Water: yesterday, today and tomorrow | Infrastructure news

The WISA YWP-NW together with the Northern Branch of the Groundwater Division (GWD) and the North-West University Geoscience Society (NUGS) held a hybrid event focusing on the different facets of the water sector looking at the past, present and future directions.

The past

Water has been with us, and we have been with water forever.

“The very first ten versus of the Bible mention water and creation. In the Quran, there is a reference of how all life is made from water. The Quran states that Allah ‘made from water every living thing.’ Another verse describes how ‘Allah has created every animal from water.’ In Buddhism, water is seen as a life giver that symbolises purity, clarity and calmness. It is also believed that water was formed in the early universe during the big bang, as the fusion of hydrogen and oxygen atoms occurred,” states Professor Carlos Bezuidenhout, director of the Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management, North-West University.

In 500 BC, there was already a sewer system in Rome to separate solids from water. A map of ancient Pompeii illustrates the presence of public and private toilets.

“However, in medieval times, water was undervalued and mistreated because there appeared to be an abundance of water. This led to outbreaks of cholera and typhoid.  These outbreaks were always followed by a spike in technologies that brought fresher water to cities or transported human waste out of the cities. Groundwater technologies were developed to extract fresh water from aquifers and sewer lines were built in these European cities, many of which are still operational today. An abundance of technologies was developed for treating water to potable standards,” adds Professor Bezuidenhout.

The present

Today, there is a huge focus on research and technologies that assist in achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: clean water and sanitation for all. This is because SDG 6 plays a role in achieving all other SDGs. There is also an increased appreciation of the importance of sanitation as well as its link to clean water and health of communities. There is a link between poor sanitation and increased mortality rates. Currently, flush toilets are a huge part of sanitation in South Africa. But there is a growing onsite sanitation market where the sludge can be used as a resource (biogas, bricks, fertiliser).

Water now faces challenges such as pollution and climate change.

“Water pollution in agriculture has dire consequences for human health. In many parts of Africa, polluted and untreated water is the only water available and is often used for recreation, religious and household purposes, negatively affecting the health and livelihoods of people,” states Professor Bezuidenhout.

Organic and microbial pollution of rivers, dams, aquifers and oceans are typically caused by the increase in wastewater loading due to population growth. This wastewater contains dangerous pathogens, chemicals and anti-microbials that are difficult to treat. Professor Bezuidenhout explains that there are some ongoing studies that are investigating the removal of antibiotics from wastewater for the purposes of reuse.

Another pollution concern is the release of pretreated wastewater (by wastewater treatment plants in coastal areas) into the ocean, resulting in microplastics pollution and the release of antibiotic resistance mechanisms. Various harmful micro-organisms can live on these microplastics. Both microplastics and micro-organisms can have harmful effects on marine life and ecosystems. They can be ingested by marine organisms, leading to physical harm, and can also enter the food chain, posing potential risks to human health if consumed through seafood consumption.

The future

“For there to be a future, we need to handle these challenges, embrace new technologies, address policies and get political buy-in. If this does not happen, we could face a disaster. There could be a massive increase in anti-microbial resistance (mostly affecting the African continent), posing huge challenges (and expense) to health care,” Professor Bezuidenhout concludes.

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