ALGAE USE CAN EASE WA­TER CRI­SIS

Talk of the Town - - Front Page - LEBOGANG TLOU

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.

Pic­ture: LEBOGANG TLOU

WA­TER VI­SION­ARY: Dr Keith Cowan gives a jaw-drop­ping lec­ture on what more can be done to pre­serve wa­ter

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