Podcast Episode 1.52

How can water reuse help solve the global water crisis?

with Jon Freedman, SUEZ Water Technologies & Solutions

Today, 26% of the global population – about 2 billion people – live without reliable access to safe drinking water.  And, as climate change worsens, the availability of fresh water will only decrease.  By 2050, as many as 3.2 billion people could live in severely water-scarce regions of the world.  More than half the global population will experience water scarcity for at least one month a year.

Options for mitigating this crisis are limited: we can use less water, discourage population growth in urban centers, or find new water sources.

On World Water Day 2022, Jon Freedman, Senior Vice President of Global Governmental Affairs for SUEZ Water Technologies & Solutions, joined Climate Now to make the case for water reuse as one of those alternative sources. Technology already exists to purify and safely use recycled water – Israel reuses nearly 90% of its wastewater effluent, primarily for irrigation. The question that remains is how to encourage adoption of water reuse as part of regional and national conservation strategies, and how to finance the necessary infrastructure development.


Jon Freedman
Senior Vice President, Global Government Affairs at SUEZ Water Technologies & Solutions


Jon Freedman

Senior Vice President, Global Government Affairs at SUEZ Water Technologies & Solutions

Jon Freedman is based in Washington, DC, where he leads global government affairs for SUEZ Water Technologies & Solutions, which has operations in more than 100 countries. Jon currently serves on the board of directors of the WateReuse Association, where he chairs the policy committee, the board of directors of the International Desalination Association, where he serves as Secretary, and the EPA Financial Advisory Board. 

Hosted By:

James Lawler
Climate Now Host


James Lawler

Climate Now Host
James Lawler is the founder of Climate Now. James started Climate Now as a way to learn about climate change and our energy system. Climate Now’s mission is to distill and communicate the science of our changing climate, the technologies that could help us avoid a climate crisis, and the economic and policy pathways to achieve net zero emissions globally. James is also the founder of Osmosis Films, a creative studio.


[00:00:00] James Lawler: You’re listening to Climate Now, I’m James Lawler. Today’s episode features an interview from our live recording on World Water Day, which the United Nations observes every year on March 22nd to create awareness for efforts to sustainably manage the world’s fresh water resources. Right now, 115 million people live in cities with perennial water shortages.

[00:00:28] By 2050, that number will rise to 1 billion, and climate change will cause additional water shortages for over 100 million people living in cities. For World Water Day, we’re exploring the policy and technology opportunities for communities to cope with these drier conditions. How can we better prepare water infrastructure to deliver safe drinking water in a world with more extremes?

[00:00:52] What type of water treatment and policy is necessary to support water reuse? With us today to help answer these questions is Jon Freedman, the Senior Vice President of Global Affairs at SUEZ Water Technologies & Solutions. SUEZ is one of the biggest water infrastructure treatment operators in the world.

[00:01:09] Jon also teaches water energy and sustainability courses at the University of Pennsylvania. And before joining SUEZ, he helped General Electric build its global water business. Jon, welcome to Climate Now. It’s great to have you on the podcast today. So you work at a company called SUEZ. I wonder if we could start with: what is SUEZ, what does SUEZ do, and where does SUEZ operate?

[00:01:30] Jon Freedman: Sure. So we’re one of the world’s largest water treatment technology companies, James, and we have 10,000 employees and more than 50,000 customers in a hundred countries around the world. And today I think we’re talking about how do you increase the supply of fresh water? So. That standpoint, even though we make all kinds of technologies, I want to just say we have the largest installed base in the world of membrane-based desalination plants.

[00:01:59] And we’re one of the world’s leaders, also, in treating wastewater so that it can be reused for things like growing crops or running power plants, or nowadays even putting directly into reservoirs for drinking water supplies.

[00:02:13] James Lawler: Wow. We’ll delve into all of those different aspects in this conversation, very interesting. But before we do, I’d love it if you could tell us a little bit about your background, how did you get to where you are today in your career?

[00:02:24] Jon Freedman: Well sure, when I graduated from Wharton with an MBA in finance, I also had a concentration in real estate. So I went to work in real estate development.

[00:02:31] It turns out the company I was working for was owned, James, by SUEZ. So after a couple of years of working in real estate development, never having thought about water in my entire life, I was named to a SUEZ senior leadership program — they called it a global player program and given the opportunity to learn the core business.

[00:02:49] So that was kind of how I got into water. But then after eight years with SUEZ, I left to join GE because GE was looking to create a global water business. And I came in as the mergers and acquisitions leader for water. And so I really did three things at GE: one, I led the acquisition of a global water treatment company, two, I led the Cretia GE’s global sustainability initiative called ecoimagination.

[00:03:12] And then third, I became the global government affairs leader for — first for GE’s water business, but also then for GE nuclear.

[00:03:18] James Lawler: Great. Now, what are the, what are the main issues that the United States faces when it comes to water availability that you know about? I wonder if you could sort of set the backdrop for what are the concerns about water today in America?

[00:03:32] Jon Freedman: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s start globally, then just tighten the focus a little bit. So if you start globally, and I don’t know if you work with World Resources Institute, but it’s a great environmental think tank also based here in Washington. They have something called Aqueduct, it’s an online water risk atlas.

[00:03:49] It gives you current water scarcity, but also projects it into the future. And if you look around the world, there’s some 40 countries that kind of experience chronic water scarcity. So it’s a big global issue here in the US. You know, we’re an extremely well-developed, wealthy nation, but we’re still experiencing a fair amount of water scarcity, particularly in places like California and the Southwest. California just came out of its worst drought in the past 500 years.

[00:04:20] James Lawler: Now, how is water availability and water scarcity changing as a result of the changing climate?

[00:04:27] Jon Freedman: Yeah, no, listen, I’m here at the US Chamber of Commerce because they just had a discussion this morning on water and resilience as part of World Water Day. I had a guy here from NOAA, and I was asking him that question, you know, what are you seeing in terms of changing weather patterns as a result of climate changes?

[00:04:42] He said huge differences. You know, a lot of areas are simply getting hotter and drier, and as they do water is becoming scarcer. And so I think we’re seeing that play out here in the US and a lot of places, but if you read the front page of the New York Times, you’ll see, Brazil, Sao Paulo, a city of 20 million people, the tap’s literally running dry a few years ago. Cape Town, South Africa, running out of water. Chennai, India, you know, city of 6 million people, out of water. So it’s kind of a global phenomenon, but climate change is definitely making some areas hotter and drier, and it’s increasing water scarcity.

[00:05:23] James Lawler: So I’d like to turn to some of the solutions, I guess you could say, starting with reuse and recycling. And I’d love to hear you talk about to what degree can reuse and recycling of water mitigate these issues that you’ve just described.

[00:05:42] Jon Freedman: I think it’s a huge opportunity to address this increasing water scarcity we’re seeing. Let me just say first though, I think really there are three things you can do to address water scarcity. You can conserve water, and that’s often the first, quickest, and smartest thing, and most cost effective thing, that you can do. But often you can’t conserve enough water to keep going on as a business or a city.

[00:06:10] So two, you can then use desalination. Desalination is a great option to have, if you have access to coastline or brackish groundwater supplies. But desalination tends to be very expensive and energy intensive, so huge carbon emissions, so that’s kind of complicated too.

[00:06:30] And that leaves wastewater reuse. Typically, desalination is two to four, even five times as expensive as wastewater reuse. So that’s the preferred option.

[00:06:43] James Lawler: Two to four times as expensive. So that’s significant.

[00:06:46] Jon Freedman: Right. So on average, desalination, you know, used to be well over a dollar per cubic meter. What’s a cubic meter? 264 gallons. Now it’s down to probably 50 cents per cubic meter in kind of the newer desalination projects going on, 50, 60, 70 cents, depending on where you are, what the source water is. Water reuse costs anywhere from 10 cents to an absolute high of 50 cents per cubic meter, and is almost always at least 50% cheaper than desalination and uses far less energy. So it’s a more climate friendly solution also.

[00:07:27] James Lawler: Fascinating. So let’s get into that, that technology for, and use cases, for water reuse. I wonder if you could list some of the most frequent use cases for water reuse, and describe the technologies that are used in each of those instances.

[00:07:43] Jon Freedman: Yeah. Well, the first thing I think of is, you know, cities, right? So communities who are dealing with water scarcity, but they have all this wastewater, and they’re treating the wastewater, to either primary or secondary degrees, and then they’re discharged — well, they’re disinfecting it — but then they’re discharging it into typically rivers or oceans.

[00:08:04] What I’m talking about doing is, kind of, replacing that process so that you’re actually treating the wastewater through a combined process. We call it a membrane bioreactor, and it actually is using biological treatment, combined with membrane physical separation, to treat the wastewater. It removes bacteria, viruses, you know, basically all the contaminants.

[00:08:25] So think, James, and there’s more than this though, but think about if you start with wastewater, but you can extract the H2O molecule. Right. That’s what you want. And that’s effectively what this does. So it gives you this new, fresh water.

[00:08:38] James Lawler: Just to clarify, paint a picture for us, you know, what are we talking about with these plants and regarding cities? Are we talking about a giant processing facility? Are you talking about something sort of more localized on the neighborhood level? Like how does this kind of purification infrastructure actually look?

[00:08:56] Jon Freedman: Well, great. So first of all, it looks great.

[00:08:59] James Lawler: It looks amazing. It’s beautiful.

[00:09:02] Jon Freedman: Yeah, you’ve never seen anything so beautiful in your entire life. But it’s actually, really James, it’s kind of like these metal tanks that are very well contained. They’re not that big. The membranes are submersed in them. If you actually went to a plant, to a wastewater treatment plant using membrane bioreactors, you wouldn’t see very much.

[00:09:25] You’d see these metal containers, in what looks like a parking lot, right? Now, how many of those containers you have depends on how much wastewater you’re trying to push through them. And so I just got back three weeks ago from Los Angeles — by the way, the Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, set a goal of reusing 100% of Los Angeles’ is wastewater by 2035, that’s 13 years from now, right? So that’s an, I think, an aspirational kind of goal, but I actually think he might get there.

[00:10:03] And so right now, SUEZ is piloting this membrane bioreactor technology. At the Los Angeles county sanitation district’s massive plant. I think it’s the largest wastewater treatment plant in the US, if you look at a conventional wastewater treatment plant, it’s really typically a pre-treatment process where we basically have screens and you take out big physical things from waste water that you can kind of see, then it goes into what’s called a primary clarifier.

[00:10:33] It’s like a massive concrete tank that will be kind of like a funnel almost at the bottom. And then in that tank, the suspended material will settle over time and become sludge. And you kind of take it off the bottom. And then that kind of effluent, which has been clarified, primary system, you can either, as I said, add disinfectant and discharge it, or, often you have these secondary treatment processes that you send it to another massive clarifier, this time, add bacteria to it.

[00:11:10] So bugs that will kind of consume organic material that’s left in the water, and then you discharge it. But what we do gets rid of those clarifiers, which, you know, again, if you go to Los Angeles County and look around and see these clarifiers everywhere, and then replace it with these fairly tight, contained systems.

[00:11:30] Where the wastewater goes into it, you add bugs, the kind of bacteria that eat the organic material, and simultaneously you’re using these membranes to take the water away. And it’s kind of perfect.

[00:11:47] James Lawler: So just, you know, better engineering, essentially.

[00:11:50] Jon Freedman: It’s just, it’s a different product, you know? You’re getting rid of massive, huge pieces of equipment and using smaller pieces of equipment that use a different technology.

[00:12:00] James Lawler: So you’ve just talked about this technology that is in a pilot program in Los Angeles for treating the wastewater from communities. I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the other use cases for water reuse? In particular, you know, perhaps factories, what kinds of reuse technologies exist for those cases?

[00:12:22] Jon Freedman: Pretty much any industry you can think of – food and beverage, oil refining. Power generation, semiconductor manufacturing. And you can just go on, we will have our reuse technology in there. And typically the basic building block of those systems is that membrane bioreactor that I’m talking about, often followed by reverse osmosis, and sometimes followed by something called zero liquid discharge, which is using thermal, so basically boiling, distilling water, and evaporating it — you recover 99% plus of the water that way. And so as you go from membrane bioreactor to reverse osmosis, to zero liquid discharge, it gets more energy intensive, and tends to be more expensive as you climb that curve.

[00:13:10] James Lawler: Now, what about the use of — I know that reverse osmosis and evaporation technologies, obviously, as you mentioned, require fairly energy intensive, what does sort of the use of renewable energy look like in those contexts?

[00:13:24] Jon Freedman: Traditionally, and still typically through conventional, you know, sources of energy, right?

[00:13:29] Fossil fuel based energy. We are seeing solar now being deployed, particularly in the middle east on some of these desalination plants and some of these reuse facilities. But I think it’s evolving. But James, given given the cost curve of solar energy, I just think it’s a question of time until we see almost all of these facilities having a solar component to them, but we’re not there yet.

[00:13:53] James Lawler: I wonder if you have any numbers that you might be able to share, sort of an estimate to share about the potential of water reuse when it comes to, let’s say, go back to the municipal use case. Like when it comes to cities. So how many cities, and maybe we just look at the United States, or if you’re familiar with the context more globally, how many cities and communities actually reuse their water?

[00:14:19] Jon Freedman: So globally, the world is reusing 2% of all the wastewater it collects and treats. So, you know, like almost none. That’s good because effectively, this wastewater is a largely untapped reservoir that we can use to meet our water scarcity needs, right? Pretty cost-effectively. But that’s not the case globally. So, you know, countries differ.

[00:14:51] Singapore, the last time I looked, was reusing more than 30% of its waste water. Israel was the clear world leader, and you know, they’re in the desert, right? So necessity is the mother of invention. Israel is reusing 90% of its wastewater.

[00:15:07] James Lawler: Really? So reusing in the sense — and when we say reusing, do we mean that they’re actually drinking it or that it’s being used in sort of like other applications?

[00:15:17] Jon Freedman: Yeah. They’re using it for everything. So a lot of times, what happens is that the wastewater gets treated, it can be used for agriculture, it doesn’t have to be treated the same level of drinking water. But it can be treated to an even higher degree, then you can inject it into the ground. A lot of drinking water comes from groundwater.

[00:15:34] So in effect you’re replenishing the drinking water supply when you replenish groundwater. And California is doing that to a pretty great degree right now. We can talk about that too, but Israel, they were kind of on a mission, and they said ‘we’re going to reuse a hundred percent of our waste water.’

[00:15:54] Well, when they got up to like 90%, they realized that the last 10%, it wasn’t cost effective. You know, desalination became cheaper than squeezing out the last 10% of reuse, but they’re pretty far. Here in the US, the number is like, you know, we’re probably reusing six to 8% of our wastewater nationally, but if you go to California, it’s probably more like 13 to 15, 16%?

[00:16:17] James Lawler: Interesting. So I’d love to just zero in a little bit more on California and on one application, which is agriculture. And, you know, there’s a lot of concern right now about water availability for agriculture in California, but also in other areas out west, as they suffer through a continued drought.

[00:16:37] Maybe you could elaborate on that context, on that background. What are the challenges for agriculture in the United States right now when it comes to water, and what are some of the water reuse options that might exist for that industry?

[00:16:53] Jon Freedman: Oh yeah, absolutely. And let’s calibrate it first, so what does it mean when we say agricultural water use? What are we talking about? If you look in the developing world, 70% of all water goes to agriculture, but if you look in the developed world, like here in the United States, it’s 30%. But it’s still, it’s a significant amount of water. 60% of water is going to industrial uses. And by the way, the bulk of that is going to power plants.

[00:17:20] They’re very water intensive. And that leaves communities, you know, 10%. We’re talking about this 30% of water usage. So it’s a big deal. And, you know, in places like California, where they’re going through a drought, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge to find the water for agriculture. I do think one thing that agricultural users can do is reuse some of their own agricultural water. That, you know, that can be expensive relative to the cost of water as they currently get it.

[00:17:50] James Lawler: And are you familiar with any technologies that are available to sort of improve the efficiency of water use in the agricultural context? Cause it seems that in absence of reuse opportunities, then more efficient use is sort of the other lever that you have.

[00:18:13] Jon Freedman: Yeah. There are companies out there, one is called Netafim, it’s an Israeli company that will use sensors and software to ensure that whatever you’re growing, whatever crop it is, gets the right amount of water, exactly when needed, to grow it optimally, efficiently from a water standpoint.

[00:18:35] James Lawler: Interesting. What is the way forward? How do we kind of expedite the deployment of water, reuse, and water recycling?

[00:18:43] Jon Freedman: Well, that’s a great question. And so I think the root cause for the slow uptake of more reuse, even in places where they’re experiencing pretty acute scarcity, and it just makes all the sense in the world, is that water tariffs tend to be very low.

[00:18:58] I think it’s, yeah it’s $2.58 per cubic meter of water (global range here), a cubic meter of water is 264 gallons. So it’s basically just under a penny per gallon of water, treated, delivered to your home. So water tends to be so inexpensive that when businesses, and even communities, look at reusing wastewater, they just can’t make the economics work.

[00:19:26] And so James, that’s where there’s an opportunity for governments to step in with policies that will promote greater reuse. And on the municipal side, you saw Singapore do that, you saw Israel do it. They provided incentives that would enable communities to build water reuse facilities.

[00:19:44] And we’re seeing that now as part of the infrastructure plan that passed Congress in November, and has a billion dollars in grant funding for reuse projects. But there’s nothing on the industrial side. And so businesses that look at reuse and say, ‘Hey, I want to put in a reuse plan,’ they can’t make the economics work.

[00:20:05] And so what the government can do, just like they did for wind and solar, they took these technologies that were good for the environment, but not economical. And they provided incentives to help businesses bridge these economic gaps. And Congress could create an investment tax credit for industry to reuse water.

[00:20:25] James Lawler: You mentioned that the price of purified water delivered to your door is on the level of sort of 1 cent per gallon. I just looked up how many gallons is consumed in an average shower, which is about 17, according to Google. So not sure how accurate that is, but 17 cents, you know, for a shower, doesn’t sound that expensive. Like given the cost of installing this equipment, given what it takes for a city to install water treatment, if it wasn’t subsidized, if the government wasn’t paying for it, what would the cost, let’s say to the average city of Los Angeles, be for reusable water?

[00:21:10] Jon Freedman: What you’re talking about is called full cost pricing of water. And if you Google it, you see all kinds of economists have written white papers on that. And the issue is, a lot of times communities are just charging their operating expenses. They have an existing water treatment system, but maybe they only charge the cost to operate the system. They’re not also charging enough in their tariffs to be building up a fund to invest in new capital equipment that will be needed in five or 10 years, or to replace, you know, pipes in the ground that have been there for maybe 50 years, but are going bad.

[00:21:46] And so a lot of times they get kind of behind the eight ball, so to speak. And if you look at the American Society of Civil Engineers, they issue a report every year. And they rate the drinking water system and the wastewater system in the US. One gets a D plus, and the other gets like a C minus, I don’t know, not very good, but the root cause is that they’re not charging enough in their tariffs.

[00:22:07] They’re not charging full cost pricing so they can operate sustainably right? So that’s a challenge. I’m sure their research papers say what that full cost should be, but it’ll vary by community. So I don’t know the answer, but typically tariffs are too low. That drives a lot of the problems.

[00:22:24] James Lawler: I’m sorry to interrupt you, John, when you say tariffs, you just mean, like, city taxes?

[00:22:29] Jon Freedman: No. Well, I mean, for example, where do you live?

[00:22:33] James Lawler: Brooklyn.

[00:22:33] Jon Freedman: Brooklyn. Do you get a water bill separately from the city?

[00:22:39] James Lawler: Yeah.

[00:22:39] Jon Freedman: So they calculate how much, you probably have a water meter and they see how much water you use, and they have a price per gallon of water.

[00:22:46] And that’s the tariff, the price they charge, it’s just the rate or price they charge. And it’s probably a pretty cheap bill. Like you said, if your shower is 17 cents worth of water, I mean, I think your water tank heating that water is going to be a much higher bill than the actual water itself.

[00:23:02] James Lawler: Have you seen any, or is there any place for smart growth strategies that would reward cities that encourage, I guess, efficient use of water, and water reuse potentially?

[00:23:13] Jon Freedman: Yeah. In terms of encouraging efficient water use, there are all kinds of incentives out there for, for efficient water use, but the main thing is, for reusing water, the government has a program that’s administered by the Bureau of Reclamation, it’s an agency, and it will provide up to 25% grant funding for qualified reuse projects. It’s not for businesses, it’s to communities.

[00:23:40] James Lawler: Interesting. And maybe this is a good time to ask you about the infrastructure bill. What were the provisions in that bill when it comes to water reuse and recycling? What’s now possible that wasn’t possible before?

[00:23:53] Jon Freedman: So, you know, if you look at the past like 8, 9, 10 years, typically we were seeing about 20 million a year in federal grant funding for water reuse projects — basically nothing. Now, since it was 25% of the cost of the project, that 20 million would generate $80 million in projects, right? Four times the 20. In this infrastructure, bipartisan infrastructure bill, we now have a billion dollars over five years for water reuse. I mean, this is just like mind boggling-ly more money, and also 25% grant funding.

[00:24:31] So you can see basically $4 billion in reuse projects. So I think we’re going to see a burst of water reuse activity in the US, particularly in the Western US, because this money is limited to 17 Western states, and that’s a complicated reason. But we’ll see a burst of activity in reuse over the next five years,

[00:24:56] James Lawler: That was Jon Freedman from SUEZ, joining us on World Water Day, to talk about the policy and technology opportunities to improve our water infrastructure. Climate Now is made possible in part by our science partners, like the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy applied science and research facility. More information on the foundation’s climate works can be found at Livermorelabfoundation.org.

[00:25:24] That’s it for this episode of the Climate Now podcast. To listen to other interviews from Climate now, watch our videos, or sign up for our newsletter, visit climatenow.com. If you’d like to get in touch, you can email us at contact@climatenow.com or tweet us @weareclimatenow. We hope you’ll join us for our next conversation and stay tuned for more episodes. 

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