By Emma Crameri
Securing and guaranteeing the most basic commodity: water, is becoming a key issue in the challenges Queensland, and indeed the world, is facing in the wake of climate change.
We chatted with Water Treatment Engineer and Churchill Fellow Eric Vanweydeveld who recently returned from overseas where he investigated potential low-cost innovative water treatment solutions for regional and remote Australia as part of his Churchill Fellowship
What was the aim of your fellowship?
My Churchill Fellowship gave me a very good understanding of what other nations, facing similar water scarcity challenges to Australia, are doing successfully to manage water supplies in regional and remote communities. I learnt from their expertise and experience in dealing with the similar challenges we currently have in Australia.
I am now sharing those learnings with the Australian water industry and the broader community and applying the learnings in a practical way to influence and shape future water projects in Australia.
Water Treatment Engineer and Churchill Fellow Eric Vanweydeveld
As part of your Churchill Fellowship, you travelled to the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Israel. Why did you select these countries?
These countries were select primarily for being some of the most water-stressed countries in the world.
The UAE relies 100% on desalination technologies and is an international platform for global water companies that pioneer technology innovation.
Israel was selected for its position as a world leader in water management, desalination technologies and cutting-edge water technology. Israel is also one of the most advanced countries in regulation and tariff-setting mechanisms for utilities, promoting large demand management and public awareness campaigns, creating a supporting environment for water innovation and for developing large wastewater re-use schemes.
Oman was selected for its complex geography, water scarcity challenges and for its extensive provision of essential services in remote areas which is similar to what we are facing in the Northern Territory.
How are these countries using innovative water treatment technologies?
Israel has been at the forefront of effective and innovative water management for decades. This didn’t happen by chance - very limited water availability, survival necessity and no alternatives led to an enormous water technological transformation.
Israel’s implementation of a long-term vision for its water sector has been critical to its success. In the master plan, Israel defined the vision, goals and objectives of its national water sector as well as the necessary policy and regulatory framework.
In alignment with its long-term vision, Israel has successfully delivered several key strategic water projects which are now critical pillars of its national security and economic development.
With a very strong innovation ecosystem fuelled by a dynamic entrepreneurial culture and supported by a highly skilled workforce and robust technological infrastructure, Israel is actively cultivating innovation within its water sector.
Through its pioneering national program, called Israel NewTech, Israel helps to advance the water sector by supporting academia and research, encouraging implementation in the local market and by helping Israeli companies succeed on the international stage.
The development of water innovation and cutting-edge water technologies is promoted through the establishment of a unique industry-utility-academic ecosystem which brings together government, water utilities and private entrepreneurs.
Private entrepreneurs (academia, private companies, start-ups, individual entrepreneurs) bring new ideas, processes and technologies while water utilities provide operating sites/systems for trial and implementation. The government provides financial supports via an independent publicly funded agency.
Water innovations are broad and various and range from innovative water treatment processes, energy-efficiency systems, software and cloud-based applications, cyber security, smart automation, asset management and risk assessment management tools.
The UAE and Oman are focusing on desalination technologies including renewable energy powered desalination systems.
How are these technologies compatible with renewable energy power?
Application of renewable energy desalination (renewable desalination) for remote water supply systems has received increasing academic and research attention. This technology is being tested through pilot projects by water utilities and private companies in Oman and the UAE.
The coupling of renewable energy sources with water desalination systems holds great promise to provide a reliable and economical source of safe drinking water for Australian remote communities, whose water quality and water scarcity issues are exacerbated by the deterioration of natural water resources and climate change.
Considerable technological developments and cost reductions in advanced membrane desalination processes and energy recovery systems combined with the acceleration of renewable energy technologies are making renewable energy desalination a new and feasible method of enhancing freshwater production from brackish waters. This aspect is particularly relevant to fresh water production in the remote areas, where fuel and water supply is often very expensive but where renewable energy sources are abundant.
Additionally, autonomous modular desalination units powered by renewable energy systems are uniquely suited to provide water and electricity in remote areas where water and electricity infrastructure is lacking and require being decentralised.
What are smart artificial groundwater recharge systems?
One of the most important components of Israel’s integrated water management approach is the smart use of groundwater aquifers as storage reservoirs through artificial recharge.
With the large production of artificial water from seawater desalination and reclaimed wastewater schemes and the effective use of the National Water Carrier to transfer water throughout the country in all directions, aquifers have gradually been transformed from being over-exploited to becoming major storage reservoirs.
With the capability, ability and flexibility provided by the interconnected national water system, to transfer large volumes of water between regional water schemes at any given time, Israel operates aquifers as a method of storage to counterbalance various hydrological conditions (droughts, floods, rainfall recharge) experienced in different regions of the country. This operating method also reduces water losses by evaporation that would have occurred in conventional open reservoirs (such as a dam).
Artificial recharge is part of Israel’s integrated water resources management strategy and has been in place since the 1960s. Despite its small contribution, in comparison to the desalination and effluent reuse programs, this activity underlines Israel’s efforts to harvest and utilise all available water.
Eric Travelled to the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Israel for his Churchill Fellowship
With suitable hydrological and hydrogeological conditions, Oman has also invested heavily in groundwater recharge dams to artificially recharge groundwater aquifers by using flash floods and surface water run-off experienced during the wet seasons or during a cyclone.
To capture and store this untapped but ephemeral water source, Oman invested in 43 groundwater recharge dam infrastructures across the regions to support natural ground infiltration which subsequently recharge aquifers. The recharge dams are constructed on alluvial valley channels (across wadis) to store flood water and allow slow infiltration into the ground.
What do you see as the biggest water scarcity challenges for Australia?
Rapid population growth, major droughts, underground aquifers running critically low, unknown impacts of climate change on water supply and disconnected institutional and regulatory framework for water resource management are some of the biggest water scarcity challenges for Australia.
It is anticipated that water scarcity and water quality issues will be exacerbated, requiring the use of more advanced water treatment technologies and smarter ways of optimising and managing water systems to guarantee security of supply. Strategic and long-term planning as well as smart policy and regulatory framework are also critical to the mix.
My Churchill Fellowship is a topical subject given Australia’s current drought and the recent debates around global warming. I now have more knowledge about how Australia can better manage water scarcity in regional and remote communities.
How can Australian councils help small regional and remote communities with their water needs?
Due to their vulnerability, isolation, scattered small populations and socio-economic status, regional and remote communities are frequently subject to economic and financial uncertainty and extreme weather events.
To counter balance this highly variable context and appropriately manage factors such as drought, water demand, water quality, climate change, population growth and capital infrastructure requirements, a holistic approach is critical to the sustainable development of regional and remote water systems. And this can be provided by Australian councils to help small regional and remote communities with their water needs.
While long-term planning is necessary to develop strategic master plans in order to scale systems to current and future needs, the application of a holistic approach is vital to ensure water infrastructure is well integrated, well managed and economically efficient.
A holistic approach supports least cost outcomes as it enables government to foresee and compensate for water scarcity, to use efficiently water resources in accordance with current hydrological conditions, to ensure a balanced approach to extraction by taking into account all conditions and to use appropriate and suitable methods and technologies to ensure adequate security of supply.
A holistic approach encompasses all cultural, social, environmental, technical and economic aspects and contributes to deliver resilient and smart water solutions that are fit for a specific purpose, location and in-community skills capacity.
What does a water conscious culture look like?
Developing a water conscious culture through extensive education and public awareness campaigns is a necessary step to reduce the need for additional infrastructure, establish effective water management under water scarcity conditions and contribute to the development of water security.
Combined with the multi-faceted approach (holistic approach to long-term planning, development of new technologies, utilisation of comprehensive, probabilistic and timely data management and use of demand management), public awareness and education about water conservation are critical components of balancing the need for new water infrastructures and ensuring adequate water security in response to water scarcity associated with climate change.
Aerial image of Wivenhoe Dam near Brisbane in Queensland Australia releasing water from the spillway.
The process of using water in a more efficient and sustainable way often requires a “cultural shift” in addition to technical solutions and this can only be achieved by fostering an education of water conservation amongst the community to develop a water conscious culture.
School programs and educational campaigns on why and how to conserve water along with developing water saving technologies and promoting water-efficient appliances and fixtures need to be driven for a long period of time (generational).
Awareness of why water conservation needs to be developed through early childhood, elementary and junior high school education to create the “cultural shift” and to change behaviour over time. Good understanding of the economic value of water needs is also needed amongst communities to support change of behaviours.
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