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A critically dry town's 'magical, otherworldly' solution to sustainable clean drinking water

By Donal Sheil, Friday February 22, 2019 - 20:56 EDT
ABC image
The 10 hydropanels should produce 540,000 bottles of water in their 15-year lifespan. - ABC

Enduring stage six water restrictions for almost a year, the town of Murrurundi is now home to ground-breaking new technology that harvests the sun and air to create clean drinking water.

When Murrurundi Public School Principal Rebecca Hopkins arrived in mid-2018, she did not think the town's dry conditions could get any worse.

When water restrictions were raised to level six just a month later, she was proven wrong.

"It was no way near as dire as it is now," Ms Hopkins said.

Restrictions include no watering of gardens and lawns, three-minute showers and limited laundry use.

Answering emails in her office on a quiet afternoon last year, a cold call offered Mrs Hopkins a lifeline for the community's plight.

Word of Murrurundi's crippling restrictions had reached Byron Bay, where sustainable food collective Three Blue Ducks decided to lend a hand.

Early adopters of hydropanels, technology which harvests the sun and air to create clean drinking water, Three Blue Ducks decided to donate over $30,000 worth of panels to the small town of 1,000.

The first school in New South Wales to host hydropanels, Mrs Hopkins said the generosity of the donation was overwhelming.

"For the community members, not just monetarily it means a lot, but such a gift like that really warms your heart," she said.

"It's not something that a small school like ours could afford without some assistance."

With some parents having had spent $1,500 in the past year on bottled water, Mrs Hopkins said the access to reliable drinking water would have a direct impact on student's education.

"Not having to buy bottled water for our office and for our staff and for our students, that's a load off our minds," she said.

"That means we can spend those resources more wisely on students' learning."

While the 10 donated panels sit within school grounds, members of the community have been encouraged to sign in at the front office and fill bottles and containers during school hours.

"They just feel safe and secure in the knowledge that they can fill up anytime and enjoy the water that they're drinking," Mrs Hopkins said.

How hydropanels turn air and sun into drinkable water

With the 10-panel system capable of producing 3,000 bottles of water per month, hydropanels use solar power to produce large-scale condensation.

Water is then mineralised and placed in an ozonator, where it can be channelled to a nearby tap.

Zero Mass Water Asia Pacific Vice President James Symons said despite the technology's farfetched elevator pitch, it could soon become pedestrian in drought-affected communities.

"A lot of innovations seem too good to be true when they set out and then they become commonplace, and that's the definition of technological disruption," he said.

"We're here to complement traditional infrastructure and say to these communities even when times are at their worst in times of drought, at least you can always have fresh drinking water."

After gaining clearance from the NSW Department of Education, Zero Mass Water was authorised to install NSW's first school-based hydropanels.

Mr Symons said schools were the perfect place to position panels within towns.

"Whenever you have problems with drought and water shortages we always think about our most vulnerable community members," he said.

"That's obviously children in many cases."

As off-grid, modular systems that scale as needed, Mr Symonds said the potential for hydropanels was still yet to be seen.

"Our vision is to make these units deliverable at a community-scale," he said.

Community rallies to keep hope flowing

Murrurundi's local swimming pool has become a beacon of hope in the town.

Entering a sweltering 2018 summer without it was almost a reality, though.

Unable to pay the freight for water, the Upper Hunter council was assisted by local pub, The Royal Hotel.

After hosting various fundraising events raising $1,700 in donations, the driver, truck and fuel were paid for.

By the first week of December, the Murrurundi War Memorial Swimming Pool was open, requiring 990,000 litres of water to clean and fill.

"You can imagine the joy that they get from swimming, that's what they look forward to," local school principal Ms Hopkins said.

"It would've had a very negative impact on the mental health of not just the adults in the family, but particularly the children."

'They're doing as much as they can'

Sophie Luscombe and Rachel Brown are Murrurundi Public School's co-school captains.

After practising her backstroke under the pool's blue canopy, Ms Brown said long-term water restrictions had taken both a visual and emotional toll on the town.

"We can't have vegetables, we can't have gardens because we can't water them," she said.

Grateful for the generosity her town had enjoyed, Ms Luscombe said she was excited to have sustainable clean drinking water.

"The town is really asking for more help, but we're getting as much as we can," she said.

"The technology is great because it is helping our town out and we're getting yummy water, and clean water."

Are hydropanels the sustainable solution?

Professor Michael Roderick, a researcher at the Australian National University's School of Earth Sciences, said hydropanels could potentially provide a creative counter to the greenhouse effect.

Dr Roderick said CO2 created by land clearing, cars and industrial works warms the atmosphere, which in-turn allows it to hold more water.

"Water by itself is a very strong greenhouse gas, so it multiplies the CO2 effect," he said.

According to Dr Roderick, extracting water vapour out of the atmosphere could ease the greenhouse effect.

On the other hand, he said over-harvesting water from the atmosphere could negatively impact on the environment, but only on a large scale.

"If you had a large set of panels, then downwind of the extraction point the air's going to be depleted of humidity," Dr Roderick said.

"Plants growing in that downwind environment would tend to experience slightly more water stress than they had before.

"The effect would be quite limited, it would just depend on the size of the installation."


© ABC 2019

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