Let’s face it, we all feel a little bit icky when we think about toilet water generally.

If we are asked to think about transforming wastewater into drinking water, our stomachs are likely to respond with an indignant flip of protest. As much as the brain may try to reason, our natural impulses are stubborn, so while there is a weight of evidence and assurances that modern treatment technologies can create perfectly safe and pure water, there is an unavoidable psychological aversion to drinking water which has already been ‘used.’

However, we need to start coming to terms with alternative drinking water supplies as a very real opportunity to create efficient and sustainable water supplies for our cities.

The truth hurts

The truth of the matter is, we all drink ‘pre-loved’ water all the time. Water cannot be created, it is just constantly reinvented through the natural water cycle. Often, the recycling of water is even more direct in urban water systems, as wastewater discharged from one town merrily cascades down-river to the water supply of another.

In 2002, the City of Auckland added a much needed water supply from the Waikato River, extracting downstream of its competitive neighbouring city, Hamilton, whose residents gleefully joked “Flush twice please, Auckland needs the water.”

Australian cities and towns are no different – often settled near a major river, urban areas utilise the same waterways for water supply and discharge of treated wastewater and urban stormwater. Even when water supplies are solely from rural catchments, we are fooling ourselves to think that the cattle that populate our bucolic vision of the countryside haven’t done their business anywhere near the local stream. Somehow we all manage to turn a blind eye and put these ‘catchment scale’ water recycling systems in the acceptable box to avoid triggering an unwelcome stomach spasm.

So why is the use of recycled water for drinking water so hard to swallow?

Perhaps we have been brainwashed by too many mineral water adverts claiming that water has been mined from far away glaciers, dosed with the freshness of a spring day and blessed by pixies before it is bottled for our enjoyment, all the while giving us a false and hugely impractical expectation of how our water should be sourced. The clever spoof “Last Call at the Oasis” starring Jack Black, suggests we could all be enthused to taste ‘Porcelain Springs’ if the advertising was right:

New drinking water sources: the next frontier

The urban water supply challenges facing Australian cities are very real and urgent. Traditional surface water and groundwater supplies are strained and set to dwindle with the effects of climate change. More and more, cities are looking to desalinate seawater to secure water supply, with Melbourne recently placing its first order from the controversial Wonthaggi Desalination Plant in preparation for next summer. Desalination is not only far from our pixie-kissed impression of what a water supply should be, but is also highly energy intensive and adds a significant hike to the customer’s water bill.

On the other hand, recycled water could be smarter and more sustainable alternative to supplement drinking water supplies in cities, having several distinct advantages:

  • secure supply: treated wastewater can be recycled again and again
  • established collection and treatment assets: wastewater is managed locally and treated to a standard suitable to be released to the environment, so the collection and treatment systems are already in place, ready for ‘top-up’ treatment to be added to recycle the water to drinking standard
  • broader environmental benefits: much like waste, the reuse of local water helps to ‘close the loop’ and reduce pollution to the environment and reduce carbon associated with moving water around

The technology to utilise recycled water for safe drinking water exists, and feasibility has already been proven elsewhere. Parts of California already utilise treated wastewater as part of their drinking water supply, and plans are now afoot to expand schemes in the wake of the drought crisis. Similarly, Singapore has utilised alternative supplies for drinking water for the last 15 years.

What’s needed is a shift in social and political acceptance, and there’s nothing like a crisis to do that. Faced with the impacts of drought, we have seen public perspectives on water management change substantially in the past, and it’s likely they will again. Following the Millennium drought in Australia it has become increasingly common to recycle wastewater for non-potable supplies (not for drinking) such as irrigation and toilet flushing. However, the cost of duplicating plumbing and supply systems often makes these schemes commercially unattractive. If we are courageous enough to begin utilising recycled water as part of the water supply, the business case, if not the concept, is much more palatable.

If we just can’t get our head around a toilet being part of the water supply equation, there are other alternative drinking water sources to consider, such as harvested urban stormwater, which our cities produce in bulk and subsequently damage our waterways and bays. City of Orange in New South Wales supplements its water supply with harvested stormwater which is captured and transferred to its main supply dam to be mixed with freshwater reserves before treatment. Then there is roof water, which people have been drinking for centuries but has been gradually phased out in favour of centrally controlled supplies.

I could keep listing examples, but we all know that recital of facts will only go so far – acceptance needs to be drawn out of a much deeper community conversation about how we will meet our water challenges. It may take the next drought crisis to trigger a taste for alternative drinking supplies in Australia, but it’s important to start having the conversation now to plan solutions that make good sense.

  • Good article, thanks Celeste. I hadn't seen this video before, which sums up peoples' response using humour to keep us engaged in the message. I believe acceptance has been shown to be partly political. Let's say 25% of the population would do it and 25% remain opposed despite evidence. Then 50% can be influenced, swinging the majority support either way. When South-East Queensland was facing drought and nearing running out of water a number of solutions were reviewed, including wastewater re-use for potable supply. For one council affected a vote of acceptance was apparent, for another council there was overwhelming opposition. The marked difference in attitude was reviewed and found to correlate with the overall level of trust from the public with the particular sector of Government.

  • In Melbourne there is no need to drink recycled sewerage water.
    Melbourne produces 80% of Victoria's wealth, and has somewhere 80% of Victoria's population, therefore should be entitled to 80% of the clean water. We need to build the dams that were part of the plan, before two Labor Governments wasted the savings of two generations.
    The idea that good water is used to grow grass for Australian, Japanese & Chinese racing horses, that gives practically no financial good to anyone but a small number of people; should have the same rights as all of Melbourne is civil war threats.
    The grass industry uses the same amount of water as Melbourne.
    You can convince people there is a God in the shape of an ugly dog easily enough if you keep telling them the same thing over and over again; but that does not make the ugly dog God real.
    The shortage of drinking water in Victoria is not real its just some people are taking more than their share.
    The vested interests know you can make big returns if you manage to steal other citizens civil rights.
    If sewerage water is so good try exporting a fresh tomato grown in sewerage and see how many buyers you get to pay a reasonable price. Do rich people in the Middle East & Asia buy Australian vegetable because they are grown in sewerage water?
    The people who cry out about the shortage of everything do not see a problem in growing the population of Melbourne.
    One rich household I visited overseas, used to send a person with containers to a mountain they owned that was not grazed by domestic animals for their drinking and cooking water twice a week.
    The people pushing for sewerage water to be piped to every home, own the "clean" water bottling plants, or have been paid.

    • The ratio of population and water consumption highlighted above, neglects the requirement for agriculture practice to be conducted outside of a metropolitan environment. Melbourne does not possess the capacity to produce 80% of Victoria's agricultural output, a key fact that has been omitted. If the above statements were to bear applicable validity, I would sincerely hope that 80% of your household food consumption is produced within your property.
      The aforementioned "sewerage water" for irrigation, bears no resemblance to the processes associated with recycling water. The refinement of the "sewerage water" (technical term in this context is 'blackwater'), is a multi-stage filtration and purification process, which produces water of a higher quality than the water passing through the outdated and unclean pipes that is currently used for drinking.
      The use of recycled water, ironically, would resolve the issue you have with irrigation in the grass industry, and also provide a solution for agricultural irrigation. The levels of purity in treated waste-water (greywater or blackwater) are of a standard high enough for both drinking and irrigation. As noted in the article, the issue is a resistance to change, not the technology itself.

  • There can be no doubt water security is a very real concern. As the population increases, inevitably so does demand. The technology exists to safely treat waste water and re-use it over and over again. The proportion of water that is actually used for drinking is very small. Using treated waste water for non drinking purposes, such as toilet flushing and irrigation is a win win option, and it is happening in Australia, including Melbourne right now. We need to be forward thinking and plan viable, costs effective long term strategies. Using treated waste water for non drinking purposes ticks all the boxes.

  • Water recycling is a sustainable and effective technology, providing a viable solution to deal with the evident and worsening water shortage in Australia and globally. As noted, the resistance to adoption of these technologies provide the most prominent issues in solving the water crisis.
    The processes associated with recycling toilet water (blackwater) for drinking is possible, however, the most beneficial application is utilising these new sources of water for non-drinking purposes (e.g. irrigation, toilet flushing, cooling towers etc). The requirement for non-drinking water significantly exceeds the requirement for drinking water; therefore, the logical progression would be to use recycled sources of water for non-drinking purposes, and save the 'drinking water' for the glass.

  • What hasn't helped with the required change in perception is the clever marketing that has conned many people in Australia to waste money buying bottled water for drinking, rather than the perfectly safe potable water most of us have available from the tap. If marketing can convince a lot of people that our tap water is unsafe to drink then it will take some very clever counter marketing to convince the same people to accept drinking processed waste water. Psychology trumps practicality! Thankfully there are some excellent water reuse schemes around the country where the waste water is at least being treated and used for irrigation rather than returned to streams and the ocean.

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