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Don’t be ‘squeamish’ about drinking reused wastewater, U.K. official says

The water level was low at a reservoir in Kent, England, last week. The British government declared a drought across swaths of England this month. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

People need to become “less squeamish” about drinking water that is derived from wastewater, the head of Britain’s Environment Agency says, as a way to tackle water shortages and increasingly severe droughts.

The idea of recycling wastewater for human consumption — once the realm of dystopian sci-fi films — is gaining traction globally as climate change intensifies droughts.

“Part of the solution will be to reprocess the water that results from sewage treatment and turn it back into drinking water — perfectly safe and healthy, but not something many people fancy,” James Bevan wrote in Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper, as the country swelters through a record-breaking hot and dry summer.

In Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, “Dune,” inhabitants of a desert planet wear “stillsuits” designed to capture their sweat, urine and, yes — feces — and recycle it. That idea is still mired in fiction, but once-derided “toilet-to-tap” programs are becoming a reality in places including the Los Angeles area. Perth, Australia’s most water-parched big city, has said that eventually all of its wastewater could be recycled and put back into drinking water.

Water officials in London faced backlash in 2013 when they first proposed introducing recycled toilet waste into the city’s tap water to avoid looming water shortages. Now, many parts of the United Kingdom are grappling with low water supplies in reservoirs and rivers following months of record-low rainfall and unprecedented high temperatures. The government officially declared a drought across swaths of England this month.

“We need to remember where it comes from: when we turn on the tap, what comes out started in a river, lake or aquifer. The more we take, the more we drain those sources and put stress on nature and wildlife,” Bevan wrote.

Extreme drought is gripping Europe, intensifying heat and fueling fires

Many parts of Europe have seen their driest summer on record as rivers dwindle to a trickle. Water shortages have become a problem in Spain, Italy, France and the Netherlands.

Bevan acknowledged that recycling wastewater for drinking could be “unpopular,” but he said people need to change the way they think about water.

Britain’s water companies have been under the spotlight lately amid water leakages and sewage dumps that have polluted waterways, killing fish in the toxic waste and eroding trust in water regulators.

Proponents of recycled drinking water say it goes through a stringent process before it reaches household taps. First, it is treated at a waste treatment plant, before being passed through course and fine screens to filter out debris. It then goes through a process known as reverse osmosis, water experts say, to remove pathogens, viruses and bacteria. In the final step, the water is disinfected using ultraviolet light.

In Singapore, a craft brewing company announced in July that it was working with the national water agency to produce a beer made entirely from recycled wastewater — to help raise awareness of environmental issues. Brewerkz said at the time that it was “an opportunity to cast the spotlight on climate change impacts such as droughts and floods, which threaten the world’s freshwater supply.”

The tasting notes describe the beer as “highly quaffable” — perfect for Singapore’s tropical climate — with a “smooth, toasted honey-like aftertaste.”

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