Given the widely acknowledged need for water treatment, we would expect the industry to attract a constant stream of innovations that improve the quality of the service provided, the efficient use of resources, and the welfare of the individual or community.
However, the large scale and long time horizon of these systems significantly reduce the opportunities for new technologies and processes that could achieve these improvements because there are too many perceived risks—financial, technical, system, and organizational—associated with introducing change into these systems.
Third, the parallel operations of the local systems eliminate the constraint of continuous operations, making it safer and easier to take a unit off-line for repair, replacement, or upgrades.
While the addition of multiple smaller-scale units may entail additional training and the acquisition of expertise by the operating agency, the organization can take advantage of economies of scope, whereby similar functions can be performed across a geographically distributed area, with the costs reducing as the number of similar units increases.
The World Bank, the World Health Organization, USAID, and other organizations are funding specific programs to develop and utilize on-site systems, such as the World Bank projects in Pernambuco, Brazil, to design and implement localized residential and industrial water treatment systems—particularly to handle wastewater, reduce environmental impact, and improve local water resource quality.
The increasing attention to localized water treatment systems can strongly encourage the development and diffusion of innovations in several ways.
At the same time, these approaches deter conservation and preservation.
As human demand for water resources increases, natural systems are increasingly vulnerable to long-term and potentially catastrophic shortages of water necessary to sustain human life and our planet’s ecosystems.The treatment of large flows of water does not always adequately target small concentrations of contaminants from a specific source or condition that can, nonetheless, have significant human health or environmental impacts.In addition, a centralized system often depends upon water brought in from an adjacent watershed but disposed of in a different watershed or ocean, thereby decreasing the capacity and resiliency of the natural systems at the water source.Communities that cannot afford the large initial investment or subsidize the water treatment cost may leave major portions of their populations only partially covered—or not covered—by this critical infrastructure service.In addition, the large scale of these centralized water systems may impede quality improvements.Only by changing our methods of water-treatment system procurement and management can we deliver equitable access to potable water.