The Future of Water


What we think of as normal and what we planned for as normal and the infrastructure that we built to deal with normal isn’t normal anymore. Normal is gone. New water restrictions have been imposed in Cape Town, South Africa. In India, rising temperatures threaten to make a severe water crisis there even worse. The greatest global risks of our time, the shortage of water. By 2050, the United Nations says more than 5 billion people could be facing water shortages across the globe. Normal is gone because populations around the world have grown so large Normal is gone because humans are now changing the climate and we’re in a completely new set of conditions, and environments, and extreme events. You can look at water problems and easily work yourself into a panic. We’re talking about 95 percent of the population is actually living today in a country that has less water than it did 20 years ago. Take the nation of Namibia in the southwest corner of Africa. It’s named for the Namib Desert, which is one of the oldest deserts on earth. So this may seem like a weird place to come looking for the future of water. There are no running rivers within Namibia. They’re only on our borders. So, we are always in a state of uncertainty with our water supply. So, this is probably the worst place to have a major city built on. And yet, Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, isn’t dying of thirst. Windhoek found a radical source of water that’s abundant and available to a city of any size, no matter how dry. Here, you’ll find a facility with a unique mission. There was just simply not enough water from, from the sources around Windhoek And they looked at what do we have? We have a lot of waste water. Water reclamation. We basically drink our wastewater, our shi***** water, sorry to say. But yeah. While many cities usually just clean up sewage and then dump it into a river, Windhoek takes that treated water and sends it into their water recycling plant. There’s a system of tanks and pipes where any leftover solid matter gets filtered out, microorganisms are killed off, and even antibiotics and hormones get broken down. The last step involves an ultrafiltration membrane. Which will filter out basically all suspended particles, all bacteria and all viruses. Then it’s mixed with other treated water that’s collected from an underground aquifer and reservoirs for seasonal rain. Which means that every time someone in Windhoek opens a tap, about a quarter of what comes out is recycled waste water. It is both miraculous in one sense that you can have disgusting water that you shouldn’t be drinking that is completely unhealthy for you. But at the same time, it’s just H2O. And if you take everything around that H2O away, then you end up with pure water again. The system is monitored around the clock and the water is continually tested, both in the facility and in samples sent to independent labs. We do this for every four hours. I’m sure. I know. I’m the one who produces this water. I know the quality of this water. So, I trust my own product. We cannot afford to lose the trust of the people drinking the water. And that is not people far away, that starts with my family, with my friends. So we can’t afford to even slip up once because if we messed up once, we’re out of the business. I say “Cheers.” Building that trust means contending with an understandable aversion to dirty water. When a cholera epidemic broke out in London’s Soho neighborhood in 1854, British scientist John Snow paved the way for the modern field of epidemiology by tracing the outbreak to a tainted well. So, it’s not surprising that the dangers of mixing drinking water and wastewater are feared. There’s thousands of years of history packed into that resistance And that has served us well. But we need to add this idea that water can be cleaned. You can use it, it’s dirty, clean it up, use it again. And this technology isn’t something newfangled that people living in Windhoek recently had to accept. Namibians have been drinking recycled water for the past half century. Windhoek took this giant leap forward because in the 1950s they nearly ran out of water and had to ration it. Those people, are they growing horns, or are they funny looking, you know? Are they still normal? There are no health outbreaks, no epidemics or something that happened as a result of our reuse directly. There’s nothing. In the end, it came down to a point, it’s this, or nothing. So it was a matter of survival. Since the plant was first opened, Windhoek has faced more droughts and that’s lead to more demand that even more water be recycled. It’s always been that sort of saving grace. So, once the community actually accepted it, they now rely on that to bring them through tough periods. Since Windhoek’s adopted this technology, a handful of other cities have embraced drinking their recycled waste water, but in other places, this technology has been met with resistance. Toilet water is toilet water. Dam water I don’t think has been toilet water, ever. It’s toilet water. What do I look like, a dog or something? I ain’t drinking no toilet water. But while Windhoek might seem extreme in how it handles its wastewater, it’s likely that many people are already drinking some wastewater. Everybody lives downstream of somebody. There is a waste water pipe put into the Mississippi River every eight miles from Minneapolis to New Orleans. So, everybody downstream of Minneapolis is pulling water out that 10 or 20 or 40 other cities have used. So that idea of pure water, everyone likes to think that they’re drinking pure water but it’s just because you simply don’t know what you are drinking. As water gets scarcer, Windhoek is looking at the more expensive and energy-intensive option of pumping desalinated water from the coast to the inland city. But the city is also emphasizing something else: conservation. In her home, Mayday Thomas closed off all the taps except for the shower head. Instead of letting water run freely from the taps while they cook or clean, they fill a 20-liter bucket and take water from there. When you open a tap it doesn’t tell you that you’ve opened two liters or five liters or 20 liters. We’ve experienced droughts, say, 2013 and then now 2016. who says there’s not going to be another drought the next two years or next three years? And watching how much water you use becomes even more critical when you go to the shantytowns on the outskirts of Windhoek that that rely on communal taps. And in some of the newer settlements, they’re still waiting for them to be built. The same day that those people fill up the tank is the same day the water runs out Shali Eminent DeMario says his section of the neighborhood relies on a tank that’s only filled sporadically. You have to save water. Each and every time you have to make sure there is water for tomorrow. Even in Windhoek, it’s the more affluent neighborhoods that use up a higher percentage of water, sometimes on things like sun-exposed pools and lush gardens. If you’ve never experienced water scarcity or water shortage, obviously you won’t think about the water because your system is like that; you open the tap and it’s there. It’s not just water from the tap. That’s not the source of water. The developed world has lived through what I think of as about a century of the golden age of water. People never thought about it. It was unthinkingly clean and safe. It was unlimited and it was essentially free. The problem is that that whole system is invisible and we aren’t living in the golden age of water anymore. As more places across the globe start to feel the pressure of dwindling access to freshwater, what Windhoek can teach us is that dealing with this problem takes innovative technology, but just as importantly, it’ll take thinking about water way before we turn on a tap, and long after it goes down the drain. In the end, all global water problems, as severe and real as they are, aren’t going to be solved at the global level. They’re going to be solved at the individual level by decisions we make about the appliances we buy and the kinds of gardens we plant. It’s going to be solved at the community level by decisions about how we manage our storm water, and our local streams, and our local rivers. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Many other cities and countries have gone through this. The future has arrived in some of them. And we can learn from their future for our future.

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