Wastewater can be readily turned back to freshwater, if only cultural concerns can be allayed
If one were to suggest that wastewater could be used as an efficient source of fresh water, a likely rejoinder would be serious doubt and, at the very least, a pinched face and a declaration along the lines of “Ew, that’s gross.”
Call it “the yuck factor.”
Yet capturing and reusing wastewater for municipal and household use, agricultural and industrial production, and recharging depleted aquifers is precisely what researchers writing in the latest issue of Science suggest needs to happen in order to address the world’s growing water crisis.
“[D]rought conditions are a serious problem both in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, and with climate change and population growth that problem is likely to get worse,” said Stanley Grant, lead author of the article and a professor of engineering at the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Melbourne. “And the options that we have for addressing the water needs of populations really are … dwindling,” he added.
Grant and his co-authors reviewed dozens of scientific papers examining ways wastewater might be reused or water used more efficiently. Their article appears in a special issue of Science called “Working With Waste,” which focuses on the myriad problems of waste and how to reduce its burden in the future.
Historically, Grant said, nations have augmented water supplies by building dams or constructing pipelines or aqueducts for transferring water from a more plentiful source to one with a water deficit. More recently, he added, nations have turned to desalination plants that convert seawater to potable water.
“In many cases the rivers that we’ve been tapping are simply dry,” Grant said. “Many of the world’s largest rivers and most important rivers, like the Nile, for example, or even the Colorado River in the U.S., are many years not reaching their deltas, which obviously has very significant implications, not only for human water security but also for ecosystem sustainability.”
Facing a drier future
Yet the temptation to tap rivers, oceans or aquifers, no matter how shortsighted those efforts may seem, is often difficult for governments to tamp down.
Consider the scope of the world’s water crisis. According to the World Water Council, 1.1 billion people live without clean drinking water and 2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation. Millions more die each year from waterborne diseases.
The projected impacts of a warming atmosphere and oceans on the Earth’s hydrological cycle — dry regions likely becoming drier, while wet ones become more wet — will likely exacerbate this already dire situation.
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