Anything but a drip: Working on the worldwide water crisis

Wednesday, Sep 23, 2015, 04:07 AM | Source: Pursuit

Peter Scales

Worldwide, the amount of water allocated for people is greater than the amount we’ve got. It’s really simple in that context. We could argue we have enough water if we use it efficiently, but we don’t.

Professor Peter Scales is optimistic we can address worldwide water shortages by using technologies to improve efficiencies. Picture: University of Melbourne

Getting the public to accept water recycling is a long process but I don’t find it frustrating. I think it probably takes a generation to change people’s views. In California they’ve been putting water back into the aquifer for about 22 years, and now people are saying “why don’t we drink this stuff?” It will happen in Australia – but not in the big cities, which have already bought desalination as insurance for their water supply.

However, country towns will certainly be recycling to augment drinking water supplies in the future.

We’ve got a small water recycling plant in Tasmania, which will actually go into Davis Station in Antarctica. It’s run in partnership with a lot of organisations. The residents will be able to drink the water if they so wish - they will make a decision after it’s been operating for around a year. However the plant is absolutely capable, day in day out, of producing recycled water of the highest quality.

We have a tremendous history of water scarcity in Australia. Every time we go into El Nino our water reserves drop enormously and very quickly. In fact we could lose them within two years.

You can’t build good water resilience in the middle of a crisis. And yet you only get big changes from government when you’re in crisis. And so in a funny way you have to use one crisis to plan for the next one. A lot of people are quite critical of the Victorian desalination plant but from a water supply planning point of view we need that resilience. If we were in the middle of a drought they wouldn’t be complaining.

Seventy per cent of the water we divert from our dams and rivers in Australia goes to irrigation. Of that water, only 50 per cent at best is actually used by the plant. The rest leaks from channels, evaporates, or can’t be used because there is too much delivered and it goes outside the root zone. All these things add up to inefficiency.

The amount of food we produce in Australia from irrigation could double just by improving efficiencies. However, on a world scale we do very well. Other countries look to us for technologies like channel and regulatory control systems, to improve how diverted water from a river actually reaches the farm and is then used efficiently.

Australia is leading on these technologies, and some of it is coming out of this University from people like our own Dean of Engineering, Iven Mareels.

Professor Peter Scales was part of the team that developed the airbag. Picture: Ain't No Dummies Round Here, Thomas Hawk, via Flickr

One of the first systems engineering projects I ever worked on was the airbag in the car (I was just one in a big team). That was an interesting problem because the technology was not the biggest issue – it was getting people to wear seatbelts. You have to solve lots of things before a technology gets taken up. I’m interested in what we call the “innovation cycle” – taking into account all the things that make a product or a process successful.

The control and channel technologies that work fantastically in Australia are not guaranteed to work on Chinese farms. Without a water market and a cap on use, the farmers may just use more water. So water saving technology actually has the potential to result in more water use. You have to put water trading laws and caps in place, before you put the technology in place.

I’m just one of 50 or 100 researchers at this University that work in water research. It’s pretty obvious that Australia would have good capabilities in water research – we’ve got no choice.

As told to Catriona May

University of Melbourne Researchers