davidhope & associates pty ltd
by David Hope
Published on the "My Point of View" page in the Australian Water Association’s journal "Water", February, 2000.
The name of a virtual theme park perhaps? Or another planet somewhere out there in space? Or maybe Earth in 2525?
It's hardly likely that a planet such as our Earth, with its abundance of life, could exist without water. And just as well, you might say, as everyone reading this piece depends on water to exist, and for much of life's enjoyment. Most of us also make a good living from it.
But will water always be of such great value to us humans? Will technology and our amazing human ingenuity render water virtually redundant across a wide range of current applications in the years to come?
There are certainly heavy pressures pushing technological development in this direction. The profligate use of water for sanitary and general household purposes, and for agriculture, is making fresh water increasingly scarce in many parts of the world. Agriculture yields are being affected by salinity, and rivers are polluted and destroyed through nutrient-rich or saline run-off. Water based municipal sewerage systems dilute household and industrial wastes making them expensive to treat, providing a constant source of concern over the impact of disposal or reuse on health and the environment.
Most municipal sewers are recidivist overflow-ers, allowing sewage into the rivers and creeks in so many places, that the problem can never be entirely beaten.
Research and development on new waterless or less-water technologies is most likely to be driven by needs - in crowded countries with water shortages, dry lands with the need for greater agricultural output or for special applications such as space travel. These technologies have the potential to become inexpensive mass-produced commodities, replacing existing "bulk" technologies as surely as PC's have replaced mainframe computers.
So which technological developments could replace our existing technologies and approaches?
In the household, there are quite a few:
- Composting toilets are already a reality. Further refinements in design could make waterless toilets odour-free "fashion items", with easily removable capsules which could be collected with the household garbage or used on the garden.
- Cooking can already be done with little water in a microwave oven. The future may see the greater use of partially processed food, which requires less preparation and cooking.
- Clothes may be made of materials (or treated with chemicals) so that they can be cleaned by simply shaking, or by being "washed" in some waterless appliance.
- Showers, baths and handwashing - and this is really one of the hardest ideas to contemplate - could be replaced by some waterless electro-mechanical person-cleaning device. Alternatively, a finely controlled air-water spray "cleaner" requiring minimal water use may be perfected.
- Water treatment machines - about the size and cost of a dishwasher - may treat any grey water produced and allow recycling for household and gardening requirements. These requirements could be supplemented by rain-water tanks, or with larger machines for commercial and appropriate industrial uses.
Many of these ideas are far from new, in themselves. In fact, a scheme involving composting toilets, greywater recycling and renewable energy is a feature of the new Charles Sturt University Campus in Albury. It won AWA's NSW Branch Award for Best Practice Water Cycle Management in 1999.
Should such technology become readily available as a commodity at household level, the water companies would be confronted with what is known in the classics as a "paradigm shift" and the implications are enormous. Customers would have the ability to completely disconnect from the water supply and sewerage systems, denying the water companies income, and threatening the financial viability of perhaps $100 billion worth of water industry assets in Australia alone.
In agriculture, Australia, with its history of food production and its dry climate, is well placed to be in the forefront of the development of less-water technologies - provided we have the vision and the energy! Organisations such as the CSIRO and the Cooperative Research Centres are already into this field and should be encouraged and funded.
The development of practical, low cost irrigation and fertilising systems, which minimise water drain-off and prevent run-off and the contamination of rivers, is an obvious opportunity. Other opportunities lie in the development of individual seed "pods", capable of providing the nutrients and most of the moisture needed through to cropping, or in plant varieties, which require less water in the first place.
Some of the scenarios mentioned above may be a long time coming. Future solutions may be entirely different and not readily foreseeable right now. What is more certain is that the world community will expect our relatively stable industry to change and move forward broadly in line with technology and cost trends in industry generally.
Western society has almost forgotten the great strides of the past - reticulated water supplies and municipal sewerage systems have eliminated plagues and disease, reduced pollution, and are essential for the very existence of modern cities. A much less-forgiving community now judges our industry on far tougher standards. In a kind of love/hate relationship, we are now more often on the wrong end of a great deal of criticism, for example - cryptosporidium in the water supply, polluted rivers or stormwater drains, proposals for dams, sewage treatment plants or ocean outfalls, or even relatively minor matters such as broken water mains.
How long will the community be accepting of our current approaches? Can we meet the greater expectations of the coming century? Will we be equal to the challenges? Let's have a go!
davidhope & associates