Making Water: Paging Morarji Desai

Water is becoming increasingly scarce, all over the world. In India, perhaps fewer than a third of all Indians have access to “decent sanitation and high quality drinking water.” (See V’s earlier post on the subject) Nor is this just an Indian problem. Some of Australia’s biggest cities, for example, may run dry in just a few years, perhaps as early as 2006.

What is to be done? Well, there is the ancient vedic practice of Shivambu or Amaroli, but despite Morarji Desai’s best efforts, drinking one’s own urine has not(ahem) gone down well amongst the general population.

But don’t despair. In Singapore, they have harnessed the braininess of Brown scientists in the US to produce NEWater!

NEWater is the product of Singapore’s new water-treatment system, and it is wastewater that has been purified through advanced synthetic membranes called ZeeWeed. That’s right: The crystal-clear NEWater that gushes through the country’s faucets isn’t gurgling from a mountain spring. Most recently, it was flushed from a toilet. []

This process is the brainchild of Ashok Gadgil:

In December 1992, an outbreak of a new and dangerous strain of cholera began in southeastern India. Within months it had spread into neighboring countries, killing up to 10,000 people. The tragedy inspired Ashok Gadgil, an Indian-born scientist working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, to look for a new way to purify drinking water. Using science no more complex than the ultraviolet light emitted by an unshielded fluorescent lamp, he built a simple, effective, and inexpensive water disinfection system. Dozens of these systems are now installed around the world. “At the bare bones, using the simplest engineering, we could disinfect water for half a cent per ton. That’s shockingly cheap. You could disinfect water for one person, a full year’s drinking supply, for a couple of cents.”

According to an official looking site in Singapore:

NeWater is the product from a multiple barrier water reclamation process. It is now expected to supply wafer-fabrication plants with 68 million litres a day by Jan 2003, rising to more than 250 million litres a day by 2012. Some Newater will also be pumped into Singapore’s reservoirs. Politically, it is to be expected that becoming self-reliant in water will generate massive backlash from Malaysia, which has traditionally relied on the threat of water as an edge in negotiations. Current Prime Minister Mahathir has been heard to lash out publicly at NEWater, calling it toilet water and calling on Malaysians to beware of drinking even coffee or tea in Singapore, “as their water comes from the toilets”.

Feeling a bit anxious? Don’t worry. According to Gadgil, “It’s unacceptable to [U.S.] consumers to drink their own waste stream,” and so it’s unlikely that we will see reprocessed waste water in the US any time soon.

3 thoughts on “Making Water: Paging Morarji Desai

  1. Great news for sure, but what an unfortunate name. It reminds me of New Coke, which, paradoxically, was created by turning drinkable water into human waste.

  2. This was an extraordinary film. I saw it at Sundance in January. After the viewing, I felt compelled to go up to the director and thank her for her honest, empathetic look at a film without the typical “western” biases that afflict projects made by white women looking at brown women. I really hope it gets some more recognition. Also, check out the photos captured by the children – All proceeds of the photo sales go towards the education of the children!

  3. Whoops! A-F, I think you meant to comment on the documentary that was the post after mine. Unless there was a very moving film about the conversion of waste water to potable fluid …