Cleaned-up and polished waste water or sewage as an option for drinking water is nobody’s first choice. Reluctance by countries to use treated waste water persists; The Caribbean has an aversion to waste water reuse or recycled water. This aversion to the recycling of waste water is described as the 'yuck factor' whereby people have an emotional response of disgust to the thoughts and feelings about recycled water, even though the water has been highly treated and is safe for consumption. Why can't we get over the 'yuck factor' when it comes to recycled water?
The contagion thinking is that once the water source has been contaminated or defiled it will always remain unclean, regardless of treatment. The negative associations and stigmas attached to this by society today must change and we must look at the potential of 'new water'. However, despite advanced treatment technologies around the world demonstrating that waste water can be purified beyond current drinking water standards, enticing people to drink recycled water requires overcoming the ubiquitous 'yuck factor'.
Water scarcity is one of the most pervasive challenges facing communities in T&T. Access to clean water and shortages of this precious resource was ranked as the number one global risk in the World Economic Forum’s 'Global Risks Report, 2015.
Parched communities across the globe are coming up with terms such as toilet-to-tap concepts, aided by marketing and educational campaigns. With growing water scarcity in T&T during the dry season, reclaimed waste water is an increasingly attractive option for meeting household water demand, especially in urban areas.
There is also an urgent need to collect more waste water treatment data from WASA in order to research better ways of assessing and reducing public health risks associated with emerging pollutants from reclaimed waste water which is an available source of new water.
In Singapore, for example, a waste water reuse plant has become a destination, drawing nearly millions of visitors per year, since a water educational centre opened in 2003. Approximately four per cent of Singapore’s drinking water resources comes from recycled waste water which is termed 'new water'.
Resilience to water scarcity requires a range of solutions including economic incentives, regulatory measures, and innovative technologies. One proven approach to help meet growing water demands, while safeguarding existing water supplies, is waste water reuse.
Waste water reuse can, and must, play a crucial role as part of a multi-pronged approach to securing a resilient, viable water supply. Water reuse technologies produce high-quality water at a lower life-cycle cost than developing new water supply and deliver a resilient, drought-resistant water source with valuable economic and environmental benefits.
Waste water gets cleansed with membranes and ultraviolet disinfection, and most of it goes to the supply industry, like factories that need large quantities of highly purified water for operations. The portion of treated waste water that is slated for the taps gets blended with reservoir water and cleaned further before it is piped to households. The technology for recycling waste water for drinking has existed for decades.
While the current surface water storage volumes for all major reservoirs across T&T were well below par, this indicates that the country can meet its urban water use with recycled waste water as a more reliable and sustainable water source. As long as urban households and industries continue to use large quantities of water, waste water will be readily available for reuse. It is incumbent on the water sector to play a key role in any education drive by highlighting successful water reuse strategies around the globe, and demonstrating the multiple benefits and significant potential of water reuse to lie at the heart of a multi-pronged approach to combating water scarcity.
Dr Kiran Tota-Maharaj
Head of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Centre for Water, Communities and Resilience(CWCR)
University of the West of England, Bristol (UWE Bristol)