There has been an increasing pressure on water resources which has led to the development and escalation of the concept of beneficial use of recycled water. It is fast becoming an imperative subject for water agencies all over the world. Due to this, direct and indirect reuse projects have been successfully implemented in countries such as Singapore, Israel, US, Australia, Namibia and the European countries. The primary aim here is always to fulfil the high demand for water by the growing population and therefore overcome the water shortage. This has successfully been done through ground water recharge projects to augment the water supply of cities.
Nevertheless, due to health reasons, planned augmentation of surface water reservoirs has been uncommon. The very first potable direct reuse of recycled water was introduced in Windhoek, Namibia in 1968 (Diaper et al., 2001). This trend was later followed by the Occoquan Sewage Authority in Fairfax, Virginia. This sewage authority since the year 1978 has been releasing used water into a stream over Occoquan Reservoir. This stream is one of the potable water supply sources of Fairfax County, Virginia (Diaper et al., 2001). Other such surface water augmentation projects are still in the planning stage and may soon be engaged to provide more potable water sources for the cities.
Sewage treatment and the apparent recycling process are of supreme benefit to the environment. They provide dependable, locally controlled source of water to the fast growing towns and cities (D’Angelo, 1998). In addition, the process of wastewater treatment and recycling ensures that there is decreased diversion of fresh water from naturally occurring sensitive ecosystems, decreased waste discharges into the environment, and reduced pollution of the environment (D’Angelo, 1998). Diversion of fresh water from sensitive ecosystems, for agricultural, industrial and urban use would ultimately lead to the degradation of these ecosystems’ health causing organisms to reproduce less and live a poor quality life (ACIL, 2005). Furthermore, discharging treated wastewater in large quantities into water bodies can lead to increased pollution of these water bodies with contaminants. This was the case in San Francisco where large volumes of treated wastewater was released from Santa Clara/San Jose Water Pollution management Plant into the San Francisco bay (Nancarrow et al., 2003). This threatened the natural salt water marsh in the area causing the local authorities to complete a $140 million waste water recycling project, South Bay Water Recycling Program in 1997, to recycle the water instead of releasing it in large quantities in the San Francisco bay (Nancarrow et al., 2003).
The Social Impact of water recycling
Racism has been a major factor in the recycling of water. Critics have argued that the repeated drawing and discharging of treated water in to the streams, rivers and other water bodies have lead to the accumulation of toxic pollutants. For example, repeated discharging of treated water from hospitals and industrial wastes have led to the accumulation of chemicals such as oestrogens and petroleum by-products, which cumulatively has adverse effects on the health of the consumers of such water sources. The disgusting psychology behind drinking ‘sewage’ water is also a vital contributing factor in to the negative public perception regarding the use of recycled water (Woody & Tolin, 2002).
Even though the first planned use of recycled water for purposes of drinking started as far back as in the 1950s, it is only until recently that researchers started looking into the public perception and acceptance of the reuse of recycled water. This is not withstanding that public acceptance is a key determining success or failure of such water recycling projects. In fact, the majority of these studies are aimed at winning public acceptance by use of applied behavioural methods such as offering incentives (Ajzen, 2001). This must have been the logic of Dishman, Sherrard and Rebhun (1989) when they suggested that “…the issue of public acceptance could kill the (reuse) proposal. In view of this very possible scenario, a strategy (based on applied behavioural analysis and social marketing) should be developed to deal with public unwillingness to drink reclaimed water (p.158)”. What followed was the use of social marketing to persuade the public to accept the use of recycled water. This method has however proven ineffective and public education is taking centre stage (Ajzen, 2001).
The perception of the public can best be demonstrated using the case of the controversial San Diego Water Re-Purification Project. Its downfall probably took the many involved agencies by surprise. The project had been described, by Katz and Tennyson (1997), as having all the main ingredients for success. It was further categorised as having the best public information and outreach programs in a publication by the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and the American Water Works Association(AWWA) (D’Angelo Report, 1998).
The San Diego City Council and the San Diego County Water Authority were fully aware of the importance of public perception and acceptance in the use of recycled water and were therefore quick to carry out surveys to understand the willingness of the public to use recycled water, and in the process identify the key issues that would require to be addressed to make the project succeed (Katz & Tennyson, 1997). However, when the project became entangled in political campaigns, with different campaigners suggesting that the project intended to obtain wastewater from affluent communities and distribute it as drinking water to the less affluent communities (Katz & Tennyson, 1997), and superficially highlighted the health dangers that would be involved, the project came to a complete halt despite the support it had amerced from a wide variety of communities. Advertisement posters were put up with the slogan “Toilet to Tap”, when the State Department of Health Services finally called a hearing to the project, that caused hundreds of worried residents to turn up for the hearing (Recycled Water Task Force, 2003).
Once the project was put on indefinite hold by the San Diego City Council, Nevertheless, a report by the Australian Environmental Protection Agency (2003) was therefore established to provide the key social aspects that determined the success of Wastewater recycling projects. These aspects were the Yuck/Disgust factor, and acceptability of wastewater by primary producers like farmers. Doyle and Johnson (2005) established that those farmers who had a higher risk tolerant attitude and were flexible enough to build farm equity may be more open to adopting new technologies for water use efficiency.
Alternatives to Wastewater Recycling
Since contaminants with hazardous effects are of extreme danger, it would be safer if areas with limited supply of water relied on other methods of water conservation and processing rather than recycling wastewater which has potentially high concentration of toxic substances. Amongst such methods that can be used in place of wastewater recycling isDesalination. Desalination is the process whereby salty water, like seawater or brackish groundwater, is processed so as to remove/reduce the salt content of the water to make it fit for human consumption (Western Australia Water Corporation, 2006).
Desalination of brackish groundwater and seawater or river water into public potable water supply is fast becoming the trend in most cities around the world (Western Australia Water Corporation, 2006). This is primarily because of the high demands for water that is gradually surpassing the supply of this commodity.
Desalination is considered a better alternative to areas where demand for potable water has increased beyond sustainable supply, yet the water resources are fragile or overdrawn and the climatic changes seem to be making the conditions worse (Western Australia Water Corporation, 2006). This process uses energy in the separation of salty water into two streams- that with less concentration of dissolved salts and that with more concentration of dissolved salts (Brine), and subsequent discharge of the latter. However, it is becoming more economically viable with the improvement of technology.
Agriculture plus its technological advancements have employed the use of sewage or wastewater in developing countries, which are often bombarded with scarcity of this commodity. This has taken place for more than a century now. However, with the growing population due to rural urban migration, the volumes of urban wastewater have dramatically increased. The problem has been aggravated by the increased contamination of wastewater with new chemicals coupled with the changing lifestyles of people and the accumulation of industrial effluents. The ecological and health related problems of the use of untreated wastewater has become very famous. There is therefore a pressing and dire need to clearly address these problems before this untreated wastewater completely pollutes all the rivers and natural water bodies and thus cause a massive fall out in the ecosystem.
On the other side of the universe where there are the developed countries, there is a proper and well organized system used in the management of the sewage or wastewater. This is done majorly through treatment and reuse. On the contrary, these methods have been tried by these developed countries but to no avail. This failure can be accredited to the economic practicality of adopting these technologies, and the social adequacy of this kind of process by the local population (Ajzen, 2001). This therefore demands the demonstration of the importance of bearing in mind, first and foremost, the social and economic setting of a community before introducing and implementing any form of technological procedure.