To engineer sustainable solutions for water – value it differently

Brett Cherry, Newcastle University

Engineering sustainable solutions to the world’s water problems is not a pipe dream, people have been doing it for centuries. Water is the essential ingredient to life. But how water is valued globally is in need of a complete overhaul if we’re going to get serious about addressing global challenges that threaten our own species as well as others.

Fortunately, there are many innovative and common technical and social solutions to water resource problems that affect all countries, but especially low to middle-income ones.

Here are some key examples:

Engineering is necessary to delivering all these as well as similar solutions, but applying them has much to do with context and meaningful interactions with all stakeholders involved.

Universities are major players in addressing the world’s water crisis

The majority of the world’s human population doesn’t have access to clean water, nor to adequate sanitation. Climate change impacts are growing in number and in magnitude and water is at the centre of many of them, often too much or too little. Universities have a strong role to play in tackling these problems along with many others to do with water. Newcastle University has been one of them for the past 70 years.

In the 70 years of research and teaching on water engineering at Newcastle University, there have been numerous contributions made to our understanding of water systems and the environment, along with many recent ground breaking research projects and facilities that make a difference locally and globally.

From the BE:WISe biological engineering wastewater treatment facility in Birtley, Gateshead in collaboration with Northumbrian Water, to the UKRI GCRF Water Security and Sustainable Development Hub that is working with countries in Asia, Africa and South America; Newcastle University engineers, scientists and social scientists are making a major difference to how we treat, conserve and interact with water.

Engineering is at the core of clean water and public health

Water and environmental engineering has had one of the most profound impacts on public health, and it is the duty of richer countries to ensure the integration of these beneficial impacts throughout the world. An eye opening fact is that it is possible to eliminate much of the illness and disease that currently plagues the world if adequate clean water and sanitation were implemented everywhere.

For example, the transmission of antimicrobial resistance (AMR)— the resistance of microbes to antibiotic drugs — is at least partly through wastewater sources, especially those that contain faeces. If it’s not taken care of properly, they end up in public waterways like rivers and lakes, and are therefore more likely to come into contact with people and animals.   

The world needs solutions that recognise water as a human right

The recognition of clean water and sanitation as a human right could help rather than hinder progress towards preventing the spread of AMR, and for that matter addressing any other major global challenge to do with water. Achieving this requires democratisation of water, as we know it today.

Privatisation will continue to have a large role in the provision of clean water and sanitation, however, doing it in a fair, just and democratic way is of great importance, and cannot be denied by markets, nor governments. Some forms of commodification do not easily co-exist with the human right to water with bottled water for profit an obvious example.

Through demonstration and implementation of water infrastructure solutions private companies, governments and communities could work together to make clean water and sanitation available to allWater poverty is a reality for high, middle and low-income countries alike. Similar to eliminating waterborne diseases like cholera, engineers make possible solutions that if implemented could make water poverty history.         

Climate change exacerbates the world’s water problems most of all 

While energy may underlie the causes of climate change, the climate crisis is influencing the world’s water systems in ways that make adaptation a massive priority for preventing extreme loss of life. For countries dealing with severe droughts, such as Australia, Kenya, Somalia and the USA, climate change is transforming their landscapes.

In the case of sanitation, less precipitation could lead to more problems for wastewater treatment, as it is less diluted and more concentrated. Traditional means of wastewater treatment may no longer apply to future climate scenarios and alternatives are needed.

The erratic behaviour of intense weather events like floods is certainly increasing; there is little doubt of this. Changes in short-duration heavy rainfall events are a ‘fingerprint’ of climate change. But climate adaptation measures, especially in highly populated areas of the world like cities, are not being implemented fast enough, although there appear to be some important exceptions such as Singapore.

While it seems unlikely if not impractical to engineer our way out of global water challenges, there are nevertheless ways to implement sustainable engineering solutions that will influence the planet for many generations to come.

To do this we must learn to value water differently and understand its multiple dimensions beyond monetary value. Otherwise, we risk leaving behind one of the very resources that we cannot live without. 

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