When the shit hits the front page: Corona in the sewers

It already goes without saying: 2020 is like no other year. Across the globe we have hid in our homes for months. Social distancing has become an art form and an ideal, something to excel in, rather than the dubious expression of the lone hermit. As we gradually come into the ‘new’ normal we will surely start counting our losses, but there will also be time to reflect back. In this blog post I want to share some insights from our work on monitoring the pandemic through wastewater. In short, how to assess public health based on massive sampling and analysis of human shit. And what we can learn from this unusual spring.

Dr. Zeynep Cetecioglu Gurol , the project leader, in her lab at Chemical Engineering showing a COVID-19 sample from Henriksdal WWTP

As the Corona virus started spreading globally in the beginning of the year, a number of Chinese scientists reported that the SARS-CoV-2, popularly known as “the new Corona virus”, could be found in patients’ stool (faeces). By March, preliminary results from the Netherlands showed that the virus could also be detected in wastewater. Following a webcast seminar on March 25, a group of researchers at KTH decided to quickly put together a team to try and do something similar: to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic through the wastewater in Stockholm.  Within five days we had mobilised a core team of six researchers representing four different departments at KTH: Zeynep Cetecioglu Gurol from Chemical Engineering; Prosun Bhattacharya and Tahmidul Islam from SEED; Cecilia Williams from Protein Sciences and Anders Andersson from Gene Technology, plus myself from the WaterCentre. We were joined by staff from Stockholm Water and Waste Company, Värmdö municipality and Käppala Wastewater Treatment Plan.

The media caught wind of it when we started sampling wastewater in Stockholm by April 6. Via broadcasting and the press it spread in no time and a news article in Dagens Nyheter from mid-April got close to 200,000 clicks within a day. A few weeks later, when we released the first preliminary results concluding that indeed, we could detect Corona in Stockholm’s wastewater, there was more media hype, with reports in major TV news and radio shows. Even popular shows like P3 Morgonpasset took it up, with reporters giggling about poop in prime time. The shit had really hit the front page!

So what’s this research really about, and how can it generate such tremendous interest? In short, we sample wastewater from three Waste Water Treatment Plants (WWTP) which cover about 1.7 million people in the Stockholm region. Using so called qPCR technique we can measure the content of RNA (the genetic code) from the virus which gives a good indication of the virus prevalence in the whole population. The first advantage is that you can assess the overall public health situation without testing millions of people. Every day, millions of people are providing “test samples” through their faeces. So by analysing samples from only three sites, we will be able to assess the spread of the virus in the whole population in Stockholm. The second advantage is that it only takes a few hours for the wastewater to be transported from the toilet to our sampling point at the WWTP. Patient-based testing, on the contrary, can take weeks from infection to a positive test at the hospital. Therefore, Wastewater Based Epidemiology (WBE) can be used for early warning and a recent study at Yale has demonstrated that public health administrations can get at least a week’s notice using this method.

Of course there are many challenges and uncertainties still. As I am writing this, the KTH team is optimising our protocol for the analysis method which is necessary before moving to scale, and before we can actually make the kind of predictions which the Yale team did recently. The protocol has to be both specific and generic: it must be tailored for the type of sampling we are doing and for the available lab resources we have, at the same time it must be compatible with other researchers’ work, both nationally and internationally.  Keeping up with the international developments in this area is virtually a full time job, as the frontline is advancing at a staggering pace. We also face a myriad of day-to-day challenges, like making scarce consumables last, juggling with over-burdened lab facilities and cold storage spaces, or just explaining to our colleagues what we are doing… So far this rapid response has been largely self-funded by the participating researchers, and PhD students, post-docs and senior staff are doing an amazing job, working over time on voluntary basis. Just because this has to be done. The pandemic is here now and we cannot wait for time consuming application processes.

So what can we learn already now from this unusual experience? First, social networks are key. The research community has the ability to rise to the challenge – we just put together a team and started working – but people have to know each other, at least a little. Having a WaterCentre actually had helped us building these contacts before the outbreak. Second, the current research financing structures are quite useless for crisis situations. With so much being locked into externally funded long-term programmes and projects there’s basically no flexibility to rapidly respond to a challenge like COVID , nor to seize opportunities as they arise. Again, the fact that we had some un-allocated funding within the WaterCentre made it possible to start working immediately.  Third, this could be the dawn of a new more open innovation and research paradigm. Ever since the first releases of scientific reports – many from China – about the Corona virus the academic community has embraced openness and principles of sharing, for example of protocols. Using data-sharing hubs and initiatives at EU-level we see that we can advance knowledge at a much faster pace than if we each jealously protect our information.

After the pandemic, we are going to face other crises, induced by climate change, global economic re-structuring and geopolitical struggles. Hopefully we will retain at least some of this challenge-driven approach and our collaborative spirit. We are going to need it.




Mapping Opportunities for Creative Water Management Through Effective Stakeholder Engagement: Lessons from the Field

While water is often seen as the likely source of conflict, the opportunities to find cooperative solutions abound. In fact, research led by Aaron Wolf and colleagues indicate that water is more likely to lead to cooperation than conflict, including in transboundary situations. As water and climate change are intimately tied—more droughts, more floods, more nutrient runoff—finding ways to manage local, regional, national and international water issues becomes increasingly important.

As a Fulbright scholar in Sweden this year, I have been exploring these topics in conversation with colleagues within Sweden and across Europe. I am impressed by the people I’ve met, the commitment to understanding what is happening, and the interest and focus on finding potential solutions.

A few common themes have emerged:

  • There is a need to produce and share knowledge together—from those most vulnerable to those who research to those who are making decisions—to address critical challenges associated with water, food, energy, climate, and more. A recent study from the Stockholm Resilience Center and Stockholm University documents ways to co-produce knowledge, noting that such processes need to be context based, pluralistic (representing a range of views), goal-oriented, and interactive. As the world shifted online during recent weeks due to the coronavirus, how does this open opportunities for constructive online engagement? And how do we ensure that the most vulnerable and least connected are also included?
  • Time is also a challenge. The world as we know it is changing rapidly, including management of water resources. Learning to adapt in very real time— to declining groundwater, floods and droughts, impacts to livelihoods and ecosystems, governance issues, and more— is a challenge. Again, how can we learn from each other on what is working? One way to accelerate potential change is again through marrying needs with skills. In another blog post written for the dispute resolution community, I argue that communities need help having challenging conversations about climate change and dispute resolution professionals are looking for how they are relevant in this day and age. Functional conversations can help address the imperative for rapid change.
  • Scale is also a challenge, and an opportunity. While solving water management challenges at a global scale is difficult, basin or sub-basin scale offers opportunities. For example, the Chehalis River Basin of Washington State is moving forward on managing both flood and drought impacts, as well as ecological concerns. How can we share these local successes?
  • Finally, the human element is incredibly important. As noted by Vincent Ostrom and Eleanor Ostrom in 1972, “any system of water works must be accompanied by a system of human enterprise that involves the allocation, exercise and control of decision-making capabilities in the development and use of water supplies.” I heard this theme echoed at World Water Week during a session entitled “Water, peace and development: drivers of change in transition states.” Representatives from Somalia, South Sudan, Somaliland, and Gambia spoke about the opportunity for rebuilding their water infrastructure and their water governance as combined drivers of change.

Stories of hope, of success, of what is working are sorely needed. In my experience as a neutral mediator working on complex water issues, it is this hope and idea that we can indeed find solutions that is also the key to finding a path forward.

/Lara B. Fowler, Fulbright Scholar, Uppsala University, Sweden 2019-2020. Senior Lecturer, Penn State Law. Assistant Director, Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment.



Project DEMOCRITUS: Exploring the role of water in the Digital Future

None of us has missed KTH’s new digitalization initiative, KTH Digital Future. The initiative will provide long term funding for interdisciplinary research, financed via direct government funding of 78 MSEK yearly. The objective of the Initiative is to use this long term funding to address societal challenges and possibilities in the areas of smart society, digital industry, and rich and healthy life, by designing societal-scale systems that are trustable, can cooperate, and are able to learn from the data they generate.

While KTH Digital Future will start for real in 2020, KTH prepared for a quick start by launching nine pilot research projects already in 2019. These projects were selected in two rounds, among ca. forty project proposals, after evaluation in six expert panels, three considering mainly scientific strength, while other three focusing on societal relevance.

Our project DEMOCRITUS “Decision-making in Critical Societal Infrastructures” is one of these pilot projects. DEMOCRITUS is a collaboration of researchers from the the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the School of Engineering Sciences (SCI) at KTH and the Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE). We, the coordinators of the digitalization cluster of the WaterCenter are both part of the project, and our objective is to build up strong collaboration between the WaterCentre and the KTH Digital Future platform.

The future digitalization in smart cities must include water: the preservation and use of natural waters around our cities, the distribution of drinking water, or the handling of stormwater.  Therefore, we are very happy that with our KTH Digital Future winning project proposal DEMOCRITUS we can now connect the activities of the WaterCenter with the research in KTH Digital Future.

The path towards the smart society critically depends on large infrastructures like electrical grids, urban transportation systems, or water distribution networks. These systems must operate efficiently, with predictable performance and meet stringent safety and security requirements. We believe that these societal systems can be constructed using a common set of novel design principles despite their technological diversity. The objective of DEMOCRITUS is to find and demonstrate these principles.

In DEMOCRITUS, we selected water distribution networks as the use case for the first phase of the project, since these exhibit many unsolved challenges. Water distribution networks tend to be of very large scale, and today it is little known what is going on with the pipes and in the pipes, since both the monitoring of the infrastructure and monitoring of the water quality is challenging. At the same time, water is traditionally considered to be abundant and cheap, and there is little economic incentive to modernize the infrastructure. Water is also a critical resource that needs to be protected against both physical and cyber threats.

The DEMOCRITUS project will design distributed machine learning based solutions for efficient and secure monitoring and decision making in critical societal infrastructures such as those for the delivery of water. (Picture by Dr. Rong Du, one of the researchers involved in the project)

To address these challenges, the project will contribute with fundamental theoretic results in the areas of distributed machine learning, supported by resource efficient communication and security and privacy enhancing techniques. We will complement the theoretical work by building up an emulation environment, where the emulated water distribution network will be monitored and controlled dynamically through a 5G wireless testbed.

To make sure that the project becomes relevant for the water sector, we have to find ways to learn across the issues and opportunities the sector that we see today, but also find ways to educate professionals in the water sector about the technology solutions digitalization can provide.

Expect to meet us at WaterCentre@KTH events in 2020!

Viktoria Fodor, Carlo Fischione

On-property water and heat recovery: saviour or saboteur?

If recovery of water and heat becomes a standard technology, does it mean a net benefit or cost to society? Who will be the losers, and who will be winners? In the project “SEQWENS” coordinated by WaterCentre@KTH we are looking at exactly this.


Throughout cities in Europe and the US, the heat in our buildings is distributed by district heating. Over 90% of multi-household properties in Sweden are connected. The property companies buy heat from the district heating grid to warm up cold water (which typically is between 4-15 degrees Celsius), to produce hot water for cleaning, washing, etc. After all, few people enjoy taking a shower in 4 degrees. After use, the hot water is released to the sewerage network leading to a wastewater treatment plant. There it is purified from environmentally harmful pollutants, while the heat is extracted using heat pumps and fed back to the district heating grid.

Fig.1 A system description of water, wastewater and heat circulation today in Stockholm region. (Courtesy of Farzin Golzar.)

As property owners and developers now seek to reduce their energy consumption in pursuit of efficiency targets and GHG emission reduction, they increasingly install technologies for recovering heat from the wastewater on the property. Some also experiment with re-use of the hot water itself, by adding a small-scale treatment stage. Energy for hot water is a substantial share of the total energy consumption. There is energy – and therefore money – to save on wastewater heat recovery.

But what happens to the district heating system then, when less energy is in circulation? Around 800 GWh is extracted annually from the sewage treatment plants by Stockholm Exergi AB, the district heating company covering the Stockholm region. That is no small amount of energy. Moreover, the wastewater released from buildings with heat recovery is going to be colder. Potentially this can cause trouble downstream for the wastewater plant, whose treatment processes will be negatively affected if the incoming water is too cold. So what seems like a great idea for the property owners could be a loss for the district heating company and the wastewater company, both with municipal ownership. If recovery of water and heat becomes a standard technology, does it mean a net benefit or cost to society? Who will be the losers, and who stand to gain from such a development? In the project “SEQWENS” (Sustainability and EQuality of Water and ENergy Systems during actor-driven disruptive innovation) which is financed by FORMAS, we are looking at these questions during 2019-2021.

On 28 November we organised a Reference Group meeting at KTH where we presented preliminary results from our case studies, and discussed the various scenarios we intend to analyse, with representatives from real estate and property, water and heat industry. Dr. Jörgen Wallin, KTH Energy technology, presented the findings from four analyses of existing heat recovery in Stockholm. They represent both commercial and residential houses, and different types of technologies (heat exchangers, with or without heat pump). The test results show that the performance differs substantially depending on the design and operational conditions. One configuration recovers over 40% of the heat available in the wastewater. Regarding the share of recovered heat compared to the total water heating demand, figures over 20% were common.


Fig 2. Reference group visits the heat exchange installation at KTH Live-in-Lab and Einar Mattsson AB property, one of the case studies (KTH Rocks). Photo: David Nilsson

We can confidently say there are substantial energy savings to be made for the property owner, although we are yet to make the economic analysis of these case studies. As one of the property owners put it; the tariff of the district heating service is critical for any investment decision into recovery technology. And from the system-level point of view, the overall outcome of individual actors’ strategies still needs to be assessed. Is the new technology a saviour or saboteur for sustainable development in society? Or just something in between?

In the coming year, the project will focus more on the analysis of actor strategies, and a case study on organisational innovation in Värmdö municipality. We will also start building scenarios that can be evaluated using a conceptual model for heat and water circulation in Stockholm. This work is led by Dr. Timos Karpouzoglou in cooperation with Dr. Farzin Golzar, both KTH, and Associate Professor Pär Blomkvist from Mälardalen Högskola. If your are interested in following our project, please get in touch with the WaterCentre administrator Lisa-Mee Swartz (lmswartz@kth.se) or just visit our project webpage every now and then.

To be continued!


David Nilsson

Director, WaterCentre@KTH

The palm-graves of the palm-groves

“Once upon a night, spread fire to the reeds with whole flames,
Burned it to the end, as heart melts by falling tears.
Burned and burned, carelessly, the flame;
to, each reed has been burned as a mourning-candle on his grave.”

– Rumi (1207-1273), a famous Persian poet and  Sufi mystic

A dead palm-grove in Khuzestan province, Iran. Photo: ISNA

This is the story of a palm cemetery that was historically a rich palm-grove in south-west of Iran, Khuzestan province. I would promise that this is not a curse from a mad God nor the painful legacy left from the mass destruction of Iran-Iraq’s war (1980-1988). All is about thirst, a juice of cursed salt in a river.

Khuzestan province in Iran; Karun, Karkheh and Shatt al-Arab Rivers. Photo: Google maps, Middle East Eye

Having a long history back to Elam civilization (3000 BC), Khuzestan province is known as the heart of Iran not just by having rich oil and gas reserves but also by the five major rivers flowing through its plateau.

Sketch of the Mesopotamian river system. Illustration: UN-ESCWA

Two of these five major rivers, Karun and Karkheh, has the largest basins in Iran generated from Zagros Mountains. The Karun basin extended over a mountainous and foothill zones to inland/coastal-desert. The climate at the downstream region is extremely hot (air temperatures above 50°C) and the total annual precipitation is about 150 mm (UN-ESCWA, 2013). The Karun and Karkheh Rivers discharge into the Shatt al-Arab (a.k.a as Arvand-Rud in Persian) made by confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Shatt al-Arab is a transboundary river between Iran and Iraq that forms the main source of freshwater to the Persian Gulf.

Changes in vegetation by the bank of the rivers between 1975 (left) and 2002 (right). Photo: UNEP

The Shatt al-Arab River is about 192 km from its origin to its mouth in the Persian Gulf; its basin in both neighboring countries was enriched by 17-18 million date palms (a fifth of the world’s 90 million palm trees) in the mid-1970s (UNEP, 2019).

According to UNEP (2019), by 2002, more than 14 million (80%) of the date palms were wiped out and the prime cause of this disaster that began emerging in the late 1960s is the salinity of the fresh water in the rivers.

Salinization is the result of a combination of natural and anthropogenic causes. Anthropogenic activities such as large-scale development of upstream water regulation and dam structures, together with the drainage of the Mesopotamian Marshes, agricultural, industrial and domestic effluents cause the salinization problem. However, the effect of the prolonged and intense crossfire of the Iran-Iraq war on the palm-grove should not be neglected. (Rahi Amtair, K., 2018).

The deposit salts in the ground are transported by groundwater to rivers and streams; moreover, the salt concentration in rivers increases by evaporation. These are salinization´s natural causes (Rahi Amtair, K., 2018).  Furthermore, the effect of high tides that push saltwater from sea (in this case from Persian Gulf) to upstream is of a high importance among the natural effects.

Salinization affects the dates, Khuzestan province. Photo: ISNA

For the irrigating of palm-groves and the farmlands on the bank of the rivers, many streams and water-intake facilities have been used for decades. The amounts of fresh water inflow from the rivers and the tide wave advance in the water way are inversely related together. Nowadays, by having low discharges of freshwater in the mentioned rivers, the tide wave more easily push saltwater upstream toward the farmland and the cities. For the last four decades, the salinity of the mentioned rivers has increased steadily. High salinity of the water made it unsuitable or even harmful for most domestic and agricultural uses (Rahi Amtair, K., 2018). Today, the present palm-groves comprising a treasure of more than 800 date varieties in both Iran and Iraq are facing a complete wipe-out (UNEP, 2010).

Going back a few centuries, date palms are known as very strong trees to be able to regenerate even from fire damages as Phoenix, the mythical bird sprang from the ashes (UNEP, 2010). This harmony with date palms’ botanical name, Phoenix dactylifera L. sounds astonishing. However, through decades, the “Heart of palm” (jamiegeller.com/browse/what-are-hearts-of-palm) have been slowed down due to the thirst and droughts; and I wish I knew if this Phoenix could be born again from the ashes!

/Roya Meydani, Doctoral student at KTH, November 2019


https://en.isna.ir/, accessed on November 2019.

https://www.google.se/maps, accessed on November 2019.

https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/iranian-government-killing-ahwazs-environment, accessed on November 2019.

Rahi Amtair.K, 2018, Salinity Management in the Shatt Al-Arab River, International Journal of Engineering & Technology, 7 (4.20) (2018) 128-133 (19) (PDF) Salinity Management in the Shatt Al-Arab River. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330565088_Salinity_Management_in_the_Shatt_Al-Arab_River [accessed Nov 06 2019].

UN-ESCWA and BGR (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia; Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe). 2013. Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia. Beirut.

UNEP, n.d., accessed 2019, Shatt al-Arab. Environmental Change Hotspots. Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA). United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

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