/ 25 March 2011

Recycled water is still fit to drink

Recycled Water Is Still Fit To Drink

South Africa’s water is too cheap so there is no incentive to drink recycled water. This is the opinion of water experts who gathered last Wednesday at the Siemens Water Day to debate the country’s water future.

“I don’t think this is a technology problem, it’s a mindset problem. We need to invest in education since I don’t think we’re approaching this correctly since water is both a social and economic resource. This is our Apollo 13 moment as our backs are against the wall and we have no choice but to succeed,” said Dr Anthony Turton, vice-president of the International Water Resource Association.

Turton said South Africa has 38-billion cubic litres of water available in its dams, which are the country’s main source of water, but by 2035 demand will be for 65-billion cubic litres. There is technology to save water and recycle it, and at a minimum we should be recycling each litre of water 1.7 times by 2035, he said.

Mitch Summerfield, of Siemens, said, “There is a huge perception issue. Everyone around the world drinks recycled water but there is still this perception that it’s dirty.” Summerfield, vice-president of food and beverage industries at Siemens, said any water you drink probably went through a dinosaur and numerous other animals but people do not think about that.

In Singapore, which has practically no water resources and imports much of its water from Malaysia, negative perceptions have been overcome by a national education programme that has rebranded recycled water as reclaimed water that is even cleaner than tap water. As a result, 30% of its water comes from waste water, said Summerfield.

South Africa is trying to ensure that all its water is of potable [drinking] quality, but most of it goes to industry, which does not need such clean water, said Graham Trusler, chief executive officer of Digby Wells and Associates, an environmental consulting company. This has come about because we do not understand what quality of water is needed for different processes, he said.

Trusler envisions a system where we split water into different quality streams and have small water plants based in factories that recycle waste water to standards required by industry. Creating different water pipelines with smaller water plants recycling locally, rather than massive centralised plants, is part of an international shift, said Kevin Whitfield, head of the strategic deployment and financial products unit at Nedbank.

At the moment, organisations and municipalities see waste plants as a drag on their budgets and this needs to change: “Waste needs to be seen as a product which is worth a lot of money, not as a cost,” he said. This will push waste plants to become profitable entities that can be invested in, he said.

The eMalahleni Water Reclamation Plant in Mpumalanga is at the forefront of waste-water recycling, where it takes acid water from mines and cleans it. But according to its chief executive Peter Gunther, it is not yet profitable because it sells water to the municipality at R4.85 a kilolitre but the process costs around R9 a kilolitre.

For such plants to become commercially viable, prices would have to increase, which will force a change in consumer’s habits. If they were to sell the water back to the grid at its real cost in the prevailing climate it would be deemed too expensive by consumers.

South Africa’s annual rainfall is half the world average and water infrastructure is crumbling. The M&G is keeping tabs