Where are the brave hearts on water?
Try saying you work in the water industry when in London, without someone quoting the statistic that the water's been through seven people before you drink it. "Is it true?" they ask. And they giggle, as if to say, "Are we mad? That's disgusting, but hell, we're still here!"
Ask them what they mean by it, and mostly, they don’t really know. They actually don’t know if the water is taken from end of pipe and put back into the tap or the drinking water plant or put into the river first, or whether it is the whole rain cycle we are talking about.
Similarly, if you ask a water engineer why we don’t do direct potable reuse in the UK, they will answer that the public will not accept it. And yet, my unsubstantiated research would suggest that in London, people think they are already ‘accepting it’ on some level, they just do not quite know what it is that they are accepting, or whether they are sensible to accept it.
Every water engineer knows that it is perfectly technically feasible, safe, and on occasion, environmentally practical, to reuse wastewater for public supply, but, outside Singapore, that information is guarded. No company would go it alone, not with the risk to reputation that might engender, in selling it to their customers.
This means that direct potable reuse is treated like the industry’s dirty little secret. Customers are treated like children who must on no account hear the sordid truth, they are simply too immature.
If the UK is to build resilience and efficiency into its supply, this state of affairs cannot continue. Further, if the ambition to develop wastewater treatment plants as ‘resource factories’ is to be realised, the use of outputs, like clean water, needs to be as flexible as possible to maximise their combined benefits.
Ofwat has mandated water companies to communicate with their customers and surely that means explaining all of the options available to them. If it is more cost effective and environmentally sound to further treat the part-treated water coming out of the sewage plant, rather than extract it further downstream from the dirtier river, customers need to know.
Because no company would take the risk, the whole industry needs to line up, along with the Government, engineering associations and academic institutions and the supply chain to make the case. Just as the 2012 drought was characterised by a shared and coherent approach to explaining the science, so does the case for direct potable reuse.
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