“We have yet to develop a substitute for water”

man-hand-garden-growthHow true is this today?

For a long time, I agreed with my friends in the water and wastewater business, that their assets were largely immune from technological change and that, in fact, such change as we were likely to see, eg, improvements in trenchless technology, would be to their management benefit.  However, recent developments throw this easy, and comforting, assumption into question. Prolonged drought in Australia over a number of years has led to many changes to reduce our consumption of water (from the simple brick in the cistern to changing garden design to policies restricting the use of hoses for hosing down driveways and washing cars) and, in Canada, councils are struggling with pricing models that are not able to adjust to demand reduction brought about by environmental conservation.  And now, consider the nanotechnological toilet.  This is a toilet that does not need water, a sewage system or external power but instead uses nanotechnology to treat human waste, produce clean water and keep smells at bay, which is being developed by a British university.

Todays question:

What other changes (technological, cultural, environmental) are impacting our demand for what is shaping up to be the 21st century’s scarcest resource, and how is our infrastructure changing (or how does it need to change) to meet the challenge?

Again, links are welcome so that we can expand our media awareness, but please provide a brief summary so that following the link is optional, and limit links to two or the system may think that you are spam and throw you out!

4 Thoughts on ““We have yet to develop a substitute for water”

  1. Chris Adam on August 5, 2016 at 10:09 pm said:

    I support the observation that the prolonged drought changed the way that the Australian Urban community thinks about water (the country counterparts have a much better appreciation of the value of the resource). As conventional water sources diminished across the country, urgent action was taken to avert what could have been a disaster much worse than any economic malaise. In most cases it was the community that led the charge and reduced consumption from previously accepted “norms” of more than 300L/person/day to less than 130! What was more – there really was little in the way of obvious impact on lifestyle arising from the dramatic reduction in demand. So how much water do we really need? As has been proven post drought, if we reduce our water consumption we can save hundreds of millions in needless capital upgrades of the (expensive) water services networks.

    In the 1990s, the question was put that perhaps we could have different classes of water – a potable source for use inside the home and non potable water outside the house. The later would be recycled from effluent. While this concept of a third pipe system (providing a non potable supply) has largely failed, the question remains as to whether we need the same quality of water for all uses. Why not provide a lesser standard in bulk supply to the house and localised “polishing” of that small volume that we need for potable uses? Why not adopt “indirect potable reuse” of effluent? The counter argument that treated effluent is of a lesser quality ignores the fact that most water sourced are “recycled” (what, if any flow would reach the mouth of the Murray if all upstream towns were somehow banned from discharging their treated effluent back into the same river from which it came?). The technology exists today.

    What of other trends such as the tendency toward smaller lots and higher density living? An increase in connection density may change the traditional business model that assumes that a km of watermain may be required to serve 30-40 premises. What if that same km of main could serve 80 connections (as it does in some areas).

    Beyond this the question arises why do we need water at all? Is it just the service that we need for most uses that we now use water for? Is it not the case that we use water as a convenient medium of disposal when new technologies could provide a workable alternative that is far less capital intensive (eg the “nano toilet”). why not use nanotechnology to pre-treat sewer in the network, thereby reducing the intensity of the final treatment facilities? why not exploit the energy contained within effluent to provide a renewable fuel source? Why not use traditional sanitary infrastructure in new ways – could the toilet provide an early warning health care system which tests effluent for various physiological indicators which could lead to early diagnosis of disease well before they become symptomatic. These are real projects being piloted around the world.

    I agree with you penny – it would be unwise for those in the water industry to think themselves immune to technological change

  2. David Hope on August 6, 2016 at 6:48 pm said:

    What Chris says above makes great sense. Part of the issue has been one of pricing. It is relatively cheap to deliver water through pipes. Water is a scarce resource and the impact of climate change has the potential to make it more scarce. Over-utilisation, without control, of aquifers has exacerbated the problem. Yet a single use of water is such a waste of this resource. I feel that the technology is already in existence to reuse water many times. The use of nanotoilets will convert blackwater to greywater and reduce the technological requirements for water reuse.

  3. Canada is not the only water entity suffering from revenue reduction due to conservation; Australian water authorities councils are struggling with pricing models that are not able to adjust to demand reduction brought about by water conservation. This places significant stress on maintenance and improvement programmes that are revenue-funded. Reduced flow rates in the water network lead to increased sedimentation and water-chemistry challenges. In a reduced revenue model, innovation is both encouraged and necessary.


    • Looking for pricing models to solve the technical problems brought about by increased sedimentation and water-chemistry challenges, is rather like looking under the lamp-post for keys lost in a dark alley – we know a lot about pricing models so this approach is an easy one to take, but it is unlikely to yield a useful solution. Innovation is definitely needed, but I think it is time we stopped looking for innovative ‘pricing’ solutions and started looking at innovative ‘value’ solutions – such solutions could start with looking at alternative ways of water provision, such as integrated resource management techniques.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation