GERMANY: Saving the world's water

Sustainable water management is the topic of Excellence through Dialogue - Sustainable Water Management in Developing Countries, a centre of excellence at the Technische Universität Braunschweig in Germany, one of the winners in the Excellence for Development competition.

Water is one of the 21st century's key development issues. Worldwide, 1.2 million people have no access to clean drinking water while around three billion have to make do without sanitary facilities or wastewater disposal. The centre chiefly addresses MDG 7, 'Environmental Sustainability', although all further goals basically rely on water too.

This is why developing an approach to sustainable water management is the primary objective of the Braunschweig centre of excellence. Research includes the examination of technologies enabling a reuse of water. The network's cooperation partners are higher education institutions in Jordan, Vietnam and Mexico.

At present, around two thirds of the world's existing freshwater is used in agriculture. "These are resources that simply seep away in the earth," explains Müfit Bahadir, professor of ecological chemistry and vice-president for international relations and technology transfer at the TU Braunschweig.

Bahadir, who is also in charge of the centre of excellence project, says that any form of sustainable water management enabling water to be recycled represents considerable progress. Water used in industry can also be processed and reused. So technologies enabling water to be used several times bear a major potential for the developing and the industrialised countries.

"In future, two megatopics will have international priority: energy and water," says Bahadir. "We can convert energy from the existing physical energy sources - the sun, the natural heat of the earth and others - into energy or heat that we can make use of. So we have enough energy - what we don't have is enough water. And many development goals are in jeopardy simply because water isn't available."

The partners have joined forces to create a think-tank that is developing study courses and programmes and training experts for policy consulting. The aim is to establish the topic of water in the political agendas of both the developing and the industrialised countries.

The network's research results are provided to political decision-makers, authorities and institutions. Comprehensive capacity building is urgently needed since the necessary knowledge is either scattered or does not exist at all. So the centre of excellence does not regard itself as a research institution but rather as an instrument to promote higher education.

The process starts with an extensive evaluation of already existing training programmes. If an element of training is weakly developed, options for improvement or alternatives are sought - by integrating a partner institution in which the element in question is particularly well established.

There are no plans for a uniform postgraduate programme. This would require standardising the different structures at the institutions, which would not make sense given their local focus. But this is where the project's network character comes to the fore: Each university develops its own masters and PhD programmes, making use of the partners' areas of excellence via exchange programmes.

Braunschweig sees itself merely in a pump-priming role in this process. "It is very important for us that we are not perceived solely as a central contact point by our partners," Bahadir stresses. This cannot be avoided in the first year because the partners are only vaguely familiar with each other. But in future, communication processes are to take place between North and South as well as South and South.

One aspect that sharing of different perspectives can prove valuable to is intercultural issues. "Stagnant water is regarded as unclean in Muslim countries," explains Astrid Sebastian, head of the TU Braunschweig International Office. "This is why wastewater that has been treated is not used for irrigation in agriculture."

This represents a serious factor, especially given the potential that wastewater treatment would offer. "What could also be easily reused is the water used in mosques for ritual washing. It is not heavily polluted since no soap or other chemicals are used. This water could subsequently be used for irrigation."

In addition to water management in agriculture, coastal engineering and water ecosystems as well as water supply for megacities belong to the research foci of the think-tank. Researchers at TU Braunschweig are carrying out a project in the field of megacities together with colleagues from Mexico's Universidad de Guadalajara.

It centres on the development of a method for the environmentally friendly purification of industrial wastewater. The special challenges that megacities pose include an explosive population growth that the development of environmental infrastructure cannot keep pace with.

This is also the case in Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city with its 5 million inhabitants. "Over the past decades, industrialisation and the development of the economy were given priority," explains Ezequiel Franco-Lara, professor of bio-processor technology at the TU Braunschweig. "Environmental issues such as wastewater treatment were shelved."

But, as a result, considerable problems have emerged in drinking-water management. Wastewater treatment already has to fulfil stringent legal requirements. But numerous factories are still emptying untreated wastewater into rivers that in turn feed the lakes serving the cities as drinking-water reservoirs.

The latter are now permanently contaminated. In some parts of Mexico, drinking water has to be bought from tanker lorries or in bottles, while the public mains only supply households with water for industrial use. This is especially problematic for people seeking work who settle illegally in town. They are left to their own devices and often have no choice but to use contaminated water.

So there is a considerable demand for low-cost water treatment technologies. "We are treating industrial wastewater containing harmful substances like benzoates and volatile fatty acids in photobioreactors," explains Franco-Lara.

"These are vessels in which algae thrive. The algae decompose the contaminating substances within a few days or weeks, and the purified water is then filtered to rid it of the algae so that it can be reused."

Even the algae find further use, for example as fertiliser or as fodder, because they decompose or transform the harmful substances without storing them. This method is especially suitable for sunny countries, since algae depend on much light to grow.

Therefore, the know-how developed in Mexico is also interesting for the partners in the Middle East and in Asia and has been adopted in study programmes and further academic training there.

The activities of the centre of excellence are supported by an international management board with all the partners represented. It takes decisions on the appointment of visiting professors and on grant awards to students and doctoral candidates.

An international advisory board is consulted on academic and political issues whose members include representatives of German and international academic organisations, the water industry and politics. Close links are thus formed between academics, industry and politicians that are to support future knowledge transfer.

* Sabine Hellmann and Kristin Mosch are writers who work on behalf of DAAD for Lemmens Medien GmbH