To drink or not to drink, wonders Australia

The debate about drinking reclaimed wastewater is gathering momentum in Australia as the country suffers from a severe drought – probably the worst on record. 

In the Australian state of Queensland, the Premier Peter Beattie cancelled a referendum on wastewater recycling saying that falling water levels had left his state administration with no option but to introduce recycled water. 

Admitting that he had broken the promise to hold a referendum, Mr Beattie said instead of spending 10 million dollars on holding the referendum, it was better to use it for tank rebates and encouraging people to retro-fit their homes. He also warned that other Australian states might eventually have to do the same because of mounting water shortages.  

However, at least three other states have no intention of letting their residents drink reclaimed wastewater. New South Wales (NSW) Premier Morris Iemma is reported to have said that drinking recycled wastewater in Australian capital cities is not inevitable. The NSW government has ruled out adding treated sewage to the Sydney water supply and instead plans to build a 125 megalitre per day desalination plant.  

South Australia’s Premier Mike Rann says that they already use treated effluent to irrigate crops, but they will not go any further. “We believe it should be used for irrigation water, not for drinking water,” he said to an Australian paper. The same logic was echoed by the Acting Minister of Victoria who said that investing in recycling water for industry use, and freeing up freshwater for drinking, was a much better way to go. 

More fuel was added to the debate when Prof Don Bursill, an acclaimed water scientist, who had overseen the national drinking water guidelines in 2004 said that there were too many risks involved with drinking recycled wastewater. “You can turn anything wet into drinking water if you have enough money,” he told an Adelaide paper. “The risk is orders of magnitude higher than when dealing with conventional sources.” 

Mr Beattie and other supporters of water recycling have the backing of the Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who has advocated water recycling for a long time. With elections around the corner, the political leaders of the country are eager to be seen as tackling environmental problems. Mr Howard predicts that irrespective of who comes to power in the elections, wastewater recycling will get the green signal.  

Singapore has already taken the step to produce NEWater. Now the spotlight is on Australia’s decisions to handle its water crisis.  Water companies are waiting to see the decisions translating into contracts. Already, companies such as Veolia Water and Black & Veatch have bagged contracts connected with the Western Corridor Recycled Water Project which will be the largest recycled water scheme to be constructed in Australia. Desalination projects have also received a major boost in the continent. 

Malcolm Turnbull, the new federal minister in charge of the environment and water resources put it best when he said “Don’t rule out desalination because it is expensive, or recycling because it sounds yucky, or building a dam.” He told the Australian media that everything should be put on the table – all the economic, environmental and financial costs should be assessed and then a decision should be made. Sensible advice. 

One thought on “To drink or not to drink, wonders Australia

  1. I agree with Prof Don Bursill, that the health effects of the indirect water reuse are not well known and understood because this water may contain man-made pollutants such as endocrine disruptors (drugs, cosmetics, etc.), NDMA, and dioxins which may impact human and environmental health over time. Most of these compounds may accumulate in living cells and exhibit toxicity or carcinogenic effects after they reach a particular threshold, which threshold may not be reached for years. A number of these compounds have a very small size molecules and over 50 % of their content can pass through the reverse osmosis membranes used for water purification and ultimately find their way in the drinking water system.

    On the other hand, the reverse osmosis systems of water reclamation plants concentrate the pollutants in the source waste water 3 to 5 times. As the man-made pollutants are concentrated several times, some of them may reach a threshold that can impact the hormonal balance of aquatic life and trigger sex changes or carcinogenic effects. Such impacts may not be discernible in discharges from wastewater treatment plants where the same compounds are of several times lower concentrations.

    On the other hand, the all-inclusive cost of production of drinking water from wastewater is significant any in many cases may exceed the cost of water production by seawater or brackish water desalination. Taking into consideration that the ocean water typically does not contain man-made pollutants, seawater is a much better source of drinking water than wastewater. Therefore, in most cases seawater desalination would a more viable alternative than indirect potable reuse.

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