance focuses on accelerating change to solve the water and sanitation crisis. Under the theme “Be the Change You Want to See In The World,” the global campaign encourages people to act in their own lives to change how they use, consume, and manage water.

However, it is more than just the general population sitting up and taking notice these days; building owners are increasingly interested in reducing their water use. Their worries are driven by uncertainty about the long-term availability of water supplies and the realization that stormwater collection, wastewater treatment, and water utility rates have increased significantly in the last few decades and will do the same.

Engineers share those concerns and are looking to improve tools employed in their designs that will help reduce water use. Creating a project’s water balance (water accounting) is of great value in establishing ambitious, achievable goals for a project’s water use reduction and reuse. This can be done conceptually at the start of the design process and enhanced through detail and modeling, advancing reliability as the design progresses.

However, while engineers are stepping up to the plate and creating innovative solutions to many of the water crises, there still needs to be concern about the solutions and their effect on the environment. This has led environmentalists and water engineering experts to call for more sustainable and earth-conscious interventions.

An Image of the Earth surrounded by a droplet of water as a representation of World Water Day
Water is an important and precious resource. Source: Adobe

Taking The Environment into Consideration

In their working paper titled: “Role of engineering in sustainable water management,” USA-based Professor of Civil Engineering Balázs M Fekete and his colleague János J Bogárdia, professor of water resources, agree that engineering solutions to address water management challenges is crucial in our times, but stress a need for green solutions.

Highlighting that solutions to address water management challenges played significant roles in the past, the professors said the need for these solutions is growing but has raised concerns about their effect on the environment. Engineering solutions to address water management challenges played significant roles in areas such as access to clean water and sanitation, providing water for irrigation, offering protection against floods, allowing power generation, etc.

“Despite their proven benefits, engineering solutions are receiving increasing criticism because of their negative environmental and societal effects and the high cost of their implementation and operation,” said Professors Fekete and Bogárdia in their paper. They said they often advocate more reliance on ecosystem services as an alternative means to achieve more sustainable water management solutions.

With this in mind, their paper examines critical water services that human societies rely on and the workable roles that ecosystems can play instead of engineering solutions. The paper applies the “balanced triangle” of the planetary (abiotic), ecosystems (biotic), and human societal (anthropic) resources and assets as a basis for evaluating different water management strategies.

The paper aims to offer guidance for finding a better balance in deploying ecosystem-based and engineering solutions together with satisfying the needs of human societies while minimizing the effects on the ecosystems.

Engineering The Future of Water Use

Water engineering has a long history of serving human needs and is essential for civilized life. Although only a minority of humankind enjoys the full benefits of piped water, decent sanitation, irrigated agriculture-supported food security, or flood protection, ultimately, one would hope that access to these services will be the norm for many people.

Increasingly, businesses like Affiliated Engineers, Inc. (AEI) are heading the urgency and messaging of World Water Day and are providing engineering leadership for complex projects supporting clients who improve lives and protect the future.

“It [World Water Day] is a day to focus attention on the importance of water. This year’s theme is Nature for Water –exploring nature-based solutions to the water challenges we face in the 21st century. A similar theme Affiliated Engineers takes while planning, designing, and commissioning projects,” the firm said on its website recently.

In recognition of the value of water accounting to green design, in 2017, the US Green Building Council introduced the LEED Pilot Credit: Whole Project Water Use Reduction. LEED provides a framework for healthy, efficient, carbon and cost-saving green buildings. LEED certification is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement, and an entire industry of committed organizations and individuals backed it, paving the way for market transformation.

“At Affiliated Engineers, we embrace this LEED innovation and standard as symbolic of the design industry’s direction. We identify the practice of generating building water balances as potentially transforming expectations and decimating the volumes of water used in buildings.”

Modern water treatment plants are state of the art engineering facilities. Source: Adobe Stock

They said that because AEI contributed to the development of both instruments, we know that much effort is needed by an alliance of design disciplines to take the following steps.

Also, in 2017, they released the ASHRAE 191P Standard for the Efficient Use of Water in Building Mechanical Systems for public review. Among stipulations, the standard mandates that projects develop a water balance.

The Way Forward for Engineering Solutions

While ecosystem services might play a role in complementing engineering infrastructures, experts and engineering firms agree that the dominant means to provide a comfortable living environment for humans, especially in the ever-growing urban settlements, will rest on the continued use of engineering.

Heavy reliance on ecosystem services is clearly not an option, as the history of engineering shows, since the need for engineering demonstrably rose to bypass ecosystem services that could not keep up with the requirements of increasing populations.

They often accused engineers of being driven by the desire “to pour more concrete on the problem.” Still, engineering works are dominantly a response to ecosystem services’ inability to scale up to meet human needs for a comfortable living space.

World Water Day: Engineering With Nature-Based Solutions
Role of engineering in sustainable water management
Whole Project Water Use Reduction
LEED-certified green buildings are better buildings

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