[Skip to Content]

The hunt for the blue gold

It’s ironic but true. Planet Earth, 70 percent of which is covered in water, has entered an era where shortage of water is among the very greatest challenges. Trillions more cubic metres of clean water are needed every year in order to provide enough for everyone. Denmark has some of the solutions – and is seeking more

By Morten Andersen. Focus Denmark no. 1 2012

If the new water pipes being installed in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka over the next four years were laid end to end, they would stretch from Copenhagen to Rome – and then some. In total, the utility company Dhaka Water & Waste Water is installing 2,600 kilometres of pipes, with specialists from the Danish company Grontmij acting as consulting engineers.

With 12 million current inhabitants and many more arriving every day, Dhaka illustrates the challenges the whole world faces in the years ahead. According to the UN, the provision of clean water and the management of waste water are among the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Access to clean water is already a problem in many areas, and in 2030 the global demand for water will be 40 percent higher than it was in 2010, if the increase in world population and patterns of water consumption continue as projected.

This is a truly colossal challenge. But there are technologies which can solve the problem.

Massive investments

In Dhaka, Grontmij is preparing a master plan for managing the city’s waste water. The project is financed by the World Bank.

”This new project in Dhaka is one of three major water projects in Bangladesh, where investments of EUR 1.35 billion are being made in the renovation of drinking water systems and waste water management,” says water director Hans-Martin Friis Møller of Grontmij.

The two other projects are a new waterworks operated by the Dhaka utility which will supply six million customers with clean drinking water, and a total renovation of the entire city’s water supply network.

”In all three projects we are concentrating on introducing new technologies and solutions that the country’s own technicians can use going forwards. This will be achieved in collaboration with a number of Danish utility companies which will help to supply ”best practice” in the operation of utility systems – one of Denmark’s strong areas internationally,” says Møller.

A threat to mankind

Another Danish company, which solves water problems every day all over the world, is Grundfos. The company is especially known as a world-leading supplier of pumps, but it also supplies integrated solutions. For example, the city council in St. Petersburg, Russia, has entered a partnership with the company, as a result of which 1½ million cubic metres of waste water are dealt with every day by modern energy-efficient pumps.

”The pressure on the Earth’s water resources is increasing and represents a threat to mankind. It’s happening today, with more people dying due to lack of access to clean water than because of war or violence. And it will happen in the future due to increasing climate change with intense rainfall, and to population growth with increasing urbanisation, especially in Asia,” says Grundfos vice president Søren Ø. Sørensen.

He has high expectations of the forthcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development, dubbed Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Rio+20 name relates to the fact that the first UN Conference on Environment and Development was held 20 years ago in the same city.

Commercial co-responsibility

The Grundfos vice president emphasises however that the responsibility does not lie exclusively with the political establishment.

”The corporate sector has, and wants to have, coresponsibility for sustainable development. Danish companies have core competences in water management, and this gives them a unique opportunity to help solve the problems,” says Sørensen.

Grundfos has thought about how it can create a sustainable business on the one hand, and help create access to clean water for as many people as possible on the other.

”We have found a range of answers, including decentralised access to water in the poorest parts of the world, technologies that minimise water losses in the world’s largest cities by up to 50 percent, and efficient waste water management – both centralised and decentralised. These technological solutions are already helping to improve the lives of millions of people – but the technological opportunities and the needs are even greater,” says Sørensen.

Many of the solutions which Danish companies are implementing around the world, have been developed at home. Summer visitors to the Danish capital are sure to notice that harbour bathing is a very popular pastime with Copenhageners, who enjoy being able to take a refreshing dip in the very centre of the city.

”It is naturally a great benefit for the capital’s citizens, and there’s also a lot of complex technology behind it,” says Jørn Jespersen, director of Dansk Miljøteknologi, an association of Danish environmental technology companies.

The biggest threat to water quality in Copenhagen harbour is that it rains a lot in Denmark. As a result, the sewers can overflow and waste water can spill into the harbour.

”Radar-based measurements give a few hours advance warning of where rain will fall. The information is processed using mathematical software to provide a predictive model of where the precipitation will run. This starts an ingenious process where pumps are started at various locations to reduce the water level in some places, while in others the sluices are opened to allow water to run in and raise the water level. In this way the combined capacity of the sewers and waste water plants are optimised to prevent waste water spilling into the harbour,” explains Jespersen.

For the record, the director adds that circumstances can still occur where the authorities warn citizens against bathing in the harbour.

vandværk

Denmark’s opportunities

The mathematical software that is used to model the distribution of rainfall has been developed by DHI Group, a world-leading supplier in the area. The company currently has an export share of 75 percent, and around 60 percent of its 1,000 staff work outside Denmark.

”Water is one of the 21st century’s biggest challenges. The problems can be succinctly expressed as ’dirty water, too little water and too much water’,” says DHI’s development director Jørn Rasmussen.

”The world needs clean drinking water, water for food production, water for industrial production and water for recreational use, and it needs to safeguard water and ecosystems. We must adapt to climate change, which in the first instance will affect us in ways that involve water.”
DHI Group is an independent non-profit institution. Depending on the nature of the task, it collaborates with many other players in the Danish water sector. Rasmussen has a clear idea of what the Danish companies can especially offer:

”I think that Denmark’s opportunities on the international market won’t be found in standard solutions, but rather in a combination of cutting-edge technologies and system solutions.”He lists four areas where the Danish water sector can make a big difference in an international context.
The first is cutting-edge technologies in water saving and advanced water management and water purification, the latter comprising oxidation methods, membrane technology, and separation and purification technology for recycling of industrial resources. To this can be added energy-producing waste water treatment, where sludge is used to produce biogas.

The second area is measurement technology, including monitoring of rainfall using radar and online sensors, and measurement devices that can detect traces of organic pollutants and pathogenic microorganisms.

The third area is system solutions for managing water in cities, in industry and in agriculture, which combine Danish competences in processes and equipment with online measurements and software.

The fourth area is the management of water:

”The Danish water sector has strong competences in tools that combine technology, economics and the involvement of different interests in the decision process. This allows rational decisions to be taken despite the fact that climate change and the general pressure on water resources involves great uncertainty,” says Rasmussen.

Problems still to be solved

Although DHI Group’s development director is beating the drum for the Danish water sector’s competences, he warns against forming the impression that all the problems have been solved in Denmark.

”Denmark’s water supplies are almost exclusively obtained from groundwater, but today groundwater is a threatened resource. This is partly because of pollution with pesticides, and partly because demand in some places is greater than can be locally produced. At the same time we have a large backlog – which we also share with the rest of the western world – with maintenance of extraction plants and wastewater treatment plants,” says Rasmussen.

He also mentions growing problems with flooding as a result of climate change:

”Damage caused by rain storms in 2006, 2007, 2010 and 2011 has cost insurance companies vast sums of money. And we are also lagging behind in implementing the EU Water Framework Directive. The water quality in streams, lakes, fjords and coastal areas falls far below the requirements that have been laid down.”

At Dansk Miljøteknologi, Jørn Jespersen agrees that there are still challenges to deal with regarding Denmark’s water supplies, but cautions:

”It can hardly be different. Denmark is a small, densely populated country with intensive cultivation in the agricultural sector. I choose to look at it this way – because we encounter such great challenges, we have been forced to find good ways of tackling them.”

Did you know?

The world’s total water consumption is 4.5 trillion cubic metres per year. The UN estimates that consumption will have increased to 7 trillion cubic metres per year by 2030.

The extra 2.5 trillion cubic metres of water that the world will demand in 2030 equates to the volume of 20 rivers of the size of the River Nile.

Only 40 percent of this extra 2.5 trillion cubic metres will be obtained using existing methods.

According to the UN, there are 1.2 billion people living in areas with a physical lack of water, making water a factor that limits societal development in these areas.

81 percent of the world’s countries have changed their laws relating to water in response to ”Agenda 21”, a UN plan for sustainable development in the 21st century.

64 percent of the world’s countries have prepared plans aimed at integrating water supplies, waste water management and more efficient use of water resources.

34 percent of the world’s countries are, according to their own information supplied to the UN, well advanced with implementing plans to integrate the use of water resources.