ALGAE USE CAN EASE WATER CRISIS
THERE is a chance for humans to get it right and subsist upon the earth in cohesion with the environment.
This was the main gist behind the talk facilitated by Dr Keith Cowan – who is director of the Institute for Environmental Biotechnology, Rhodes University (EBRU) in Grahamstown. Cowan gave an eye-opening lecture on the biotechnologies used in creating a sustainable food-water-energy nexus in our country at the Forum for Astronomy, Science and Technology (FAST) meeting in Port Alfred last week.
Cowan’s focus was on remedial biotechnologies, which speaks to establishing means and ways of reusing and preserving water resources in ensuring that there is a mitigation in the current water management wastage situation, such as mis-administrated sewage works; reduction of GMO (genetically modified organisms) products being used for human consumption; as well as commercial scale land rehabilitation.
“The problem with humans is when we see sewage we shy away from it,” stated Cowan, who argued that sewage in itself was a high energy source due to its abundance in methane gasses and ammonium. In acknowledging the discourses currently taking place between GMO and non-GMO product production for human consumption, Cowan’s view was made quite clear.
“In my time, GMOs were not for human consumption. They were used to produce emulsifiers and energy,” Cowan said.
In the inspiring talk, Cowan advocated for algae-based waste-water treatment pond systems, which are basically ponds filled with algae which feed on bacteria and cleans the water. The process, according to Cowan, runs passively, leaves no mess on the pond banks and produces no sludge.
Cowan spoke about a project where biotechnologically treated algae was fed into algae which was already at work in cleansing water at his department’s plantation in Belmont Valley, close to the golf course in Grahamstown.
“It served as a biofuel which increased biomass consumption,” Cowan said, which meant that the algae already in use became reinforced with already treated algae, which increased its capacity to work on purifying water for the process of safe reuse purposes.
“The water produced is good enough to go back into drinking water,” Cowan said.
The aim of remedial biotechnology is to create means of sustainably minimising the wastage of water supplies. Currently, Cowan explained, water is available, bought, used and sent to water treatment plantations; and what Cowan advocates for is that we
‘The water produced is good enough to go back into drinking water’
begin to reuse treated water, which would reverse the process and lead to South Africa eventually becoming producers of safe, clean and valorised water supplies, which would consequently improve our economic situation as a country.
“As the population grows, supply and demand increases,” Cowan said. He said part of what needed to happen in managing our South African water-food-energy nexus is harmonisation within the public administration sector, alignment of strategies towards cohesive progress, convergence of all incentive structures tabled as well as the regulation and promotion of nexus smart investment technologies.
Cowan stated that there needs to be a shift in the paradigm through which waste-water treatment biotechnologies are treated, looking into how water is used and consumed, and especially to change the way people think about the way in which citizens choose to use water supplies in moving forward.
In 2012, South African waste water treatment technologies treated 7 500 mega litres of waste water per day at an operation cost of R4.5-billion per year. Currently, according to Cowan’s , one mega litre waste water treatment plant will cost $10-million to establish and run efficiently.
WATER VISIONARY: Dr Keith Cowan gives a jaw-dropping lecture on what more can be done to preserve water