I once asked an esteemed colleague, Professor Ian Ritchie AO, what he considered was chemistry’s greatest gift to mankind. As he had had a long and distinguished career in hydrometallurgy, research and academia I had expected him to offer a suggestion along the lines of mineral extraction, steel production or even pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals. He replied, without hesitation – “sufficient food and clean water”. The sufficient food could be explained via modern mineral fertilisers, agrochemicals and the analytical chemistry that has allowed more efficient, higher-yielding crops than might have otherwise been possible.
The clean water consideration is more pertinent. Chemistry has provided a means to treat water to a level that ensures that it is free from contaminants and pathogens and safe to drink. Chlorination, ozonation, corrosion prevention, coagulation, flocculation and nutrient removal all rely on chemistry. Chlorination in particular, has provided a cheap and accessible means to treat large quantities of water to a standard that ensures that it is safe to drink. However, these methods have not always been available, and sadly in some less well developed areas safe, clean and sufficient water is still a distant desire.
The water challenges that societies around the world encounter are remarkably similar. The difficulties rarely stem from a shortage of water, instead arising due to a limited supply of water of sufficient quality in the desired location. The uneven distribution of suitable water in sufficient quantities for the desired use has lead to conflicts over water use and allocation, within nations and between sovereign states. These types of conflict are likely to be increasingly common. If we are to avoid these conflicts we need to look holistically at the models we use for water distribution, water quality and water supply and determine an appropriate way forward.
Climate change, increasing total and urbanised populations and additional pressure for the necessary allocations to agriculture, industry, mining and the environment combine to place today’s society at a critical crossroads for water supply.
Solutions to meet the water challenges must be innovative, visionary, long term and resilient to withstand the adversity that we will otherwise face.
Peter McCafferty - Director of Scientific Services Division at ChemCentre