Opportunities in the wastewater sector continue to grow, particularly in developing countries. Although large wastewater systems are being built around the globe, the market is changing, with new approaches to looking at wastewater and different mechanisms emerging for financing projects.

According to Lux Research, a Boston-based research firm, the global wastewater market should reach $27.5 billion in 2012, with work divided roughly evenly between developed and developing countries.

Glen Daigger,  senior vice president and chief technology officer at Englewood, Colo.-based CH2M Hill, says that in 2010 the United Nations declared sanitation is a basic human right. Moreover, according to the U.N., approximately 1 billion people lack drinking water supply, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation (toilets and a hand-washing source).

Daigger notes that those numbers are actually most likely much higher, with nearly half of humanity lacking a source of safe drinking water, and about 80% lacking modern sanitation systems.

Daigger says there is a growing awareness around the world that wastewater systems and their successful operation are necessary for basic human health. “Yes, work is starting, but I think the work will really increase in the developing world” in coming years,” he says.

One of the most ambitious wastewater construction programs in the world is currently taking shape in Mexico City. A 62-km long tunnel, the Eastern Outfall, costing $1.45 billion, which will double the drainage capacity of the Mexico City basin, is being dug. It will convey rainwater and wastewater to the Atotonilco de Tula plant, which will have a capacity of 525 million gallons per day during dry weather. Upon it’s completion in 2014, the Atotonilco plan will be the largest plant in all of Latin America. It's estimated cost is $750 million.

The completion of the Atotonilco plant will increase Mexico City’s wastewater treatment rate to 60%, a ten-fold jump. Five additional treatment plants are planned, which, when completed, will bring the treatment rate to 100%t. However, at present only one of those, the El Caracol plant, is currently in the design stage.

Systems in countries like Africa and India are largely distributed, or decentralized, with smaller systems fitting like a mosaic into a larger, more conventional centralized system. CH2M’s Daigger says.  In the United States, he sees the opposite pattern, with large, centralized systems supplemented by smaller decentralized systems.

Meanwhile, aging infrastructure systems in the United States face huge challenges, with few funds to pay for upgrades. “The market is somewhat in a turmoil,” says Tom O’Donnell, president of PCL Construction Inc.’s Water Infrastructure Group. “There’s a lot of need for wastewater infrastructure; however, the funding is falling short.”

Tom MacPhee, executive vice president of Malcolm Pirnie, Arcadis’ water division, says that with limited funding, water utilities are trying to find creative ways to “make the most of the facilities that they have” by optimizing effiency of the treatment processes.

He says one way that systems can reduce the amount of wastewater that needs to be treated is using green infrastructure—whether it be constructed wetlands, rain barrels, or capturing rainwater some other way. “The whole idea is to avoid constructing pipes and tunnels to carry stormwater away and instead stop it from entering in the first place,” he says.  

PCL’s O’Donnell points to public-private partnerships formed to support water projects as one “bright spot” that  could help bridge some of the funding gap. Different models are emerging, such as design/build/operate/finance mechanisms, where the project team is paid back for the initial capital and operating costs typically on a monthly basis for the duration of the contract, which may span 20-30 years.

But various forms of P3s have not taken off in the U.S., O’Donnell says. They are much more prevalent in Canada and Europe, he says. “We’re hoping that it will be here eventually,” he says.

He adds that more stringent requirements for nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen will drive a significant amount of future work. “A lot of existing facilities [in the United States] need to be upgraded to handle current effluent requirements, or potential new effluent requirements coming out of EPA. We see that as a big market, where the older facilities need to be upgraded to new technologies to be able to handle the effluent requirements”

Various sources say that utilities, politicians, and even the public are beginning to look at wastewater differently. One viewed as something to be disposed of, industry is realizing the potential resources contained in wastewater, such as phosphorus and methane gas.

“The technologies that are emerging are related to resource recovery,” says Ralph Eberts, executive managing director for Overland Park, Kan.-based Black & Veatch’w water business. Some of that paradigm shift is a result of the realities of climate change, he says. “We’ve got to look at ways to supply water, and the most obvious one is to re-use what we have.”

Also, he says, projects that capture biogas to partially power operations at wastewater facilities is becoming increasingly common. For example, the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant in Washington, D.C., number 10 on ENR’s list of the top largest wastewater treatment plants around the world, is currently undergoing a $4-billion upgrade to comply with more stringent nutrient requirements and to produce enough energy from biosolids to supply some of the facility’s power needs.

Read about some of the largest wastewater projects around the world in the attached slide show.