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Most Americans take it for granted that clean water will flow every time they turn on the tap. But imagine turning on the news and hearing that your community was running out of water.

That’s exactly what’s happening in Cape Town, South Africa, where an entire modern city has been on the verge of running dry. Only recently has the situation been stabilized, and only after slashing individual water usage by half.

How could this disaster have been prevented? South Africa has an extensive network of wastewater treatment plants, but 60% of these facilities do not meet the discharge requirements (limits on pollutant parameters, protection of sewerage systems, requirements to control sludge discharge, etc.) and 44% have opted for less suitable technologies when considering their water capacity and effluent quality requirements.

For years, the water supply in South Africa has been shrinking while the water quality has been deteriorating as the demand for water grows in cities, which leads to a dependence on water sources farther afield. This increased need for water is a result of both population growth and increased industrial demand.

Africa has about 9% of the world’s freshwater resources, but their water management policies and implementations have led to the continent having less fresh water per person than any country in the Middle East or Asia (areas usually thought of as water-scarce). Under those circumstances, water is too valuable to be used just once. And although Africa is the most glaring example of unsustainable water practices, the problem isn’t only there—for example, 54% of India’s groundwater wells are decreasing, while 60% of their aquifers are in critical condition.

This is a growing global concern. Access to clean water can be a stabilizing as well as a destabilizing force. By learning from these examples and changing preconceived notions of wastewater treatment, responsible policies combined with wastewater treatment and reuse technology can assist in making it a stabilizing force.

Further reading:

America’s water crisis could be worse than you know

Importance of water

Industrial wastewater discharge regulations

South African wastewater plant gets global attention

South Africa water crisis necessitates wastewater treatment

Treating wastewater efficiently and reliably

Unmaking America’s water crisis