Why Water Matters

At Alimentary Systems, our chief purpose is to prevent discharges of untreated wastewater into a receiving environment.

Why the emphasis on wastewater? It is a supreme principle that ensures that life on earth can continue to thrive. It is also a principle that can be understood intuitively, observed both empirically and anecdotally, measured, and managed.

Our current epoch, the Holocene, is approximately 12,000 years old and coincides roughly with the advent of settled civilizations, including agriculture. Naturally, this occurred along abundant freshwater sources, such as rivers and lakes, with inevitable ocean access. Compare that to the evolution of modern humans, which as a species is about 3.2 million years old. In other words, we’ve been farming for less than 0.4% of our time on this planet.

These geological timescales provide a key input to understanding why we need to assess how we live—context. Without this context, the arguments for or against our way of life become meaningless.

One tool that provides additional metrics is the Planetary Boundaries, devised by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. What are these Planetary Boundaries? Put, these are nine physical limits, or boundaries, which, when crossed, will jeopardise the ability to sustain (human) life on earth.

The nine planetary boundaries identified are:

1.       Climate change

2.       Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction)

3.       Stratospheric ozone depletion

4.       Ocean acidification

5.       Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles)

6.       Land-system change (for example deforestation)

7.       Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms)

8.       Introduction of novel entities

9.       Freshwater use

These boundaries are impacted by anthropogenic activities, which is nerd-speak for human behaviour.

Climate Change receives the most press coverage but is arguably the hardest to understand. Why? Because “greenhouse gases” such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide constitute less than 0.05% of the Earth’s atmosphere. Moreover, you can’t see them, smell them or taste them.

Changes in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction) are also impossible for modern humans to understand. Urbanisation has led to a phenomenon where the prevalence of vermin—rats, mosquitoes, cockroaches, and other humans—constitutes the bulk of observable species.

Stratospheric ozone depletion is similarly difficult to understand. Moreover, the ‘ozone depletion’ referred to is what occurs in the stratosphere, 50 kilometres above the earth’s surface, so it is impossible for most humans to determine.

Ocean acidification is comparatively observable, particularly in coral bleaching and crustacean fish yield reductions, but again, this is limited to recreational divers and fishermen.

Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles) just add to the mumbo-jumbo, never mind that these are the key ingredients in jump-starting photosynthesis, without which none of us could survive. However, these flows do cause observable phenomena such as algal blooms.

People do understand the land-system change (for example, deforestation). Increased urbanisation and urban densification often lead to encroachment upon forests and parks, and there are enough people who support tree-planting initiatives. The risk here is over-correction, whereby humans plant large swathes of monocultures in the mistaken belief that they are somehow “offsetting” carbon dioxide.

Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms) is observable—try walking a few hundred metres in New Delhi, for example. While several contributors to atmospheric aerosols exist, a large proportion of these come from burning—be it forest, crop residue, or coal.

The introduction of novel entities is similarly observable, with plastic waste being a prime example.

This brings us to Freshwater Use – the north star of what humans should focus our collective efforts upon. Why? Simply because without freshwater, we cannot survive.

Water is life; we drink it, grow food with it, play in it, travel on it, transport stuff…

We can see dirty water, smell it and taste it. Dirty water makes us sick; it poisons our food, and it kills our children.

Hence, preventing wastewater discharge into any receiving environment should be our supreme principle. Our wastewater inevitably contains contaminants, including the aforementioned novel entities like plastics and chemicals, biogeochemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorous which cause algal blooms and kill off other species, leading to biodiversity loss.

Therefore, it stands to reason that wastewater discharges must be monitored and managed.

For humankind to survive and thrive, solutions must be founded on science and grounded in law. Water is natural capital, and the laws (and lores) governing freshwater use must not simply be limited to the water “take”. It is equally important, if not more important, to specify the quality to which it is treated before being discharged into a receiving environment, be it to land, into rivers or the ocean. In simple terms, if you cannot drink it, don’t discharge it.

The "quality of life" arguments that proponents of "development" make are specious at best; what quality of life do we have if we can't drink from a stream or swim at the beach?

Alimentary selected for CleanTech Delegation to South Korea