Overcoming the ‘yuck’ factor

Water scarcity is one of the most pervasive challenges facing communities around the world. Access to clean water and shortages of this precious resource is ranked as the number one global risk in the World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Risks Report, 2015’. In Australia, the situation isn’t much different.

While Australia’s Millennium Drought officially ceased in 2010, Australia is currently experiencing an El Nino weather pattern (declared in 2015) and climate change is projected to decrease winter and spring rainfall by up to 15 per cent by 2030 across southern Australia. Southwestern Australia has already seen stream flow declines of 50 percent since 1970 and Australia’s El Nino is creating dryer inland conditions in Eastern Australia, placing extra stress on already depleting water stocks, at a time when water demand is increasing. Reservoirs in the Murray-Darling basin are also now close to their lowest level since the Millennium Drought.

At Xylem, we believe that resilience to water scarcity will require a range of solutions, including economic incentives, regulatory measures and innovative technologies. One proven approach to help meet growing water demands, while safeguarding existing water supplies, is water reuse. Water reuse can, and must, play a crucial role as part of a multi-pronged approach to securing a resilient, viable water supply. Water reuse technologies produce high-quality water at a lower life-cycle cost than developing a new water supply, and deliver a resilient, drought-resistant water source with valuable economic and environmental benefits.

While the current surface water storage volume for all main Australian cities indicates that our cities can meet their urban water use for a number of years, recycled water is a more reliable and sustainable water source. As long as urban households and industries continue to use large quantities of water, wastewater will be readily available for reuse. However, despite advanced treatment technologies around the world demonstrating that wastewater can be purified beyond current drinking water standards, enticing people to drink recycled water requires overcoming the ubiquitous ‘yuck’ factor.

Xylem recently commissioned an independent private poll of 3,000 people living in California in an effort to better understand local perceptions about recycled water and their knowledge about the technology used to produce it. The research revealed that California residents are overwhelmingly supportive of using recycled water, or treated wastewater. 76 percent of respondents believed recycled water should be used as a long-term solution for managing water resources, regardless of whether or not a water shortage in the state continues. 87 percent supported using recycled water as an additional local water supply while 83 percent were willing to use recycled water in their everyday lives. Furthermore, nearly 90 percent of surveyed Californians believed the state should continue to invest in recycled water even if weather patterns bring increased rainfall.

The survey results clearly point to the important role of education and awareness in increasing support for recycled water. After respondents read a statement explaining the treatment processes used in the water reuse process, 89 percent were more willing to use recycled water in their daily lives. Furthermore, 88 percent agree that seeing a demonstration of the water purification process would make them more comfortable using and drinking recycled water.

While the survey was specific to California, the findings have global implications. There’s no denying the ever-lingering concerns and opposition from residents about the use of recycled water for drinking purposes in Australia. Take for example the state of Queensland, Australia. The Queensland town of Toowoomba in particular, (a city with a population of more than 100,000 and 120 kilometres west of Brisbane) voted against using recycled water for drinking purposes in 2006 despite major drought conditions at the time. In 2010, despite this referendum result, the QLD state government connected Toowoomba to a pipeline that would supply recycled water to the city if severe drought meant it was required.  However, local opposition to the concept still exists.

It is incumbent on the water sector to play a key role in any education drive by highlighting successful water reuse strategies around the globe, and demonstrating the multiple benefits and significant potential of water reuse to lie at the heart of a multi-pronged approach to combating water scarcity.


Xylem’s Steve Leung is speaking at this year’s IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition 2016 in Brisbane.


Steve Leung

SVP & President, Emerging Markets, Xylem
Steven Leung is responsible for leading Xylem’s commercial operations across the emerging markets, including China, Greater Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, as well as Australia and New Zealand. He was named Senior Vice Presi... Read full biography