Over millions of years the ancestors of a tiny beetle in Namibia responded to living in one of the world’s driest habitats and evolved an individual closed water cycle. As the Netherlands hopes to achieve a circular economy by 2050, perhaps we should take inspiration from nature and start small.

Whether it’s the classic natural water cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation or the ability of the amazing Darkling Beetle in the Namib Desert to use its exoskeleton to harvest water from fog, nature has already demonstrated that a closed water cycle, an essential part of the circular economy model, is possible. It’s now up to us to learn from nature and use the tools we have to try to replicate.

Following nature’s lead in closing cycles | Royal HaskoningDHV | James Anderson_Onymacris unguicularis close-up

Onymacris unguicularis or fog-basking beetle can collect up to 40% of its body weight in water every day. (c) James Anderson.

A cycle shaped by our environment

Just as the beetle has been shaped by its environment, we should look more to our surroundings to shape our own path towards a closed water cycle. Our urban environment is rapidly changing due to trends such as population growth, urbanisation, the ongoing economic development and climate change. These global trends lead to changes in local assets and stressors, which has an effect on patterns of resource supply and demand.

By assessing these local assets and stressors and evaluating this change in our urban flow of resources we can start to build the loops and concentric circles we need to achieve our goal. Our beetle adjusts to its individual situation to make just enough water to meet its needs, likewise digital solutions can support us to continuously adjust to our changing urban environments. Using new tools we can not only assess the environment real-time but also predict and adjust to specific needs. At Royal HaskoningDHV we already have much of this technology at our fingertips within the Aquasuite® solutions.

Keeping things local

By starting on a local scale we can build closed water cycles from the domestic upwards, improving the efficiency of our cycle as a whole. One starting block is to take a modular approach to wastewater treatment, focussing on the usage of new materials, intelligent infrastructure and multiple land use. Similar to smart electricity grids, our future wastewater treatment system should be able to continuously balance supply and demand on a local scale. This results in effluent, as well as recovered resources (e.g. alginate or biogas) being used to meet local needs (e.g. within industry, agriculture or even for non-potable purposes) rather than sent away to a far off wastewater treatment plant.

Ground-breaking projects

More and more stakeholders within the Dutch waterchain are starting initiatives to close the urban water cycle. An interesting example which uses the modular approach mentioned above is the development of the Verdygo wastewater treatment plant by Water Authority Limburg. This innovative system makes use of our Nereda® technology to deliver a flexible plant which can easily be adjusted to changing demand and meet local needs.

On a larger scale growing government and social expectation has resulted in organisations starting to actively explore how they can work together on new initiatives to improve their efficiency and ultimately their bottom line. This is evident in an innovative feasibility study we are facilitating between two Dutch water authorities and two major drinking water companies.

Nature and its beetles might have had a head start of a few billion years but by starting small, embracing digital technology and cooperation throughout the water chain we might just stand a chance of catching up.