The chemical sciences lie at the heart of a globally sustainable water supply, writes Elizabeth Milsom

The chemical sciences lie at the heart of a globally sustainable water supply, writes Elizabeth Milsom

Securing a sustainable water supply in the light of climate change, massive population growth and man-made pollution will be one of the biggest challenges for global communities in the 21st century. Our demand for a clean and safe water supply is increasing with our rising population; water treated to an appropriate standard is required not only for drinking but also to satisfy all our domestic, industrial and agricultural needs.

Globally it is estimated that one in eight people do not have access to safe drinking water, and over two fifths of the world’s population do not have adequate sanitation. Even in the UK, pressure is being put on our water and sewerage system as the population in the south increases and changing weather patterns mean more instances of flooding and drought are likely. We are going to need to do more with less resource, for which good water management will be essential.

In December 2007 the RSC launched its report Chemical Science Priorities: Sustainable Water  . Written by industrial and academic experts, the report aimed to address the problems of sustainable water over the entire hydrological cycle. The report was broken down into eight chapters, covering water resources, water needs, water treatment, water monitoring, inputs and fate of contaminants in the aquatic environment, water and health, water efficiency and management, and green product design. The report highlighted eight key challenges, and each chapter made a series of recommendations to enable the chemical sciences to deliver the technologies, infrastructure, skills and stakeholder education for a sustainable water supply.  

The chemical sciences already play an important role in every aspect of the hydrological cycle, and in the future will play an even larger role in sustainable water management. For example, scientists will have an important role in understanding and predicting the impact of climate change, which will inform decision makers about water supply and flood defence infrastructure for the future.  

A more obvious area of impact is the role the chemical sciences play in water treatment, both to make it drinkable and also to remove contaminants from wastewater and industrial waste streams. With adequate support, the chemical sciences will aid the development of advanced treatment technologies such as membrane, ultraviolet and oxidation processes. It has been suggested that future developments could include smart pipes for water and wastewater distribution that monitor and treat water in situ. Additionally, the chemical sciences are important in the development of treatment technologies and standards for grey water and rainwater use. These new technologies are essential, as water treatment is energy intensive and it is anticipated that energy requirements will grow as nations are increasingly forced to exploit water resources of poorer quality. 

Human activity has also introduced into the environment chemical contaminants that are typically mobilised by water. Further research is required to understand the fate and environmental risk of emerging contaminants such as new pharmaceuticals and nanoparticles. Studying these contaminants requires the development of advanced monitoring technologies to provide real-time information wirelessly on water quality and any pollution events. However, the best form of cure is prevention, and the ultimate goal for the chemical sciences is to design products that are not only highly effective but also degrade to harmless products on reaching the environment. 

Future work in sustainable water policy 

Following on from the launch of the report, a water expert working group was formed,made up of individuals from the water industry, academia, other learned organisations and the RSC’s own Water Science Forum, to take forward the report’s recommendations. Important areas of current work include investigating grey water standards, new analytical water monitoring methods, and new chemicals and processes for water treatment. 

Additionally, in the RSC’s roadmapping exercise, water is one of the eight priority areas where the chemical sciences can make a major impact. A large number of the comments submitted to date include opinions on water, highlighting the importance of this area to many of our members. Outcomes from the roadmapping exercise will be taken forward by us over the next few years and it is likely that water will remain an area of strategic importance for some time. 

The chemical sciences have already played an important role in water management; this coupled to a good policy for the UK and Europe will be essential if we are to secure a clean and plentiful water supply for future generations.

Elizabeth Milsom is the RSC’s environment and energy policy manager