Water innovation

Water innovation means putting on our thinking caps and being challenged to grow out of our boots; that's not easy for complacent human beings. In South Africa we say, "tomorrow is another day", but the issues are now so serious that they demand that we don't put off to tomorrow what  simply must be considered today. 

What's desperately needed is technological, organisational and social innovation; the values of a so-called circular economy. No longer can we shrug our shoulders and leave it to the boffins; each and every one of us needs to get on board if we are to save the planet from the ravages of climate change. 

Drought and storm damage, and pollution of our rivers, are making the provision of clean water increasingly beyond the ability of local authorities.

This page was last updated by Dr Bernard Preston on 23rd August, 2019.

By Bernard Preston

Queuing for water.

Perhaps it is only when we've been forced to queue for drinking water or take thirty-second showers, collecting the runoff for the toilet, that we humans will begin to consider the alternatives.


We desperately need to think out of the box, so to speak, beyond simply using less water and preventing leakages, important though these are.

Affordability needs to be considered too. Desalination plants are fine and dandy in a prosperous society, but in South Africa the cost is simply prohibitive.

With the electrical utility Eskom in dire straits, the availability and cost of power makes this non-sustainable on a sufficiently large scale.

Creating work is another consideration. Technological developments like desalination require large amounts of foreign capital, and electricity, but make no contribution to unemployment or reducing greenhouses from large coal-fired power stations that must supply the energy to pump.

Quality is another factor that needs to be faced. Eighty percent of South Africa's potable water is now being contaminated with plastic and microbeads, and the ever present threat of typhoid and cholera, and effluent from mines and non-functional sewerage plants.

Clean drinking water can no longer be taken for granted.

Even much bottled water is contaminated. The average person today in consuming about 5g of plastic per week from their water; roughly the size of a credit card.

Water innovation

This completed underground water reservoir is our innovative idea.

Water innovation is desperately needed if our world is to survive. There is one domain that has yet to be seriously considered on a large scale that fits all these requirements; harvesting and storing rainfall at base; in every single home.

There are three possibilities:

  1. Plastic tanks.
  2. Fibreglass tanks.
  3. Underground reservoirs.

Above ground tanks have one great disadvantage; the water is warm and bacteria flourish; it's certainly not potable.

Plastic tanks are less expensive than fibreglass but the former do not last and they are easily destroyed by fire. The latter last indefinitely, and can be repaired, but are more expensive, and rely on foreign imports of raw materials.

Which brings us to building our own underground reservoirs.

Underground reservoirs create work

Building underground reservoirs create work.

Underground reservoirs are a vital part of water innovation that has been missed, and they fit many of our criteria. Highly skilled labour is not required and they create work for people without a job.

Three or four strong men can dig the hole in less than a week. Then a couple bricklayers and plasterers can complete the job. The plumbing is very simple, and can be done at the end of the job in a day; an electrical pump is required, possibly solar powered.

Underground reservoirs use locally available materials

Underground reservoir made of bricks and mortar to store rainwater.

The use of locally available materials, instead of importing high tech equipment is another important criterion of water innovation. Built of bricks and mortar, with three gum poles for a roofing structure, all the materials can be sourced from the local builders' merchant.

Locally available roof cladding is easily and inexpensively accessible.

Underground reservoir water is relatively clean

Rainwater filter may not be necessary.

Clean is a relative word; humans have evolved able to handle small amounts of non-toxic material in their drinking water. No doubt the odd tadpole has been swallowed too. What's needed is to keep out pathogens from fecal material like E.Coli.

Water innovation should consider simple structures like sand filters possibly, but our own experience is that the rainwater harvested requires little cleaning. Gutters must be kept free of leaves and other detritus and the reservoir emptied and washed out annually; that again creates work for unskilled people.

A simple inlet trap, arrowed below, collects most of the dust and dirt from the roof; water gravitates into the trap and then overflows into the reservoir through a coarse filter to remove leaves. 

Initially we used a filter but it soon became clear that it was not required, dropped the pressure considerably and added an unnecessary expense.

Underground reservoirs store potable water.

It is estimated that at most 8% of rainwater finds its way into large dams via our rivers. This water innovation reservoir would not make a dent on large scale reticulation; rather there is zero loss from evaporation. In addition it would contribute to preventing storm water damage, by reducing runoff.

Grey water is channeled to gardens no matter which side of the bath vs shower debate you take; very small amounts of electricity are required to pump this water innovation reservoir; three solar panels would suffice if there is no power from the grid; they can easily be turned and tilted manually to follow the sun.

Mobile solar carts supply electricity to drive the water pump, yet another innovative idea.

Oft times we need to go beyond water innovation and think about the provision of solar power too; on a larger scale, a solar generator could supply the home with electricity as well.

The carbon footprint to provide water and electricity in the urban environment is greatly reduced by a little innovation.

In these two simple steps requiring no great cost and scant technological demand, water and energy using in large measure locally sourced material, can be provided.

There are no carbon emissions and we are making ourselves resilient to climate change and local government incompetence. 

So, what is your water innovation? Are you on the side of those seeking to preserve what was once a pristine planet for our grandchildren, or those who could not give a stuff about the next generation? Let them sort themselves out.

In reality it is a spiritual and ethical reflection; mighty changes are happening and we are either pro or counter-revolutionaries; there is no place for fence-sitters. History will judge us, and I fear that our offspring are going to curse their forebears.

As a Christian I believe there is deeply spiritual imperative in going green; we have been entrusted with the care of our environment, of Creation, and already our neglect of that sacred trust is turning to bite us. Far worse is to come if we do not start to think deeply about water innovation. Let us treat mother Earth more kindly.

The problem of water scarcity in the world alas is not going to go away; in fact, it is set to get far worse. What is your innovative idea?

  1. Bernard Preston
  2. Rainwater harvesting model
  3. Water innovation

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