Realising sustainability

At a recent panel discussion amongst water industry leaders, I noticed that the word sustainability was being used quite liberally. On further questioning, I came to realise that it was all about financial sustainability of the companies themselves!

More than two decades ago, the Brundtland Report said that sustainable development was one which met the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. Many mega-conferences and reports later, sustainable has begun to be used interchangeably with green and eco-friendly and now blue has made an appearance too.

What’s more, those involved in the business of water or wastewater treatment often project themselves as apostles of environmental sustainability.

But as author Paul Hawken points out: “We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time than to renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product.”

It was heartening to hear Dr Zaini Ujang, Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Technologi Malaysia devoting his keynote lecture to the subject of sustainability of water/wastewater treatment technologies at Water Malaysia last week. “When you upgrade wastewater treatment systems, you require more energy for the additional units, so even though you are cleaning wastewater more effectively, you might end up acidifying lakes upstream,” he said.

To take the argument further, those involved in the business of producing renewable or “green” energy might well be polluting land, air and water. China’s booming solar energy companies have been reported to fall in this category.

What’s needed is a lifecycle assessment approach (LCA) or the “whole of the environment approach” with every business, every project. In the case of water or wastewater treatment designs, tools should be made available to help make decisions about which treatment processes to include in a project. It might be better, for example, to release partially treated effluent into oceans rather than go for advanced treatment, which only involves more energy use and production of sludge.

There ought to be a way of comparing processes on the basis of energy consumption, CO2-emissions, toxicity impacts, nutrient enrichment and consumption of various resources. According to Dr Ujang, this is just what is being developed  in the EU-funded FP6 Neptune project, which focuses on removal and recycling of nutrients, micropollutant and ecotoxicity removal, energy optimisation and production, sludge inertisation as well as reuse of sludge and of its resources (www.eu-neptune.org).

But, as Professor Gatze Lettinga, winner of this year’s Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize puts it, the realisation of sustainability requires drastic conceptual changes. He mentions the existence of  powerful, established groups and institutes which feel threatened by change and therefore obstruct it.

Will real environmental sustainability remain an elusive dream? The next few decades will tell.

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