Toilet to Tap – the reality of our drinking water

Toilet to Tap – the reality of our drinking water

At a recent Water New Zealand Conference, a keynote speaker showed a photograph of a toilet discharging directly into a drinking water tap.  While his message was vitally important, I wonder whether this sort of imagery is helping public acceptance of the idea that we need to consider using the output of wastewater plants for drinking water.

To illustrate the point, when I describe the photograph to most people, their reactions are generally, “Yuck, it makes me feel sick thinking about it.”   The reality is, however, that we have to address and change this attitude if we want a sustainable approach to water supply,

In Australia, during its recent severe drought, the reaction to using treated wastewater was very negative. I believe the problem was twofold: First, they asked the public their opinion. Secondly, it was a strange thing to do and not the norm. We should learn from this and not make the same mistake. 

Singapore has a very different approach.  It doesn’t recycle wastewater during times of drought; it does it all the time!  They constantly run their wastewater plants and pump the treated wastewater to the reservoirs feeding the water treatment plants.  By doing this, the public has no choice about the re-use of wastewater. Recycled water is the norm at all times.

The negative reaction is an emotional response with no logical, scientific or ethical justification. Treated wastewater is not the same thing as raw sewage and we need to get that message to the public in an understandable way.

The crazy thing is that we already do recycle wastewater in New Zealand.  Where do you think Hamilton, Ngaruawahia, Huntly and others discharge their wastewater?  The answer is the Waikato River.  Where does Auckland get some of its water? The Waikato River!  Where does Stirling in Otago get its water? From the Clutha River and upstream is Balclutha, Roxborough, Alexandra, Clyde and other towns which discharge their wastewater directly or indirectly to the Clutha River.

I believe we need to either educate the public (hard to do) or ignore public opinion (much easier).  What we don’t need is to generate the “Yuck” factor.  This is unhelpful and could stir up the same public separation in opinion as the fluoride debate.

Even if we start the discussion on water re-use especially in Auckland, when the time comes, I think we should just get on with what is required and not ask the public for their opinion. The other thing we should do is adopt Singapore’s approach and make it the norm to recycle our treated wastewater.  Maybe we should stop calling it wastewater and call it opportunity water or some other term to make it more, no pun uintended, palatable?

This thought leadership article is by Iain Rabbitts, a Senior Process Engineer at Harrison Grierson.

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