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Urban water industry still not reckoning with catastrophic climate change

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The Bolivar water plant in South Australia, where a proposal for a needed upgrade was rejected (Screenshot via YouTube)

Pollutants, such as dangerous drug waste, are contaminating our water system and having detrimental effects on the environment, avers Dr Peter Fisher.

THE PALASZCZUK GOVERNMENT recently hit the proverbial panic button: what if Queensland's bushfire and cyclone seasons collide later this year under the influence of climate change, but firefighters and emergency workers from southern states aren’t able to lend a hand because they’re fending off their own contagions? The Australian Defence Force is also worried about its resources becoming overstretched by natural disasters.

Having been to hell and back, it’s refreshing that at least someone in authority is prepared to own the idea that all manner of things could go wrong or become uncontrollable if we persist along the present trajectory towards climate breakdown — unless, that is, countries triple climate emission targets in order to keep global temperature rise to 2°C.

Greta’s world: An alternate reality

Yet, in the same week that Greta Thunberg made her impassioned plea to the U.N., and the IPCC released a special report, which found that a combination of storm surge and rising sea levels could monster coastal development, there came an announcement that Sydney is set to double the size of its desalination plant.

Maybe Sydney is a place where the laws of nature are different — no chance that the sea will be a problem here or indeed for other cities hocked to desalinated supply, which has been touted by the industry as operating independently of rainfall (but not emissions). If Earth could become violently inhospitable as the ,student activists contend – in the absence of drastic emission reduction – why would you situate a cornerstone of “water security” in the front line of global warming? Residents at Mont Blanc can testify as to the insanity of being in that sort of situation.

Growth and liveability: Incidents, rampaging uncertainty and emergency warnings

Such developments don’t appear to be countenanced in the water industry’s recent sustainability mantra, with its pastiche of slogans like "growth and liveability", "security through diversity" and ‘"supply independent of rainfall". These prescriptions could have been written a decade or two ago (remember “future-proofing”?), before the climate showed distinct signs of being fazed.

This isn’t a world where you can go forward in the measured way of old – another addition to desalination plant capacity here, a bit more fit for purpose irrigation water there – and so on – as the population continues to balloon under a growth and liveability drum beat. If not already, it’s becoming a first responder world — one laden with incidents, rampaging uncertainty and emergency warnings. Many have to do with contamination in one form or another and the ability to check their entry points into the water supply at source.

Drowned in problems

A sector already grappling with the big dry will have its work cut out coping with powerful storms, including flooding sewers and the commensurate overloading of wastewater treatment plants. And, of course, brimming sewers also offer to return the compliment by discharging their evil contents into waterways and the sea. At the other end of the size scale, rain events like those experienced in FNQ earlier in the year could see the carcasses of thousands upon thousands of drowned livestock polluting groundwater, leaching into rivers in the process.

Back at the dams, it doesn’t get a whole lot easier either. More frequent and intense fires, apart from resourcing issues, already look to be triggering fundamental changes to the vegetation, with unknown consequence. Meanwhile, post-fire downpours promise to transport vast sediment loads and PAH contaminants into the storage, where toxic algal blooms from higher surface temperatures offer a further risk to product safety.

And that’s clearly a vital consideration. 

On both sides of the equation

The growing challenge of delivering a reliable and safe water supply means that energy use is growing. The United States, for example, experienced a 39 per cent increase in electricity usage for drinking water supply and treatment, and a 74 per cent increase for wastewater treatment over the period 1996-2013, in spite of improvements in energy efficiency.

As climate change applies yet more pressure on water infrastructure, responses such as desalination plants, higher standards of treatment and long-distance piping threaten to add even more to this energy burden. As a result, the water industry will increasingly be both a contributor to and casualty of climate change.

Meanwhile, Australia’s emission accounting system has patently failed to move with these developments and is stuck with a dated perception of the industry, which scatters its contributions over a myriad of categories, including electricity, stationary energy, transport, fugitive emissions, industrial processes and product use, agriculture, waste, land use change and forestry.

Responsible care: Mixing in action

Nearly two decades have passed since the USEPA first drew attention to the presence of drugs and personal care products in waterways, and whilst there has been much follow-up research and changes to practice offshore, it has failed to cut through in our parts. Look no further than Bolivar, South Australia, where a proposal to upgrade a treatment plant (by adding reverse osmosis) for the purpose of supplying recycled water to a fresh produce farm at nearby Virginia has been dropped. Cancelled, despite evidence that soft tissue vegetables like lettuce and cabbage can be repositories for feral drugs. Those of particular concern are antibiotics and highly toxic antitumor drugs.

The problem of antibiotic resistance is being exacerbated worldwide by the pollution of wastewater with leftover drugs, providing breeding grounds for resistant bacteria and their genes. The problem can persist for years, constantly refreshed by new discharges of both drugs and the resistant bacteria themselves, shed by people and animals.

These watery mixtures can also play home to PFAS, or Perfluoroalkyl, which has been linked to bladder and liver cancer, endocrine disruption, and developmental and reproductive toxicity. New research has established that it’s been found in sewage and is only partially stripped by Australian wastewater treatment plants, and therefore be likely to present in class A effluent.

Here, there and everywhere: The historic spread of PFAS in Northern Italian river courses and groundwater (Image supplied)

This is messy, to say the least, with a health and carbon duality to be controlled in destabilised settings. As noted, extreme storms can overwhelm water treatment processes and release contaminants into habitats, some possibly making their way into the food chain.

Water treatment plants are thus a last barrier to drug residues, and other synthetic chemicals being set loose into soils and waterways. However, their ability to strip out waste drugs varies enormously according to age, level of expertise and design standards, which, in turn, influences energy demand. Unquestionably, much more technology will be needed to meet revised standards of product safety, based on chronic exposure, such as activated sludge, trickling filters, chemical treatments, ultraviolet irradiation, membrane filtration and reverse osmosis. Any and all of these make it hard to stay carbon-neutral.

A partnership with medics

Here, health professionals can lend a hand by being aware of a need for pharmaceuticals to be managed as organic and persistent pollutants. They can help the water treatment industry by being aware of what their activities are putting into the sewerage and waste disposal systems, in view of the limited extent to which these systems can deal with the large number of drugs that are stable.

They could prescribe less toxic, less environmentally persistent, but equally effective drugs where possible, as well as trying to reduce overall drug use in the community. Last week’s call by the AMA for a ban on repeat prescriptions of antibiotics is a good start.

Raising the bar

Further, the industry needs to be more on the front foot, joining the climate emergency call and taking ownership of its burgeoning energy needs, starting with lobbying for a water category in national emissions. If utilities were monitored on the amount of electricity used per kilolitre of water processed and then rewarded (or penalised) accordingly, it would encourage the entire sector to up its game, from water supply all the way through to sewage treatment. 

In this way, it could become an influential, as opposed to a passive, player in decarbonising the cities of this planet and an exemplar in meeting the contingencies of a cantankerous climate.

Dr Peter Fisher is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture & Built Environment, Deakin University.

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