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Research Headlines - Making cities more sustainable with better wastewater management

© Irina K - fotolia.com

The EU treats nearly all the waste water it produces – around 40 000 million cubic metres every year. But, on average, only 2.4 % of this is recycled while the rest is discharged into rivers and seas. As climate change takes hold, more of Europe’s regions will suffer water shortages so it is becoming increasingly critical to find ways to boost waste water reuse.

The EU-funded SANITAS project carried out a broad spectrum of research focused on improving the management of urban wastewater, boosting the sustainability of cities and helping prevent the contamination of our drinking water, rivers, lakes and seas.

“The projects addressed a wide range of areas including energy efficiency, water scarcity, adapting to climate change, maintaining water quality standards and removing contaminants,” says SANITAS coordinator Joaquim Comas, Associate Professor at the University of Girona in Spain. “Researchers developed new knowledge and techniques to achieve better sustainability in wastewater management by creating new modelling methods and decision support tools.”

Range of innovative research

Concretely, one project covered ways to reduce energy consumption in membrane bioreactors – a type of wastewater treatment frequently used in large-scale waste water treatment plants. Another helped improve our understanding of the role of microorganisms in anaerobic digestion technology used to treat biodegradable waste that also cuts the emission of landfill gas into the atmosphere. Other projects focused on:

  • slashing the effects of sulphide and methane pollution in urban water systems to improve sewers;
  • identifying and improving modelling for the control of micro-pollutants – these include pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, for example – and biodegradation mechanisms;
  • creating new water management decision support tools.
Securing solutions through training

SANITAS also contributed to filling the current gap in water management expertise by training young researchers to help Europe meet environmental challenges.

In 2012, it launched a worldwide recruitment process to fill 15 research positions – 11 junior and four senior. Fellows joined the SANITAS project from nine EU countries, China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Each researcher then took on an urban water system project with the support of the SANITAS network.

“There is a need for a fundamental rethink of water management and new cooperation between academia, industry and policymakers,” says Comas. “In SANITAS, we aimed to train the next generation of environmental researchers to come up with the solutions that will enable the delivery of the EU’s Water Framework Directive, which is key to maintaining environmental and human health.”

In total, more than 40 scientific papers were published, according to Comas.

Today, SANITAS fellows – who benefitted from funding through the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions programme – are actively applying their newly acquired knowledge in water management jobs at companies around Europe, and some are undertaking further research on sustainable water management.

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