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Drought: a global problem that urgently needs attention

In Spain we are facing one of the three driest hydrological years since 1961. Our crops suffer the vicissitudes of the lack of water while we look at the sky and watch the news hoping that, as soon as possible, the weather will give us a respite to recover the water from our reservoirs. “There is a drought” is what we hear when talking about this worrying issue. But do we really know what kind of drought we are facing?

Types of drought

Drought can be defined, in a general way, as a natural condition that occurs in a certain region, in the absence of rainy periods, or when they are very short. This causes a major impact on the habitat and climatic conditions of the environment, even becoming incompatible with life.

But there is a wide variety of types of drought:

Meteorological drought: it is generated when there is a continuous lack of rainfall. It originates due to a global behavior of the atmospheric system, which is influenced by both natural factors and those caused by human action, for example, deforestation or the increase in greenhouse gases. This type of drought is linked to a specific region where these meteorological circumstances occur.

Hydrological drought: It is the decrease in the availability of surface and/or groundwater in a given area during a given time period, compared to historical values. This hydrological drought can cause the complete dissatisfaction of the demand for water.

Agricultural drought: It is the lack of moisture to meet the needs of a crop in a given place and time. In rainfed crops it is linked to meteorological drought, while in irrigated crops it is more linked to hydrological drought.

Socioeconomic drought: it is the effect of water scarcity on people and economic activity as a result of any of the types of drought.

Causes of the lack of water problem

Although we clearly understand drought as a phenomenon associated with climate change and global warming, the truth is that it is convenient to identify cycles of meteorological drought with recent phenomena. Thus, the current situation of drought that we are suffering in our country and in other areas of the planet seems to be clearly related to the La Niña phenomenon , an anomalous cooling of the waters of the Pacific Ocean. It is the conclusion reached by experts such as Juan Jesús González, physicist, researcher in atmospheric dynamics and spokesman for the State Meteorological Agency (Aemet). According to their own statements, the current period of drought that we are facing is the consequence of an anticyclonic blockade that causes a lack of sustained rains over time.

In addition, another clear indicator is the strong thermal oscillation that we have been experiencing at the end of winter. Thermal differences of more than 25ºC between maximum and minimum that have led us to live a “summer winter” in some parts of the country.

Other areas of the world are also suffering these consequences, even more noticeably than in Spain. Thus, the western United States, Latin America and Morocco are facing their worst dry season in the last 30 years.

Global warming, the ultimate culprit

But let’s not fool ourselves. Global warming is, without a doubt, the cause of these alterations in rainfall and in the thermal increase of the planet. This is a reality that the experts responsible for the IPCC (International Panel of Experts on Climate Change) underline in all their reports. They indicate that if the global levels of greenhouse gas emissions are maintained, the heat waves that hit our countries would become annual.

Much of the seagrass beds could disappear by the middle of this century, taking with them the rich biodiversity they harbor. We will also experience more fires, crop losses and agricultural land. And of course, access to clean drinking water globally will be drastically affected. This is because the increase in demand without the renewal of aquifers due to drought could deplete water reserves in the most populated areas of the planet.

These experts also indicate that the situation could not be so devastating if our consumption habits are drastically changed. Changes that lead to a significant reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases.

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river pollution

We are aware of the water pollution problems caused by plastics that fall into the sea. They come from different places: waste dumped on public roads, fishing nets, waste from ships and commercial cargo… These plastics, reduced to microplastics, are responsible for polluting the seas and poisoning marine species. Thus, each year, more than a million birds and more than 100,000 marine mammals die as a result of this invasion of plastics in the sea.

But there is a problem of similar magnitude that is beginning to gain prominence in the concern of scientists and biologists, and that is drug contamination in the water of rivers around the world.

A study published by PNAS on 258 rivers in 104 countries around the world shows that the presence of pharmacological pollutants represents a real threat to environmental and human health in more than a quarter of the places analyzed.

Environmental exposure to active pharmaceutical ingredients can have negative effects on the health of ecosystems and humans, and also represents a global threat to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Pollution of rivers by drugs

The problem of antibiotics and drugs dumped into rivers has been known for a decade, although some regions such as South America and Africa had not been studied until now. The aforementioned study found that South Asia and South America concentrate the majority of rivers with high drug contamination around the world, topping the list of most polluted rivers in the cities of Lahore (Pakistan), La Paz (Bolivia) and Addis Ababa. (Ethiopia). In the case of Europe, the most polluted river is the Manzanares River while, in the United States, the southern city of Dallas has the most polluted river waters in the country.

Regarding the substances that are most found in the fluvial waters studied, anticonvulsants, antidiabetics and caffeine are some of the protagonists of this contamination.

How do drugs get into river water?

The discharge of drugs into the water is partly unavoidable, since it is a consequence of our own consumption. Our kidneys work to excrete “useless” substances from our body. There are studies that indicate that up to 90% of the medicine we take is expelled intact with the urine.

But not only humans are responsible for these events; farm animals, industrial discharges or drugs thrown away, also increase the pharmacological levels of the water.

Damiá Barceló, a member of the Higher Council for Scientific Research and director of the Catalan Institute for Water Research (ICRA), points out that “close to 20% of European citizens still flush medicines down the toilet, instead of taking them to pharmacies or collection of expired medicines”.

Antibiotics and other medicines.

The discovery of antibiotics in rivers was already a known problem years ago, although in this case, scientists determined that in more than 19% of the regions analyzed the presence of these drugs was so high that it could stimulate the development of resistant bacteria. These bacteria are considered by the WHO as one of the main threats against public health, and it is recognized as a “silent pandemic” that caused more than one million deaths in the world in 2019.

Because obviously the water we consume is subjected to purification and potabilization treatments that are responsible for nullifying the incidence of these toxins, but we must think about the species that live in these waters and that are the most realistic indicator of their level of health. . For example, algae and fish are hopelessly faced with the existence of these high levels of toxins that are detrimental to their existence.

In the case of antidepressants, some studies determine that marine animals can suffer a deterioration in their health due to the intake of these medications. Giovanni Polverino, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Western Australia, recently stated that “The collateral effects of psychoactive pollutants in wildlife are of increasing concern. Psychoactive drugs target receptors in the human brain that are evolutionarily conserved throughout the animal kingdom; so it’s perhaps not surprising that they can affect non-target species.” In other words, the intake of antidepressants by these species can affect their ability to socialize, alter their eating patterns, migratory routes and even their mating. Research published in 2021 also revealed that crayfish exposed to antidepressants present in river waters become much more aggressive, hide much less and are therefore more vulnerable to predators. This certainly affects the food chain and the cycle of life.

But does this affect the water we drink?

The Drinking Water Treatment Plants or Stations (WWTP or WWTP) have means to remove the different contaminants that they may contain from the water. To do this, as we have already mentioned in previous blogs, they have numerous “pools” through which the water passes, and in each of them a contaminant is removed by reacting with some chemical substance that the plant pours into it. However, the huge amount of contaminants from medicines, or emerging contaminants (as they are called in some media) makes it very difficult or almost impossible to find reagents that completely remove them from the water we drink.

In this way, several studies affirm that the water that reaches the taps of our houses contains certain amounts of emerging contaminants or medicines that have not been able to be eliminated in the treatment stations, and that are harmful to health. And this circumstance, as indicated, could be even more serious in the future.

However, the water obtained from the Rain of Life atmospheric generators is unlikely to contain any of these emerging contaminants. For this reason, in addition to many others, its consumption is recommended for drinking and cooking.

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Groundwater: the importance of its management for sustainability

The tiny fraction of fresh water that we enjoy is only a very small part of the total volume of water on earth. Groundwater is distributed quite unevenly around the world.

Know all the circumstances surrounding groundwater.

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Reusable bottles: are they safe for health?

In recent times, the use of reusable water bottles has become massively widespread. This has been a great convenience for users, but also a major environmental problem. The need to reduce waste has been one of the triggers that has driven its standardization, but are all reusable bottles safe for health? Next we will analyze some of the details.

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How to save water at home?: tips to improve

Currently we are all aware of the enormous problem of water scarcity. In our daily life there are many situations in which we can improve our consumption and thus control our water footprint, one of the fundamental factors to combat this water scarcity. Together with this, the sheer economic savings is another of the factors to take into account when considering solutions to reduce water consumption at home. Saving water at home is one of the concerns we face and that is why in this article we will give some keys to using less water at home.

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Understand water bottle labels

The fundamental information of any product that is consumed, be it food or drink, appears on the label. The most relevant information on its identification, description and components must appear on the label. Bottled water also has its corresponding label, which in addition to fulfilling its role in terms of purchasing decision, must respond to the need to know the type of product that is offered inside each bottle.

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What is an ETAP?

When we talk about the management of drinking water, it is inevitable to wonder how water, from its different sources, reaches our homes converted into drinking water. As we mentioned in previous articles , supply systems collect water from different sources: rivers, streams, reservoirs, wells, springs, reservoirs, among others. Once that raw, untreated water is stored, that is when the ETAP .

Convert stored water into drinking water

When we talk about ETAP we refer to the Drinking Water Treatment Station, also known as the Potabilizadora. It is an industrial facility in which the appropriate treatments are carried out to precisely make all that water collected and stored from different sources become completely safe and suitable for human consumption.

How does an ETAP work?

Although its appearance at first glance is that of a perfect water to drink, the water that reaches the water treatment plants contains numerous pollutants that are harmful to health. These biological, chemical and even radioactive pollutants must be completely eliminated through the appropriate treatments.

Although there are various types of water treatment plants, normally, to achieve this end, they carry out a series of continuous processes whose generalized sequence is as follows:

  1. Pretreatment or pre-sedimentation: The water reaches a large deposits in which settleable solids are removed. The heavier particles fall to the bottom when the water movement stops.
  2. Flocculation: the coagulation or flocculation process consists of adding chemical additives to the water to promote the sedimentation of non-sedimentable colloidal matter or to accelerate the sedimentation through the formation of flocs. Flocs are groups of small particles agglutinated into larger particles with a greater sedimentation capacity.
  3. Sedimentation: Due to the effect of gravity, the flocs settle to the bottom of the tanks to be eliminated.
  4. Filtration: The water passes through a porous medium that is responsible for retaining the remaining impurities. Once this phase is finished, the water will be completely clean, although it will not yet be suitable for consumption.
  5. Disinfection: In this phase the bacterial load of the water is reduced. This treatment is carried out with different methods, either ozone or ultraviolet rays for its subsequent chlorination that will achieve clean water and, now, totally drinkable.

The arrival of water at home

After disinfection, before reaching homes, the water must pass strict controls that verify the real quality of the product obtained in the water treatment plant. Thus, in Spain, it is the National Information System for Drinking Water, the body in charge of this control and the collection of data on the characteristics and qualities of the water from the ETAP.

Once this quality is verified, the water is stored in tanks near the water treatment plants until it is transported to homes, receiving a contribution of chlorine that favors its conservation in those tanks.

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Why is chlorine used in water and how does it affect health?

Chlorination is one of the processes that are carried out to treat water and its objective is to carry out a disinfection of all kinds of bacteria and pathogenic organisms. The ultimate goal of these treatments is to obtain drinking water that can be consumed by humans without risk to their health. But, is there any risk in the fact that this chemical has a presence in the water we drink? We will analyze it below.

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How does a wastewater treatment station work?

One of the bases of correct water management lies in its adequate reuse once it reaches the final phase of the cycle. At this point, it requires a process and treatment before being returned to the natural environment in optimal conditions, which is carried out precisely in the WWTP: Industrial water treatment. Dumping wastewater into rivers without carrying out the corresponding treatment implies generating an environmental impact with fatal consequences. Next we will see what this process consists of.

Clean water and sanitation

Institutions such as the UN point to clean water and sanitation as one of the Sustainable Development Goals of their Development program. To meet this objective, the treatment plants carry out this work of cleaning and treating wastewater to be able to return it to nature free of waste harmful to the environment.

What is wastewater?

They are the waters coming from homes, businesses, industry and agriculture, once they have been used for the purposes that each place requires. Thus, the water discarded from the washing machine at home, or that used to cool the turbines of a factory, is directed through the sewage network to some collectors that finally end up in the purification station. Domestic wastewater contains organic and suspended pollutants while industrial wastewater can also add heavy metals and hydrocarbons. In this way, these waters with toxic substances of inorganic nature are forced to undergo a previous treatment in the facilities where they are generated before going to the municipal collectors.

Once the domestic and industrial wastewater passes to the collector, the water purification phases will begin, which aim to eliminate organic residues such as oils, fats, sand and sedimentable solids as well as chemicals such as ammonia and phosphorus. In addition, in the last steps, the retained waste will be transformed into stable sludge that will also be reused.

How does a WWTP work?

In the treatment plant, the water will go through four well-defined phases:

  1. Pretreatment: After entering the station, larger waste is removed through screening grids that retain garbage and other bulky items; later on, it goes to tanks in which suspended sand and grease are removed thanks to mechanical processes. From here it will go to the primary decanter to continue with the process.
  2. Primary Purification: In this decanter, the water will remain at rest to favor the deposit of the heaviest residues at the bottom. These residues will generate a sludge that will be separated from the water and stored in a sludge digester prepared for this purpose.
  3. Secondary Treatment: The water passes into tanks to which oxygen bubbles are added to promote the proliferation of microorganisms that will be responsible for removing the dirt that remains. This biochemical process will eliminate organic matter such as ammonium which, if it remains, will consume the dissolved oxygen available for aquatic fauna and flora once the water is returned to the natural environment. In this phase, new sludge is created that will separate from the water and go to the sludge digester.
  4. Tertiary Treatment: In this phase a settling, filtration and disinfection of the water is carried out. After this process, the water is returned to the natural environment in the best conditions so that it can continue its cycle.
wastewater-treatment-station

What happens to the waste after the process?

The wastewater treatment process, as we have detailed, generates sludge that is collected through the different phases of this process. This matter and its biological reactions are reused for different purposes. On the one hand, when stabilized and extracted, this sludge produces biogases that are used as energy, and even as biofuel for vehicles. On the other hand, the sludge itself generated is used as organic fertilizer, replacing in many cases chemical fertilizers that are harmful to the environment. Finally, the algae and other microorganisms that proliferate in the process are also used to generate biomass, among other uses.

This interesting video helps us to understand in detail this process of collecting and treating wastewater as well as the subsequent management of this waste.

Thus, with the treatment of the water that we discard every day, we not only contribute to returning to nature that resource so necessary for our daily life, but it also arrives in perfect condition so that it can contribute to the environmental balance that we need.

The treated water returns to the natural environment, but is also used in:

  • Urban uses: street cleaning, irrigation, sanitary uses, etc.
  • Industrial uses: for example for the cooling of machines.
  • Agricultural and livestock use: cleaning, irrigation of crops, etc.
  • Other functions such as golf course irrigation, aquifer recharge, etc.

The largest treatment plants in the world

Atotonilco WWTP (Mexico)

It is the largest Wastewater Treatment Plant in the world, which treats all the waters of the Valley of Mexico destined to irrigate 80,000 hectares of land.

Stickney WWTP (Cicero, Illinois, United States)

Its 230 hectares of surface supply the entire city of Chicago and other areas and its water pumping station, lifts them from a system of tunnels to almost 100 meters deep

Bailonggang WWTP (Shanghai, China)

The main wastewater plant on the Asian continent with 24 hectares of surface, is responsible for the purification of a third of the waste that is dumped daily into the waters of the Yangtze River.

The importance of wastewater treatment

In summary, the Wastewater Treatment Stations contribute to reducing the waste generated. The recycling of wastewater minimizes waste, to which it is convenient to contribute with responsible use so that our future generations can continue to have the water resources necessary for life.

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The water footprint and environmental impact

Water is one of the most important resources for the survival of living beings, not only as a basic good, but also as a raw material or auxiliary element to produce many goods and services. What impact does water use have and how to control it? The concept of “Water Footprint” responds to this and other questions about the sustainability of water use.

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