Every day we read headlines about the impending water crisis. We hear experts say that in the coming decades, wars will be fought over access to viable drinking water rather than oil. Almost 800 million people around the world lack access to clean water, and that population is growing rapidly.
As one of the world’s most prominent cities, London is looking for ways to tackle this problem head on. A solution recently proposed by supplier Thames Water is one that would turn most people’s stomachs, but it prompts a worthy question: is it time to start getting radical about water conservation?
The utility has proposed the reintroduction of treated sewage water into the drinking water system as a way “to continue providing drinking water and collecting and treating wastewater, in a safe and reliable way, over the next 25 years.” Yes, that’s right. If implemented it would mean the water coming out of London faucets would technically have already passed through at least one other human being’s kidneys.
It’s certainly an idea that takes some getting used to, but according to Thames, it wouldn’t be necessary if we weren’t facing a severe lack of water resources in the very near future.
“It’s all about making sure there is enough water to go around, now and in the future,” Simon Evans, spokesman for the water company told The Guardian. “At the moment we supply 9 million people with water; by 2040, we predict we will be supplying 10.4 million people so we are going to need additional water.”
The process would see Thames Water reintroduce wastewater upstream, where it would mix with river water and go into a drinking-water treatment works, rather than simply flowing back out to the sea. Obviously the treatment methods would have to be extremely thorough, both before the wastewater is introduced back into the river, and after it’s captured by the drinking water treatment facility. Otherwise an upset stomach will be the least of London’s worries.
“The drinking water facility would have to be aware that they are starting off with so much more sewage – the pharmaceuticals in sewage are quite resistant to breaking down, so they would have to work that much harder to make sure the drinking water doesn’t have these chemicals in it,” said Dr Andrew Singer, a microbiologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. “It’s a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it. Whether the rivers are any better off for it, you can look at it two ways – the river will have more water in it, which is a good thing, but the water is going to be from sewage effluent and that’s more of an unknown.”
London’s only other options include building a new reservoir or piping in water from far away, kind of like what Las Vegas is already doing in the US. Thames’ long term plan is already open for public comment, though any actual implementation would be at least 15 years in the future.
Still, the mere suggestion brings the impending water crisis into sharp focus. It’s too late for conservation alone. All of our faucet aerators, short showers and watering only in the evening won’t help us now. It’s going to take something much more drastic to keep 8 or 9 or 10 billion of us properly hydrated–something like drinking recycled sewage.
The question is, are we willing to do it? Or will we just go to war and take it from those who can’t defend themselves, like wealthy nations do when it comes to so many other resources?
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