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Vol. 29 No. 5
September-October 2007

Chemistry for Water: Recommendations from CHEMRAWN XV

Water is an essential resource for which there is no substitute. Yet, in much of the world, water resources are rapidly diminishing if not disappearing all together. In fact, around 5 000 children die every day due to a lack of clean water. Providing access to clean water is one of the keys to fighting extreme poverty as the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, 2002) made clear. Following are some of the alarming statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) related to water supplies throughout the world:

  • There are 1.7 million deaths each year related to unsafe water, mostly among children under five.
  • It is estimated that there are 4 billion cases of diarrhea annually, which represents 4.5 percent of the global burden of disease.
  • One sixth of humanity currently lacks access to any form of improved water supply within one kilometer of their homes.

In response to the mounting problems of water management around the world, exacerbated by an ever-growing population and increasing needs, coupled with a finite natural resource, IUPAC decided to mobilize its skills and strengths to meet the many water-related challenges facing the world. To do this, IUPAC and its CHEMRAWN (Chemical Research Applied to World Needs) Committee held an international conference on Chemistry for Water from 21–23 June 2004 in Paris at the Maison de la Chimie (see conference report, Sep-Oct 2004 CI, pp. 26–28). The “CHIMIE et EAU” Association (ACE) was responsible for organizing the event, which attracted 300 specialists who saw inspiring and highly informative presentations and exchanged valuable information related to water.

CHEMRAWN XV highlighted the emergence of a new chemistry that is an essential component of sustainable development. This new chemistry implies more science, more technology, more innovation, more solidarity. It requires the simultaneous combination of basic research, technological research, environmental research, and sociological research within strategies centered on major objectives such as water.

The primary goal of the conference was to engage the chemical community in addressing the question of how to ensure that everyone has an adequate quantity and quality of water for public use, sustainable agriculture, and industrial activities. The theme Chemistry for Water was almost aggressive. It shocked many accustomed to a more discreet attitude on the part of chemists. Yet, chemists must be conscious of the positive role they play in cooperating with water experts. They bring solutions to defined or obvious problems. The chemical world—academia and industry—must strengthen its commitment to dealing with water issues. And chemical engineering must be recognized by policy-makers as a major partner in water management, especially its security.

As with all CHEMRAWN conferences, Chemistry for Water was intended to recommend specific actions that should be taken by the global scientific community. These recommendations are reproduced in part below.

The original version of this publication, written by ACE, is longer and includes sections on Societal Issues and Ethics. The entire text is available for free online. Printed reprints are available upon request from the IUPAC Secretariat.

Scientific Matters
The recommendations that follow will not be accomplished without a worldwide mobilization of chemists and biochemists and a solid partnership with physical scientists, engineers, social scientists, policy makers, and business representatives. The knowledge and talents of chemists are necessary to understand the basic causes of the problems and to develop innovative techniques to provide safe drinking water and adequate sanitation systems for all people. This effort requires the expertise of all of the chemical sciences: analysis, biochemistry, environmental sciences, green chemistry, material science, nanoscience, physicochemistry, polymer chemistry, and process engineering.
The risk of a dispersion of efforts exists between chemistry disciplines and between chemistry organizations. Emulation is useful, but an international agenda for the main research and development objectives of “chemistry for water” is necessary, with incentives, evaluations, and public recognition.

The chemical community is able to, and must help to, meet the Millennium Development Goals <>.

Water is a complex material with surprising properties that are still being intensively studied. Better knowledge of the intimate structure of the water “molecule” will certainly be useful for a more profound understanding of its properties (e.g., its capacity to dissolve inorganic and organic substances and the mechanism of its chemical reactivity). This perspective is clearly academic, but some industrial applications might soon be exploited because water is a non-pollutant solvent or reagent. It is a major agent of the developing “green chemistry.”

We must encourage all fundamental research on water-related problems and attract and retain more top students, scientists, and engineers in that field.

Water is the only substance present in nature in three physical phases: solid, liquid, and gas. The natural “water cycle” is the only real source of water in all parts of the world. However, not all characteristics of that cycle are fully understood. The energy involved in that cycle determines the mean temperature of the planet.

Water is the most important substance in the atmosphere involved in creating the so-called “greenhouse effect” (not CO2), but it is generally ignored in weather studies because data on the water cycle are insufficiently known, fluctuate too much, and are too difficult to use in models. The water cycle strongly depends on the oceanic currents, their flows and their temperatures, and on the characteristics of the clouds, the nucleation process, and their thermal effects on Earth temperature. There is growing interest in the accelerating decay of ice sheets in Greenland and in West Antarctic observed during the last decade. The decay is due to the melting of the ice sheets in summertime, as well as the acceleration of the glaciers as they move into the oceans. This phenomenon is not well understood, and there is a vast domain of research only partly covered.

A better understanding of the water cycle is necessary for a credible evaluation of Earth warming, not only in the atmosphere but also in the oceans.

Groundwater represents another huge domain of research. An inventory of the available reserves is uncertain in many places. The intensive use of this water for agriculture may lead to its exhaustion in a number of years. However, this is difficult to evaluate without more knowledge about the natural capacity of ecosystems to restore the water layer. Another major concern is pollution of the upper layers of groundwater by agricultural or industrial pollutants.

A complete understanding of underground hydrology is necessary to avoid excessive use of groundwater. This is mandatory for preserving water for future generations.

Surprisingly, pure water does not exist in nature because of its powerful dissolving power. To be “drinkable,” pure water must be “remineralized.” Natural “mineral waters” are appreciated for their taste due to certain dissolved mineral ions and because of the absence of organic or bacterial contamination.

The quality of water distributed by public networks is regularly controlled for its content. All types of pollution entering these water supplies must be immediately detected and stopped. CHEMRAWN XV demonstrated the diversity of research occurring in the field of water analysis: the identification of microtraces of heavy elements and of new organic micropolluants; the study of synergetic effects of different species in water (molecules, complexes; solid particles, etc.); the study of the fate of chemical pollutants (e.g., methyl mercury) and medicinal residues and their elimination in-situ; the development of in-situ methods and metrology; the Fourier Transform-Ion Cyclotron Resonance-Mass spectrometry; and development of new simulation and modeling methods.

Priority must be given to all aspects of research into water analysis. Chemists are able to detect and evaluate ever-increasing microtraces of numerous pollutants in ever-more-dilute concentrations in water. The methods must be reliable, automatized, and rapid. At a greater scale, chemists are asked to develop a more precise knowledge (nature and chemical behavior) of the different classes of organic compounds present in water from natural or anthropogenic origins. This raises questions about the transport and reactivity of pollutants in aquatic systems.

Developing countries have the potential, within existing universities and engineering schools, to study water problems. Their laboratories can be re-oriented toward local issues, such as pollutants, natural products, and tropical diseases. This can be accomplished by developing and using low-cost equipment and methods adapted to real local needs and possibilities, and through international cooperation as needed.

An international policy effort is necessary to enhance water-related research activities in laboratories in developing countries. International support is necessary for such programs to be successful.

Presently, research on chemical aspects of water-related problems is spread among a very large number of teams that are generally small and often isolated. There is a serious need to facilitate the exchange of information among researchers nationally and, more importantly, internationally, especially in developing countries. Still more important is to provide adequate training of specialists in developing countries. In addition, more conferences on water chemistry should be organized every year in various parts of the world. Above all, some ambitious quantitative and qualitative objectives, with datelines, should be proposed by an authoritative body. This body should provide real incentives for meeting these objectives, such as prestigious international prizes, chairs, or fellowships.

Information dissemination should be coordinated internationally, particularly when planning research objectives.

(recommmendations only; see full text for details)

Water is different from any other chemical: Under all circumstances, water is never fully consumed, only polluted. After any use, its quality, essentially its purity, is degraded. Historically, the purification process was left to natural processes. That is still the case in a large part of the world, but this has become less and less sufficient. Physical and chemical treatments, that are a substitute for or that accelerate natural processes, are necessary for health reasons before any public distribution of water and for all types of used waters before disposal.

Water is undervalued the World over. Water must be valued and priced appropriately, especially for irrigation. Users must pay a fair price for it. If they can’t, a national or international subsidy could be established. An equitable distribution of the resource, a sustainable system operation and a clear and honest pricing system might be the conditions for having a better sense of economy of water in the public, particularly for agricultural uses.

The quality of water can be controlled before distribution only if correct equipment, prescribed chemical additives, and a complete analytical protocol are available and are used. Microbial risks, a serious public health concern, must certainly be evaluated.

Advances are still occurring in the technology used to control persistent organic and inorganic pollutants, and to minimize the presence of disinfection byproducts. Removing more particles and organic matter before treatment is always advisable. New processes using membranes are under study: Ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis show considerable promise.

The present international effort to remediate arsenic contamination, not only in Bangladesh but also in Argentina, Chile, India, western USA, and other areas, is a clear illustration of the nature of water problems: Work must be done locally, yet it demands the talents of many experts difficult to find in an underdeveloped country. International cooperation becomes a necessity.

The main challenge when treating used waters is evaluating the health risks from micropollutants, especially endocrine disrupters, for which new analytical and removal methods are under study.

Membranes materials and technology are active subjects of chemical and process research not only for desalination but for other uses (e.g., nanofiltration) as well.

The role of chemistry in a desalination plant could be greater than just technical support. The unit could in fact be the nucleus of an entire chemical complex that exploits the valuable elements present in the brine.

New chemical processes must be developed that are more economical in water use, more adaptable to remote places, friendlier to the environment, and more attentive to water quality.

Thermal power generation uses huge amounts of water as does oil refining. Critical to addressing water issues is having the energy needed to transport, manage, treat, and desalinate water resources. In the future, nuclear and renewable energies are likely to play a major role in that domain.

Water and energy are tightly linked. Saving water is always saving energy.

Water is too cheap to be exported over long distances. For example, Egypt doesn’t import actual water, but it imports it another way, by importing half of its grain, where each tonne of grain represents 1000 tonne of water. Several countries are already including this “virtual water” in their energy and water policies. For example, Saudi Arabia reduced its grain production from 4.1 millions tonne in 1992 to 1.2 million tonne in 2004. A similar approach can be observed in Japan, which imports aluminium metal, rather than bauxite, to save national energy resources.

For arid countries, “virtual water” is an interesting new concept in international business.

Editorial Committee

  • Dr. Pierre FILLET, Chairman, Association Chimie et Eau, Member of the “Académie des Technologies” of France
  • Mr. Jean-Pierre DAL PONT, General Delegate, Société de Chimie Industrielle
  • Prof. Raymond HAMELIN, Former Secretary of CHEMRAWN
  • Mr. Jacques HUI, Maison de la Chimie Foundation
  • Mr. Claude MORDINI, Parliamentary Assistant
  • Dr. Parry NORLING, Former Chairman of CHEMRAWN
  • Mr. Michel POITE, Maison de la Chimie Foundation
  • Mr. Jean-Claude STRINI, Chairman of the Programme Committee of the CHEMRAWN XV Conference, Former General Secretary, SCI
  • Dr. Alan SMITH, Royal Society of Chemistry, Member of CHEMRAWN
  • Mrs. Pascale BRIDOU BUFFET (Secretary) Société de Chimie Industrielle

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