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Waste: The future of water

By Tausif Tajwar, June 3, 2021—

Around 71 per cent of the earth is covered with water. It can be safely assumed that we will never run out of this precious commodity and it will always be in abundance. If that is the case, then why do one in three people, globally, not have access to safe drinking water? Why do 1.2 million people die from water shortage, or unsafe consumption of water, each year? 

The simple answer is that 97.5 per cent of the water on Earth is seawater which is unfit for human consumption. But other underlying reasons are far more nuanced. While it is true that water itself can never be depleted on our planet, the sources of freshwater are extremely limited — and more importantly, are not always available where and when we need them. Half of the world’s entire fresh water can be found in only six countries. The inequitable distribution of this indispensable commodity has brought death and misery to people throughout history. The ancient Maya civilization faced successive internal collapses at the height of their cultural development largely due to droughts and water shortages, among other factors. This proved to be a catalyst for their rapid population decline over time.

Water demand, globally, has been projected to increase by 55 per cent in the next 30 years to sustain the requirements of our ever-growing population, which might reach 9.7 billion by 2050. This suggests that even countries such as Canada, which have an abundant supply of fresh water, cannot be entirely dependent on it. Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at NASA, has warned that “the water table is dropping all over the world,” after his study showed that many of the world’s freshwater sources are being drained faster than they are being replenished.

This is where wastewater comes in. Wastewater or sewage is defined as polluted water that has been affected by domestic, industrial and commercial use. Wastewater management can be the solution to the water problems of so many landlocked countries which barely inherit any freshwater supply. Once the treatment facilities of wastewater are developed, it will not only become a cost-effective alternative, but will also be a sustainable source of recyclable water. Additionally, It can produce nutrient-rich organic by-products which can be used as fertilizers.

Indeed, reusing wastewater is not just a theory. This has been in practice and implemented for decades. Potable reuse of wastewater has been growing 15 per cent a year in the United States. Singapore has been implementing this strategy since 2002 and there are reports of the water-scarce country of Namibia implementing Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) technology since the 1960s. According to the United Nations World Water Development Report in 2017, about 70 per cent of the wastewater collected in the Arab States was safely treated. European and North American countries had the highest relative access to wastewater treatment, at 95 per cent.

The Gauntlet spoke to Dr. Leland Jackson, scientific director of Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Calgary, to talk about the implications of reusing wastewater on food and energy security and how safe it is to consume it. 

“Municipal wastewater for direct potable reuse goes through several steps of filtration to clean it and to get rid of the disease-causing pathogens,” Jackson said. The water runs through a series of technologically robust purifying steps which include ultraviolet radiation, ozonation, reverse osmosis and ultrafiltration. 

ACWA partnered with Village Brewery and Xylem Inc. to produce Alberta’s first beer made with treated wastewater which was launched on Aug. 22, 2020. The water was analyzed by an independent lab and met all the Canadian drinking water guidelines set forth by the federal government. 

“We were able to achieve a reduction of pathogen markers by a power of 24 from the wastewater, which makes it as clean if not cleaner than the tap water in Alberta,” said Jackson.

Despite these statistics, Jackson still believes that the stigma surrounding reusing wastewater will always be prevalent in society and that the “yuck” factor is a real issue. Moreover, many developing countries may not have the infrastructure or the finances required to set up large-scale treatment facilities. In India, 78 per cent of sewage remains untreated, despite almost half of its population facing acute water shortages.

Wastewater is not a “waste” anymore. It is now an essential part of the solution to help communities build water resilience in the face of population and economic growth. The benefits of treating wastewater go beyond human and environmental health. Wastewater treatment mitigates climate change and helps reduce our carbon footprint by limiting the amount of methane — a strong greenhouse gas — present in untreated sewage to be released into the atmosphere and saving aquatic plant life from falling victims to chemical sewage. Managing wastewater also gives populations a sustainable method of fighting against climate injustice and water shortages. According to the Government of Canada, wastewater management is a priority — and it can even be Canada’s trump card to climate change.

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