Ensuring that every NSW school has clean drinking water

On World Water Day, an Australian company is looking to ensure that every school student has access to safe and clean drinking water.

On World Water Day, many, including school students, will use their reusable water bottles to drink water. That’s not the case across Australia, and one company is looking to ensure that every school and student has access to clean drinking water. Rob Bartrop wrote about improving sustainability outcomes across Australia.

One of the key indicators of the “beginning of the end” of the long summer school holiday period (and the resumption of order in our house) is the ramp-up in activity in the school WhatsApp groups for year groups for our two primary school children. Along with the typical questions about stationery requirements and school pick-up times came a flurry of messages about which water bottle to buy. Luckily, our family avoided this, thanks to an abundance of corporate-sponsored reusable bottles in our bottom drawer. However, it has dawned on me that on World Water Day, the closest most of us will come to experiencing the water crisis daily is viewing the credit card bill for a nice-looking sustainable bottle.

Despite the heavy rainfalls of the last few years, water scarcity is a persistent issue in Australia, given our relatively dry and variable climate. It is a surprise to many that not all school children in New South Wales have access to clean drinking water—47 schools in the state still lack safe drinking water and rely on supplies of bottled water.

As NSW Premier Chris Minns pointed out, this isn’t good enough. When the real crisis starts and the next drought period hits, this number of 47 will typically increase (the number of drought-affected schools during the last drought in 2019 exceeded 200 schools) as the weather exposes our most vulnerable school locations—small towns in rural and remote parts of the state that rely on rainwater for drinking water supply.

This hurts from an equity perspective – highlighting the service gaps between rural and urban populations in our states – and also financially, where bottled water costs students and teachers over $350 per year for each student.

The good news is this crisis has also created the opportunity for innovation – in this case the NSW Department of Education piloting renewable drinking water technology that uses hydropanels to produce and deliver clean drinking water using sunlight and air alone.

Kicking off in late 2019, arrays of hydrophones were installed at 10 different schools in western parts of the state to leapfrog challenges in infrastructure and sourcing water from a renewable resource – humidity in the atmosphere – which isn’t reliant on rainfall or groundwater levels. The pilot has been a success by any metric – the panels have already delivered the equivalent of more than 600,000 standard bottles of water to schools in locations as dry and remote as Goodooga, Pallamallawa and Narromine.

Regular monitoring, reporting and educational visits have built high transparency and engagement with students, teachers, parents and regulators while creating community employment outcomes. There have also been a number of key learnings – such as the incorporation of chilled Zip dispensers, enhancement of educational materials and development of best practices for site selection – typically somewhere accessible from both the classrooms and the playground!

The NSW Government now has an innovative solution to deliver renewable water to the 220 schools that they have identified as water-stressed, which would immediately reduce the burden on taxpayers, parents and community groups who are currently footing the bill for bottled water and high-sugar drinks that are being consumed as an alternative to water from a tap.

So, how do we respond to the parents’ WhatsApp group? I think we should consider ourselves lucky – the habit of refilling bottles at school reflects that we are privileged enough to have that option. For others in the state, it means around $350 of annual bottled water costs per child – the equivalent of buying a new fancy bottle every seven weeks or so. Technical advancements have enabled hydro panels to be deployed in remote schools at a fraction of alternatives’ cost and environmental footprint while supporting innovation and opportunity in some of our most vulnerable communities.

Cheers to that!

Rob Bartrop is the Chief Revenue Officer at SOURCE, a renewable drinking water company.

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