How to Get Your Home Off the Water "Grid"

People are becoming more self-sufficient in terms of energy and food, but what about water? Here's some ideas.

The recent convergence of events has led many people to begin discussing economic and ecological sustainability and local production of food and energy. In the past two years, as the world witnessed financial, economic, political, geopolitical, social, and military turmoil, people have raised critical issues of "peak oil," globalization, and global food and energy crises, and begun to talk about possible solutions and to empower themselves and their communities.

Even large urban mainstream media such as the Los Angeles Times and New York Times have featured stories of people who have started community gardens, replaced lawns with "victory gardens" and raised chickens in their backyards, and established cooperatives for local networks of food producers, among others. While the food and agricultural issues have captured mainstream media's attention at a time food commodity prices soared manifold in 2007 and 2008, few people have yet to talk about water.

What about water? What can people do to exert some control over water -- especially at a time when both water delivery and wastewater treatment have been centralized and controlled by either municipal utilities or private corporations? For the nervous communities and individual "survivalists" who are busily installing their own rooftop solar-power systems and growing their own vegetable gardens, what can they do about their water? How can communities survive and sustain themselves if their water and sewage utilities stop treating water because these utilities simply cannot obtain the essential chemicals and fossil fuel to operate their plants due to a variety of reasons?

Water is the basis of agriculture and industry, and the foundation of sanitation. In essence, humanity can live without oil -- albeit more primitively -- but humanity cannot survive without water. Despite its importance, rarely has the issue of water been integrated into our discussions of food crises and economic crises, except when we briefly talk about global warming and extreme droughts that affect crop-growing regions. Without clean water, we cannot have healthy people and communities.

In this time of uncertainties and chaos, how can individuals and communities help themselves to prepare their water systems so as to keep themselves alive and healthy? The first step is to design and plan for alternatives to the colossal, centralized chemical-intensive, fossil-fuel-intensive conventional water and wastewater systems.

What's Wrong with Our Current Water Systems?

Fossil fuel and electricity from the grid are the lifeblood of conventional water- and wastewater-treatment systems, which are designed and built to rely on fossil fuel as their sole energy source. Without fossil fuel, there simply would be no water and wastewater treatment. When the supply and delivery of fossil fuel run out, one can expect the so-called First World to revert back to the pre-plumbing days of the early Industrial Revolution, not unlike the days when major European cities were literally cesspools of stagnated human wastes breeding diseases, as raw sewage flowed through streets directly into streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Chemicals are another lifeblood of the conventional water systems. Here "conventional water- and wastewater-treatment systems" refer to the municipality- or corporate-owned, large-scale, centralized, and highly engineered processes and technologies, which require a constant and substantial feed stream of fossil-fuel energy and chemicals for treatment. These systems generate byproducts and pollutants during treatment (e.g., waste sludge, waste gases, and waste chemicals --- all requiring disposal) and generally cost several million dollars to build, operate, and maintain.

Today's conventional water- and sewage-treatment facilities are multimillion-dollar engineering marvels designed and built by multinational engineering companies with minimal regard to their environmental impact, their resource consumption, and their dependence on energy-delivery and raw-materials-supply systems in their operation and maintenance. Despite being highly engineered, these systems are neither robust nor flexible. In fact, because conventional treatment facilities rely on the complex web of resource production and delivery infrastructure to feed their heavy demand on resources, they are vulnerable to total system failures caused by only a few supply-web components' malfunction.

Despite being highly engineered, total treatment failures and sewage spills still occur with these conventional systems; effluent treated and discharged into surface waters still contain chemical residues from treatment processes, organic nutrients (e.g., nitrogen and phosphorus), residual chemical compounds (such as pharmaceutical drugs, pesticides, detergents) only partially decomposed by bacteria, and some pathogenic bacteria and viruses. Worse, pollutants are produced during treatment, which create additional pollution problems and require disposal. Volatilization of sewage gases often contributes to urban smog problems, and waste sludge requires trucking transport to incinerators or landfills.

This type of conventional water infrastructure is unsustainable in the long term, as it relies completely on energy- and raw-materials delivery and complex networks of manufacturing and transportation (and delivery) infrastructure in its daily operations and maintenance. So our water infrastructure is dependent on shipping tankers and barges, trucks, rail and highway systems, power plants, electricity grid, chemical manufacturers, and disposal places (e.g., landfills, incinerators, farms that accept "biosolids"). It is both a heavy consumer of resources and a significant producer of pollutants in the treatment processes. As a result of this total dependence on fossil fuel, chemicals, and replacement parts, conventional water facilities are defenseless against power outages and delivery interruptions.

Hence, these conventional facilities are only as robust and secure as the manufacturing infrastructure and the delivery system networks that support them. For example, when power outage occurred in one Ohio power plant on August 14, 2003, the electricity grid supplying electricity to the northeastern United States and parts of southeastern Canada crashed, causing sewage- and water-treatment plants in many cities to fail. Large metropolitan areas such as Detroit and Cleveland went without drinking water for several days, while New York's sewage-treatment plants spewed raw sewage into rivers and oceans, forcing public health officials to close several public beaches in the state.

Countries or communities adopting and relying solely on conventional water systems are especially vulnerable to chemicals and fossil-fuel supply disruptions. The good case study is Iraq which suffered a total collapse of its conventional water infrastructure during UN sanctions from 1991 to 2003.

The control of water resources has been politicized and used as a figurative weapon of war at the international level --- as illustrated by the withholding of water-treatment resources and technologies under the United Nations trade embargo against Iraq in the 1990s. This control has been used already by the Untied States and the United Kingdom as a means to weaken Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Under UN sanctions, 1.5 million Iraqis (including approximately 565,000 children) had died as a result of the embargo by the mid-1990s, which included withholding "vital goods" such as chemicals and equipment to purify drinking water and to treat sewage, according to UN aid agencies UNICEF and UN FAO.

Today in the post-invasion Iraq now being occupied by the United States, the water infrastructure has not been rebuilt. Many communities are still without clean drinking water and sewage treatment. Raw sewage still flows in the streets of many cities, and large segments of the population rely on water trucks to procure clean drinking water.

Why was Iraq so vulnerable to UN sanctions? It turns out that Iraq's water-purification and sewage-treatment infrastructures are conventional: they use chemical- and fossil-fuel-guzzling technologies similar to those used in the United States and other industrialized countries. If Iraqis had built their water systems using ecological and natural designs and principles and technologies, then they could have become independent of imported chemicals and parts --- and consequently prevented the deaths of 1.5 million children and adults from otherwise easily preventable waterborne diseases.

Why Natural, Small, and Decentralized Systems?

The lessons of Iraq are valuable for many communities and nations: Despite its oil wealth (second only to Saudi Arabia in underground reserves), Iraq could not import the necessary replacement parts and chemicals for its water treatment plants because of the economic and trade sanctions. Indeed, conventional water systems are only as strong as the weakest link in the overall raw-materials-sourcing, manufacturing, transportation, and delivery infrastructure.

The case for small, decentralized, and natural water systems is the same as that for the food system: many experts have advised us to go back to local farms, to be self-sufficient on a local level. These natural systems use local materials and resources, local labor, and local expertise, thereby making them independent of costly and highly toxic synthetic chemicals and fossil fuels in their operation.

Conventional Systems v. Natural, Ecological Water Systems

In general, ecological treatment systems are land- (or space-) intensive and more time-consuming, while conventional systems are energy-demanding and resource-intensive. Conventionally engineered and resource-intensive water-treatment systems are almost useless when lacking key chemicals and fossil fuel.

These systems are small, low-cost, decentralized, energy-efficient (and can be operated independent of fossil fuel), and community self-sufficient; they can be built, operated, and maintained using local labor and resources in the communities.

Many natural systems are widely in use, including the following:

  • Ponds (e.g., aerobic, anaerobic, aerated, facultative, waste-stabilize, primary, secondary, tertiary, maturation or polishing, algal, duckweed, and macrophyte ponds, etc.)
  • Constructed wetlands (e.g., subsurface, surface flow, vertical flow) and reed beds
  • Anaerobic digesters
  • Aquaculture and aquatic-macrophyte pond system
  • Sand filters (slow sand filters, fast sand filters)
  • Low-cost sorbents and filters (e.g., coconut shell, peanut hull, risk husk, peat moss, iron-oxide-coated sand, old clothing, clay, zeolite, etc.)
  • Integrated, combined systems (a full system with many components discussed here)

As there are many other types of experimental systems being tested by researchers around the world, we will only focus on ponds, the lowest cost and easiest to construct of all natural systems, in this essay.

Ponds in Sustainable Ecological Wastewater Treatment: Simulating Nature's Processes of Degrading Wastes

Ponds have been characterized as a "low-tech" and "old-fashion" method of sewage treatment. Despite their deceptively simple appearance -- resembling a hole in the ground filled with wastewater -- ponds are actually complex and dynamic ecosystems with untold trillions of microorganisms forming numerous intricate food chains suspended in the water column, inhabiting pond sediments, and attaching to various surfaces in the pond.

The organisms in the ponds include bacteria, viruses, protozoa, zooplankton, phytoplankton, algae, fungi, rotifers, insects and insect larvae, crustaceans, worms, shrimps, snails, fishes, and plants, among thousands of species of organisms. Numerous sequences of chemical, biological, physical, and biochemical reactions and processes occur within the ponds during the time wastewater is in the ponds. Ponds are far more complex than any other waste-treatment systems designed and engineered by human beings. Although reactions and processes occurring in the ponds are difficult to model, all types of wastewater-treatment ponds are relatively easy and inexpensive to design, construct, operate, and maintain.

Ponds are a low-cost and environmentally sustainable technology for wastewater treatment in developing countries, but they are not commonly used in industrialized countries, except in small rural and remote communities. Various researchers have estimated that the United States had about 7,000 pond systems in 1975; Canada 868 ponds in 1981; and France, approximately 1,800 ponds in 1987 and 2,500 in 1993 in small, rural communities. In France, lagoons represented about 26.9% of 976 very small municipal wastewater-treatment plants for communities with fewer than 2,000 population equivalent (p.e.), and in Bavaria, Germany, more than 1,500 rural communities each with fewer than 5,000 people, use ponds for wastewater treatment.

Scientists generally recognize that four major biological and biochemical processes occur simultaneously but at different zones in wastewater ponds: microbial aerobic and anaerobic biodegradation and biotransformation, photosynthesis, and sedimentation. Other reactions and processes also occur: predation on bacteria and other microorganisms by rotifers and zooplankton, fermentation of settled solids and sludge at pond bottom (in which biogas, comprising 65 percent methane, is generated), pH shifts in pond water, algae exuding algal toxins that eliminate pathogenic microorganisms (e.g., fecal coliforms), and many other processes.

Aquatic plants and macrophytes can be planted in the wastewater ponds to facilitate purification and waste recycling. These types of systems are based on the ideas that resource recycling and recovery are critical to environmental sustainability, and that closing the production-and-consumption loop is important for maintaining soil fertility and agricultural productivity in the long term.

What the critics of pond systems do not fully consider and appreciate is that this appropriate technology is flexible (i.e., it can be combined with other treatment units such as constructed wetlands and sand filters in an integrated wastewater-treatment system); simple and inexpensive to design, construct, operate, and maintain; and environmentally sustainable because no fossil fuels and chemicals are required for effective sewage treatment. In essence, pond systems offer communities a great measure of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, which they cannot obtain using conventional treatment technologies.

Just as the local food and slow food movements try to raise public awareness about chemical-intensive, corporate-controlled monoculture, we should do the same in the water field: teach people sustainable and ecological technologies for building and operating their natural, small, and decentralized water and wastewater treatment systems. It is time that people and their communities learn to manage their own water and wastewater without being held hostage by multinational engineering corporations and financial institutions such as Bechtel, Dow Chemical, and the World Bank/International Monetary Fund.








Jo-Shing Yang is the author of "Ecological Planning, Design, and Engineering. Solving Global Water Crises: New Paradigms in Wastewater and Water Treatment. Small and On-Site Systems for Community Water Self-Sufficiency and Sustainability."