The differing pre-occupations of East and West

Singapore has always been at the forefront of trends in the water industry, and this year in no exception. Starting next week on 21st June, there will be a two week virtual SIWW conference with 20 webinars timed to try to capture the world’s water time zones of Asia, Europe and East Coast US in real time (Home (siww.com.sg)). The topics reflect the current pre-occupations of Singapore, which mainly follow those of the wider world. Themes include climate resilience and net zero, digital solutions and AI. On the membrane front, ceramics feature in two of the webinars. The topics give an insight into the thinking and prospects for innovation in the water industry, and particularly the areas of focus in South East Asia.

Conspicuous by its absence is the topic of emerging contaminants, whether persistent mobile toxic compounds including PFAS or micro-plastics. This dominates the discussion in North America and Europe. I think the reason for the difference in the focus of East and West has its roots in the industrial revolution. Economic development in the 19th century led to the development of wastewater collection systems using combined sewer overflows (CSO’s) in which rainwater was collected with sewage, and treated in a rudimentary manner. Over the years, treatment has improved to a point, but whenever it rains the system becomes overloaded and untreated sewage is dumped into rivers. The environment suffers and downstream abstraction for drinking water becomes strained.

Prior to the 2nd World War, the situation was broadly acceptable but in recent years, higher water usage and heavier rainfall have increased volumes significantly. In addition, the wastewater has become much more toxic. Since the 1960’s, we started using chemicals for agriculture and began to take more medicines. Too many of these chemicals end up in the river. Since they are persistent and recalcitrant, they are subsequently found in our drinking water because our wastewater and drinking water treatment plants are not designed to remove them.

Last month a conservative MP in the UK, Phillip Dunne, tried to introduce a private members bill which if successful would have been the first tentative step to addressing the problem (Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill 2019-21 (parallelparliament.co.uk)). Unfortunately, it was stymied by covid and ran out of time. The bill was designed to address the occurrence and severity of wastewater discharges into the UK’s rivers. The frequency and severity of these discharges is truly staggering, (eg Sewage discharged into rivers 400,000 times in 2020 – BBC News), and anyone swimming in the UK’s rivers should take note! Wild swimmers are known for battling the cold in the UK’s rivers in winter. However, in reality, that is the least of their problems.

Of course, Philip Dunne’s bill would have been admirable from an environmental point of view, but potentially even more so for all of us who drink tap water. The chemicals we currently ingest in this way reduce our fertility and cause cancer.

The profligacy of our use of wastewater is disturbing. As discussed in previous blogs, wastewater should be a considered to be a precious resource for recycling, and it makes it much more difficult if we dilute it with stormwater. Even within the next decade, it is inevitable that we will have to turn to wastewater recycling in the south east of the UK, as well as anywhere else with high population density and low or intermittent rainfall. CSO’s are making that more challenging.

As they have developed their infrastructure in the last few decades, the economies of South East Asia effectively had a clean slate and have implemented membrane technologies widely. Storm water is routinely separated from wastewater giving a better chance to control the treatment and enhance the opportunity for reuse/recycling. In contrast, the western economies have had a millstone around their neck due to the forward thinkers of 150 years ago and we have been unable to shake this legacy even though it is totally inappropriate for the modern era. Asian economies see wastewater as a resource, not only for the water but for its other constituents. The absence of discussion at this year’s SIWW is telling. It’s a conversation they have already had while it is us who are just waking up. Hopefully, the UK Government’s own Environment Bill will adopt the lost provisions of Phillip Dunne’s bill and help to bring environmental protection and recycling options into the modern era.

Hope to see you in ‘Singapore’!

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