30 March 2011

Water – a precious natural resource

By Dr Moritz Mueller

Water has been in the news a lot recently, and for various reasons. For once, 22 March was World Water Day and this year’s theme focuses on urban development.

Coming from a European country, I am always amazed by the power of thunderstorms and rainfall in Malaysia. On quite a number of occasions, I had to stop my car at the side of the road because my wipers were not able to keep up with the heavy rain. It is really hard to imagine that there could ever be a shortage of water in this country.

However, reports of a shortage in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, and a comment in a local newspaper recently pointed out that Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya might be facing another crisis in 2014 because demand is expected to exceed supply.

Having sufficient – and just as important – clean (drinking) water is a basic human need, but unfortunately that is easier said than done. There are immense obstacles to overcome in providing clean water to remote areas, not only in Sarawak but everywhere in the world.

According to the World Health Organisation, about two in 10 individuals have no access to safe drinking water. So what can we do to improve this scary statistic?

Firstly, it has to start with us. There are numerous ways to save water and most of us will have heard of some before (“When washing dishes by hand, don’t let the water run while rinsing,” or another classic example: “Run your clothes washer and dishwasher only when they are full. This can actually save up to 1,000 gallons a month”).

Other solutions could be to develop better and cheaper ways of treating dirty water. Simple solutions include putting water into black plastic bags and placing them under the sun for several hours to kill most of the bacteria. More advanced solutions could include algae. Certain species can be used to remove nutrients and thus purify wastewater. The algae could then be used for biodiesel production, since they contain high amounts of oil. In a way, this is how to make cash out of trash.

The recent tsunami catastrophe in Japan following an earthquake, with all its tragic after-effects, is a reminder of the force the oceans possess. Tsunamis aside, oceans do offer unique chances to supply energy for our modern way of living.

Oceans cover approximately 70% of the Earth, which makes them the world’s largest solar energy collector and energy storage system. Several initiatives are underway to harness some of the thermal energy trapped in seawater, using a technique called Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC).

Seawater is readily available around the clock to provide utilities with a consistent output of power. Thermal energy is a form of solar energy trapped in the upper layers of the sea. In tropical and equatorial areas of the world, such as Malaysia, the water temperatures can be as warm as 30 degrees Celsius. However several thousand feet below the surface, the water temperature drops below 13 degrees. This difference in temperatures can be used to drive turbine generators for the production of electricity.

More advanced systems, such as hybrid-cycle OTEC plants can also be used to produce fresh water from seawater, which could then be further processed to drinking seawater.

OTEC technology can also support other areas, such as chilled-soil agriculture. When cold seawater flows through underground pipes, it chills the surrounding soil and creates a temperature difference between plant roots in the cool soil and plant leaves in the warm air. This allows cultivating plants in the subtropics although they have evolved in temperate climates.

Malaysia is also part of the Coral Triangle, one of the richest marine areas in the world and regarded as the “rainforests of the seas”.

It contains about 30% of the world’s coral reefs, 76% of all coral reef species, more than 35% of all coral species and also provides vital spawning grounds for commercially important fish such as tuna. Although small in size, the coral reef ecosystems in the area are unique and unrivalled in diversity and colour.

More than 300 million people live in the Coral Triangle, displaying their very own biodiversity of cultures, beliefs and traditions. Around half of them, 150 million people, live along the coastlines of this area. These communities depend on healthy coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds for food, building materials and many other benefits, such as tourism and biotechnological use of the marine resources.

Commercial fisheries provide over RM10 billion per year to the six nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste). Pharmaceutical research into marine resources is a large business and the biodiversity in the Coral Triangle offers numerous resources to Malaysia. The chances of finding new chemicals that can be turned into drugs in these species rich environments are immense.

If we take a look at the current state though, we must fear for the worst as signs of destruction are clearly visible. A study by the WWF showed that around 40% of coral reefs and mangroves have been lost in Southeast Asia over the last 40 years.

Fortunately, not everything is lost and we should protect the “rainforests of the seas” as best as we can for the sake of our children and our livelihood. Sustainable aquaculture systems can for example help to provide the seafood we all like so much, as well as protect our water resources.

Another very promising product, “Green Cement”, has been developed by a Californian company called Calera. They mimic the way corals, shellfish and other deep-sea creatures create their shells and skeletons out of calcium and magnesium in seawater to create cement that takes in more CO2 than it needs to produce it. This might help us reduce CO2 concentrations significantly, something we should all work for together, to stop climate change.

Dr Moritz Mueller is a lecturer with the School of Engineering, Computing and Science at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at mmueller@swinburne.edu.my