The Policy & Practice of Climate Change & Water

Life-hacking water challenges: making low energy, low carbon utilities happen

This guest blog was written by Eva Promes, Programmes Officer, Cities for the Future at the International Water Association (IWA).

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There is no shortage of challenges these days. The tiny day-to-day ones, such as untangling your earphones are easily relatable and normally resolved with a quick fix. Big global water challenges are a whole other story. The problems related to climate change are so big that often people struggle to grasp the solutions.
wind turbines


There seems no easy solution for achieving targets such as defined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or the National Determined Contributions (NDCs) that aim to limit the impacts of climate change. However, there is general consensus that time is running out to secure safe water and sanitation services for all. So what can we, in the water sector, do to bring these global targets within reach?

Windows of opportunities for utilities

While water services have to cope with the impacts of climate change, they also contribute to global emissions from energy consumption, as well as nitrous oxide and methane in wastewater systems. Fortunately, there are many opportunities for water utilities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, mitigating the impacts of climate change, while securing the availability and quality of water.
water treatment


Water utilities spend up to 35 percent of their total operational costs on energy. These costs can be as high as one-third of a municipality’s energy bill. Furthermore, untreated wastewater pollutes our water sources, and is a missed opportunity to recover water, energy, nutrients and other precious materials embedded in wastewater. Emissions from untreated sewage represent three times the emissions of conventional wastewater treatments. Considering that globally approximately 80 percent of wastewater is discharged into nature untreated, there is enormous scope for improvement, in particular in Low- and Middle-Income Countries.

By implementing mitigation measures, emissions can potentially be reduced to zero, contributing significantly to the NDCs of countries. In parallel, energy efficiency may increase, reducing costs; and service levels do not need to be compromised or can even improve. A win-win-win!

Could we life-hack our way out of climate change?

What practical actions can utilities take to get started? Applying some ‘life-hacks’ perhaps? A life-hack usually refers to a simple and clever tip or technique for accomplishing a task more easily and efficiently. While in no way would I like to imply that resolving the challenge of combatting climate change and moving to a water-wise world is easy, there are certainly ‘tools’ that can support utilities to implement mitigation measures.

The Energy performance and Carbon emissions Monitoring and Assessment or ECAM Tool, is one such tool. It’s a free open-source carbon and energy accounting tool for water and sanitation services, targeted at emerging economies and developed under the WaCCliM project*. With the tool users can calculate emissions and identify opportunities to reduce GHGs by considering all components of the urban water cycle holistically, from water supply, wastewater treatment, sludge management, as well as water reuse. It promotes transparency, accuracy, completeness, comparability and consistency, which is an important prerequisite for utilities to get access to climate funding.

Pilot utilities from Mexico, Thailand, Jordan and Peru will share Sunday 27th of August, during Stockholm World Water Week, their experiences on how ECAM and other ‘water-hacks’ can be applied to make it a bit easier to achieve those big challenges. As for the earphones, try this!

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*ECAM has been developed as part of Water and Wastewater Companies for Climate Mitigation (WaCCliM) project, which guides water and wastewater companies on a journey to energy and carbon neutrality.

The project is a joint initiative between the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and the International Water Association (IWA). This project is part of the International Climate Initiative (IKI). The German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) supports this initiative on the basis of a decision adopted by the German Bundestag.
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