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Keeping water sources clean has been a problem our species has always faced, however, Australian Rebekah Brown has an ingenious and easily applicable solution, especially in the third world. Genius.
For visionary number seven we finally get a chance to stay close to home, and to keep it brief as well because Rebekah Brown’s plan is a shining example of the adage that the best ideas are always those that seem logical and obvious once somebody has come up with them. I call them duh-concepts, but that might not be the technical term. But first, let’s give you some context. 2.3 billion people in the world don’t have access to basic sanitation. Half of them live in slum areas in big cities in the Global South. Every year 750,000 children die of diarrhoea as a result of lack of hygiene and even more have stunted growth and all sorts of cognitive development issues resulting from open sewage and contamination. Now the UN has calculated that in 2030 these figures will more than double. At the moment 800 million people live in slums, then it will be 2 billion. Polluted water, inadequate water supply, sanitation and lack of hygiene cause 80% of all diseases in the developing world and one in four deaths, and slum areas are particularly vulnerable in that regard.
Obviously, something needs to be done about that. And that is where Rebekah Brown (1973) comes in. Brown is that rare beast: somebody who can think with both sides of her brain. Originally, she graduated (top of her class, naturally) as an engineer. Dutifully, she worked as one for a while as well, contributing to the construction of a high-speed rail link from London to the Channel Tunnel. But then she got a bit sick of all the concrete and the environmental destruction big projects seemed to produce. So she went back to university, to do a PhD in environmental studies, which is far less technical and more of a social degree. This confronted Brown with people who don’t automatically find mechanical solutions, but look at the societies involved as well. It forced the erstwhile engineer to broaden her horizons and in the early 2000s, Brown established the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities at Monash University, armed with 120 million dollars, 86 partner organisations and 170 researchers from all walks of academia. In 2010, her work saw her being nominated for the Eureka Prize, also called the Australian Nobel. In 2015, Brown became the director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, where she now heads up an enormous project that is sponsored by UK biomedical research charity The Wellcome Trust (14 million) and the Asian Development Bank (13 million).
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And this is the plan. In the past, people reused their waste, mainly in agriculture. That was easy when food was grown close to homes, but when cities everywhere grew exponentially, removing the waste and taking it to farms further away became a problem. Waste started to pile up, sanitary conditions deteriorated and people started to die. Then a smart person came up with pipes and a system of flushed sewerage. That helped, but not in poor areas, because pipes were expensive and difficult to install – usually because before you could put in those pipes, a lot of houses needed to be raised, which made people homeless and dislocated them from their communities. The other problem with the pipe solution was that they often discharged in waterways, polluting them, impoverishing soils and causing flooding or droughts. At the moment, 85% of arable land in Africa loses 30kg of nutrients per hectare per year as a consequence of this process. And with more people comes more waste, and combined with climate change, the environmental degradation only gets worse. 90% of sewage in the developing world is discharged directly into rivers, lakes and coastal waters without treatment of any kind. Farmers use that water to grow food, with real dangers in terms of food security as a result.
So Rebekah Brown and her people came up with an alternative. Instead of using pipes, they designed a different way of water management. It is called “green infrastructure”, and uses only plants and soils to clean the water. No fossil fuels, no pipelines, no removal of people from their homes. Rainwater will be collected and treated on site. Waste water and sewage will be directed into local bio-filtration systems and the result will not only look good, but also be used for growing food. So instead of putting concrete in the ground, the landscape will be greened. It will be more pleasant to live in, work as a cooling sink, produce more oxygen, bring small farms into the cities, restore natural waterways and stop the cycle of floods and droughts that a lot of these areas suffer from.
The project has just started, with 12 slums in Indonesia and 12 in Fiji as test sites. The next five years will show if it works or if other things need to be done to literally turn the tide. The promising facet of the idea is that it is what Brown calls a “real world solution”. Slums are not rich, so when Brown’s group started to calculate when it would be possible to supply them with conventional solutions, the answer was “in 200 years”. That might as well be “never”, so any plan that brings results faster must be a good idea. But there are other benefits too. Because of Brown’s background, she has managed to attract boffins from many different areas. There are engineers, but also historians, chemists, landscape architects, ecologists, anthropologists and even artists involved, who work together with industry partners and philanthropists like the Wellcome Trust. They have already put things in place in richer areas in the world, like Melbourne, Israel and Singapore, where they experimented with a porous pavement, with water catchments under the road, where rain water is harvested, cleaned and put back into the system for re-use. The now-almost-normal idea of vertical gardens that generate green space, capture water and produce food, was also given momentum by Brown’s centre.
If Brown and her people succeed in putting their alternative water solution in place, that will mean an answer to many problems: lack of sanitation and hygiene, water security, environmental problems, even gender inequality, with millions of girls and women in developing countries kept out of school and work because they have to walk for hours to get clean water. Potentially, Brown’s “sustainable water management in cities” can save millions of lives and improve many millions more.
Not bad for a girl from Hobart. Something to be proud of. And something worthy of being named visionary number seven.