Water supply and treatment amid the pandemic

Water supply and treatment amid the pandemic

By Ziya Erdem and Jitendra Deviputra

Currently, with the world facing the global pandemic situation of COVID-19, various organizations like KWR Watercycle Research Institute in the Netherlands and the US Environmental Protection Agency are working to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19 through water. 

Since early February 2020, KWR researchers have been monitoring wastewater treatment plants in the Netherlands in order to detect COVID-19 RNA. Researchers are examining water samples focusing on fragments of multiple genes to assess the presence of the virus.   

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been given, and the EPA is providing important information about COVID-19 relating to drinking water and wastewater. The COVID-19 virus has not been detected in drinking water supplies. Based on current evidence, the risk of contamination of drinking water is low but still a possibility. 

Lifespan and transmission of COVID-19:

Some concerns regarding COVID -19 include the long half-life of the virus in waste containers and bags as well as in wastewater itself and possible transmission via contaminated waste surfaces and aerosols from wastewater systems. At the same time, there are opportunities to further the science of wastewater-based epidemiology by monitoring viral RNA in wastewater to assess disease prevalence and spread in defined populations, which may prove beneficial for public health policy regarding COVID-19.

Table: Lifespan of SARS-CoV-2 in the environment

Medium/SurfaceLifespan of SARS-CoV-2
Aerosols3 hours
Copper4 hours
Cardboard24 hours
Stainless steel2-3 days
Plastic3 days
Sewage3 days
Solid Feces3-4 days

Can tracking wastewater serve as an early warning sign?

Recent studies in Australia, France, the Netherlands and the United States report that the RNA of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 was detected in wastewater. RNA analysis is a method to measure the presence of viruses through capturing virus particles and detecting specific gene fragments. Tracking wastewater for the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 can serve as an early warning system to alert the public health community. Coronavirus in sewage portended the COVID-19 outbreak in the Dutch city of Amersfoort. Monitoring wastewater could be the key to tracking the spread of coronavirus and warning of future outbreaks.

The impact of COVID-19 on the water sector:

The global COVID-19 pandemic has impacted lives and disrupted businesses worldwide, including the water sector. For all of the companies within the space there are two main challenges:

  • Protecting personnel, manufacturing and supply chains, and continuity of services 
  • Dealing with a potentially significant pause or decline in investment and demand

The industrial sector demand for water solutions is expected to be more conservative, and spending may fall roughly in line with the reduction in industrial output. Capital expenditure is likely to see a pause or decline. Capital expenditure on water and wastewater systems is typically driven by two basic needs: 

  1. Expansion of treatment capacity to provide additional volumes of water and/or wastewater treatment 
  2. Replacing ageing assets and/or installing upgrades for better quality and consistency of water and wastewater treatment 

In uncertain times industrial and commercial companies are expected to conserve cash and defer capital expenditure, and  many companies — particularly smaller businesses with lower cash reserves — are likely to pause capital projects. 

On the operational side, digitally mature utility companies that have already invested in remote monitoring and digital asset management will see immediate benefits. The shift to a telecommuting model will have less impact on daily operations, with efficient remote management and automation. Despite digital acceleration, a significant proportion of utility workforces need to perform functions on site, and these employees account for more than 70% of industry personnel who are at greater risk of coronavirus exposure. 

Two impacts involving clients and community are water bill affordability, which was a major challenge for water utilities even before the pandemic, and communication (e.g., educating people on the use of disposable wipes, which have caused operational problems such as sewer blockages). In the United States, more than 100 utilities in over 30 states have agreed to halt the practice of cutting off water to homes that fail to pay their water bills; however, it is questionable how long this can be sustained.

The water sector responds — Three case studies:

Three major players in the space — Suez, Evoqua, and Xylem — have made a series of changes to make service supply consistent and optimal. 

SUEZ Environnement S.A.

SUEZ Environnement S.A. was founded in 2000 and is headquartered in Paris. The company provides water treatment, water management, recycling, waste recovery, and consulting services. This includes water treatment and distribution services, waste collection and treatment services (sorting, recycling, composting, energy recovery, and landfilling) for hazardous and nonhazardous waste, and engineering services to individuals, local authorities, and industrial clients.

Evoqua Water Technologies

Evoqua Water Technologies Corporation was founded in 2013 and is headquartered in Pittsburgh. The company is engaged in the designing, developing, and manufacturing of water and wastewater treatment systems. It operates through various segments, including food and beverage, life sciences, marine, mining, power, semiconductor and solar, drinking water and municipal wastewater treatment, and the industrial, institutional, and aquatics sectors. The company has geographical presence in Europe, North America, Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa, and Latin America.

Xylem Inc

Xylem Inc. was founded in 2011 and is headquartered in Rye Brook, New York. The company is engaged in the design, manufacture, and service of engineered solutions for water and wastewater applications. It has geographical presence in Europe, North America, Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa, and Latin America. 

Since the emergence of COVID-19, all three companies have been taking action globally to mitigate the virus’s impact on their personnel, customers, and communities. In the long run, other solutions such as leveraging innovation for better efficiency and insight-driven solutions to optimize billing rates and structures can be implemented to further alleviate the negative impact the pandemic has had on both clients and service providers.

Emergency contingency plans to keep operations running:

To fulfill one of the main priorities of keeping employees safe, healthy, and operational while ensuring that clients do not suffer any service disruptions, the companies have taken a number of steps to ensure that they meet their objectives. These action plans are revisited as the situation evolves. Some of these are:

  • Comprehensive crisis management and business continuity plans (BCP) that cover multiple scenarios throughout their own business and supply chain 
  • A crisis management team in place that monitors the situation globally 
  • Taking specific steps to safeguard manufacturing facilities and other major sites, including: 
    • Implementing strict travel, visitor, and meeting restrictions
    • Sending home all nonessential workers and segregating teams to ensure that business-critical crews do not come into contact with one another
    • Enforcing 14-day quarantines for any employees who have symptoms or been exposed to the virus. Test routinely, if possible.
    • Conducting a thorough risk analysis of their global supply chain and logistics and identifying where alternative suppliers or alternative products are necessary and/or where they need to maintain emergency inventory

In the countries in which they operate, water and waste treatment solutions are a critical public service. Necessary measures have been taken to ensure service continuity:

  • Continuity plans are being implemented in every country affected by the pandemic to cover the treatment and distribution of drinking water, wastewater sanitation, waste collection and treatment, and industrial services. 
  • Maintaining regular internal communications with employees to remind them of the preventive hygiene measures that must be adopted (handwashing, etc.) as well as implementing measures to enable teleworking and team rotations where necessary
  • All noncritical business has been postponed, as has some maintenance work. Certain operational activities, such as home meter readings and customer services, are provided electronically. 

Actions taken for safety and continuity of essential services:

What impact does the COVID-19 virus have on services?

  • Drinking water: Similar to other viruses, COVID-19 does not resist the disinfection processes (chlorine, UV, ozone) of water treatment plants. No drinking water contamination has been detected and there have been no cases of transmission of the virus through drinking water.
  • Wastewater: More stringent personnel protection measures have been adopted at plants (masks, safety glasses, gloves, etc.) and nonessential operations have been postponed. The existence of the virus in wastewater has made the situation more critical for maintaining personnel safety.
  • Waste: Necessary precautions when handling waste and when in proximity to aerosols/fine particles  are taken, and the usual protective measures are applied when handling hospital waste.

Treatment facilities and services:

  • All sites are sanitized daily, infrared thermal detectors are used for individuals entering the premises, and employees are asked to maintain social distance.
  • All visitors to the facilities have been prohibited except for those who are required for the operation and transport of essential commodities needed for the plant, water distribution, and sewer network operation sites.
  • All essentials products and chemicals that are key for continuity of operation of the plants have been procured to avoid any kind of disruption.

Safety of employees:

  • Employees are being educated about f preventive measures, symptoms, and other aspects related to the epidemic through posters, webinar training, and emails to ensure necessary safety measures are being taken.
  • Wherever possible, employees have been advised to work from home. 
  • Human Resources as well as health and safety help desks connect to employees on COVID-19 assistance daily.

If you have any questions or would like to know if we can help your business with its innovation challenges, please contact us here or email us at solutions@prescouter.com.

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