Addressing water scarcity: reduce, reuse, recycle
Usable water is a precious commodity. The saying “without water there is no life” becomes very real in times of drought as individuals and communities are impacted by the scarcity of supply.
It is during these times that there is a greater focus on our water resilience. The remedy to these issues is often reactive, including the implementation of water restrictions and the identification of new drinkable water sources.
Ideas and strategies are divided between short-term emergency measures and longer-term infrastructure needs. In addition to water restrictions, short-term actions include supplying water to communities via truck or train. Longer-term strategies require the expansion of the pipeline network to support bringing and or building desalination plants online or conveying water from areas of surplus inventory to those areas in need.
With the rain we’ve experienced over the past few weeks, the focus has again shifted away from water scarcity and the solutions required to build water resilience for our communities.
To build resilience there needs to be a transformative approach to the way we store, manage, reduce, reuse and recycle this precious commodity. Our challenge is to implement systems that ensure water remains a sustainable and accessible resource for all, over the long term.
What’s impacting our water supply?
When water is impacted by old or emerging contaminants, the available resource shrinks. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), for example, are a man-made class of chemicals that can affect our water supply. They have been used in thousands of commercial and industrial products for decades and can now be found throughout our environment, including remote areas around the world.
PFAS are persistent because they bioaccumulate in the environment, and as such, they have truly become a global problem. The health and ecological impacts of PFAS are still being evaluated. There are chemicals within the PFAS family that have some of the lowest exposure guidelines in the world. With PFAS becoming more widespread than previously envisaged, there is the possibility that all water catchments will be impacted over time.
Our approach to water management must therefore encompass every component of the process, from catchment, to storage, treatment and distribution systems.
An unpredictable economic model
Society tends to view water as an entitlement and less so as a resource using traditional economic criteria. Even though water is an essential ingredient to life, it appears decoupled from the laws of supply and demand. This is evidenced during times of drought, when water as a diminishing resource should experience exponential growth in its price — that is, demand exceeds supply. The rate of growth and the magnitude of price increase is not readily apparent and hence does not follow economic theory.
Society relies on water being transported in via truck and train to meet times of need. An alternative approach is to change the relationship we have with water and revalue water as the precious commodity it is. In doing so, the economic justification to implement long-term sustainable infrastructure and solutions would be met.
These long-term objectives can be extremely expensive to implement. The solution then needs to shift to a local and regional level. Solutions to treatment, storage and distribution can then match the price end users are willing to pay; however, the relationship we have with water needs to be focused on ‘reduce, reuse and recycling’.
So, what can we do?
We know that external economic and environmental factors will continue to impact our water supply and access to it.
To address these issues, there needs to be more work on water audits that look at reducing consumption, especially in water-intensive industries, losses during distribution leakage and evaporation, and recycling/reusing water to decrease demand and increase supply.
The harsh truth is that Australia is one of the driest continents on the planet. Industries that use a lot of water should be challenged to reduce demand on supply, whether in drought or surplus periods. All water consumers should take a holistic approach and consider reuse/recycling options before drawing on new fresh supply or returning water to the environment following treatment.
Ultimately, a better balance between the economy and the environment is needed, and the solution to that is two-fold:
By adopting an approach that acknowledges water as an asset, better management of this precious resource can be achieved.
Our challenge is to reduce water demand by including water balance/requirements in development and planning approvals and look at holistic and sustainable approaches to water management.
Australians already tend to be water smart based on a long history of drought exposure. We have an opportunity to further improve our efforts through ongoing education focused on conservation strategies. As a country, we need to acknowledge that water is scarce, and not only just in times of drought.
A long-term, sustainable approach to water supply planning in both capital and regional locations will go a long way towards conservation efforts.
There are a number of strategies that we actively participate in on a regular basis. Expanding these efforts and implementing new ones will enable us to increase our usable water supply. These include:
- Recycling and reusing grey water: Greywater is relatively clean and comes from baths, sinks, washing machines and other kitchen appliances. When treated properly, greywater can be used for laundry, toilet flushing and irrigation around the house. Treated greywater can also be used to irrigate both food- and non-food-producing plants.
- Introducing new ways to reuse impacted water: Find new ways to cost-effectively treat impacted water so that it can be reused by promoting innovation and bring together land management practices that promote efficient and effective use of water.
- Auditing and eliminating water loss: Minimise system losses and work to eliminate losses of water through the conveyance system via evaporation, broken pipes and wasteful habits.
These are just a few of the many ways we can be working to preserve our most precious resource. Long-term success will rely on a collective commitment to reduce, reuse and recycle.
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