Managing Britain's water and wastewater services can often appear to be a case of running hard to stand still, as utilities have to balance the demands of a surprisingly limited water supply, rising consumer expectations, and a series of European directives within Ofwat's robust pricing regime.
Once you factor in the challenges of population growth and climate change, the challenge can appear pretty daunting.
Carbon costs matter as much as financial costs. The sector faces a double bind in that rising standards means that more sewage needs to be treated to a higher standard while more water needs to be shipped across networks to cope with greater seasonal variations in rainfall.
When facing challenges such as these, it can be useful to take a fresh look at how water and wastewater can be managed both in terms of technology and techniques. We are at the cusp of a series of breakthroughs that are set to de-carbonise our management of the water cycle which in turn offer the prospect of making universal and sustainable water and sanitation services a realisable ambition.
This is why innovation is so important at a time when utilities are being asked to do more while spending less money. It seems implausible, but it can be done. However, such a change must be brought about by rethinking how the individual components involved with water and wastewater treatment can deliver more on a holistic basis.
To give a simple example, the most popular form of secondary sewage treatment today is the activated sludge process, which was developed in Manchester in 1913. It has done wonders in delivering basic sewage treatment for urban areas across the world, but the world has moved on.
In Britain, we are dealing with concerns such as service delivery within constrained areas and the need to optimise energy reuse from sludge streams. Looking beyond, just a third of the wastewater generated by the 3.35 billion people living in urban areas worldwide gets at least secondary sewage treatment. Along with the 2.23 billion without treatment, a further 3.04 billion are forecast to be living in urban areas by 2050.
How can we rise to the challenge posed by this looming humanitarian crisis?
The challenge is to be able to deliver wastewater treatment technologies that not only reduce the chemical and biological loading of wastewater, but do so in more compact and energy efficient manner.
Where can innovation take off without support? Cutting the sector's carbon impact is also about realising the value of wastewater as a resource, offering a wealth of nutrients, energy and water that can be beneficially reclaimed.
We need new answers for the challenges we face today.
Despite the many strides taken since the 1989 privatisation of the water and sewerage companies, it is clear that research and development has suffered, especially as there is simply no incentive for utilities to carry out such work.
This is where BWB's purchase of Water Innovate in 2010 comes in. Water Innovate was spun off from Cranfield University in 2005 and is commercialising a range of new management approaches for water and wastewater, ranging from toxicity monitoring and odour modelling systems to optimising coagulation approaches for removing algae and organic matter.
All aspects of the water cycle need innovation if we are to maintain its integrity, supply a burgeoning urban population and treat their wastewater.
Innovation needs to be applied in a way which minimises its energy and environmental impact and offers utilities the chance to lower their operating and capital costs.
This at the heart of Bluewater Bio's vision; as we aim to build upon the processes it controls to assist in the integration of what has traditionally been an over-fragmented industry.
Dr David Lloyd Owen is head of global market research and senior advisor at Bluewater Bio