Clean water is a prerequisite for life, but not a self-evident fact

Elin Lavonen and Ilkka Miettinen, Professors of Practice in the field of Clean Water technologies at Aalto University, point out that although there is no shortage of water in Finland, it is important to take care of this vital natural resource.
Elin Lavonen and Ilkka Miettinen

Finland's good surface and groundwater resources, as well as efficient water treatment technology and wastewater management, ensure that we can enjoy clean water. However, increasing amounts of natural organic matter, chemical pollutants and microbes end up in water bodies; such matters require new water treatment techniques. 

'The growing use of synthetic chemicals has significantly increased the amount of organic micropollutants in water bodies. When these pollutants spread into waters, they end up in complex mixtures and possible health effects from long term exposure of these mixtures are still largely unknown,' says Lavonen.

Climate change also brings new challenges to Finland's water supply – on one hand heavy rainfall and floods and, on the other hand, long periods of heat and drought have increased in frequency. 

'So far, our water resources have been sufficient even in dry summers. In the future, the resilience of water supplies may also be compromised in Finland, and water use may have to be regulated in some areas during dry periods,' says Ilkka Miettinen. 

Globally, water shortages are very real 

Only a fraction of the world's water is drinkable. Over two billion people worldwide suffer from a lack of clean water and 3.7 billion people do not have access to safe sanitation. 

'Clean water is vital for everyone, but the distribution of water resources on the planet is very uneven. Moreover, water knows no national borders as rivers pass through several countries. At worst, this may lead to conflicts as the availability of water decreases,' says Lavonen.

'Water pollution and the adequacy of water resources are a matter of life and death in many countries. Limited water resources and a huge population density is a difficult problem, the solving of which requires international collaboration,' says Miettinen. 

Water management has become a global challenge and problem: how to use and distribute water resources, which are very limited in some places, between agriculture, industry, energy production and households. 

Increased use of chemicals and microbes threaten water quality

Increasing amounts of micropollutants, carried by wastewater, and originating from various sources such as industrial chemicals, medicines, cosmetics, detergents and pesticides, end up in Finland’s surface waters. 

'We now need to ensure that we know how to measure the presence of the complex mixtures of organic micropollutants in the water and to assess their health and environmental risks, so that water treatment can be optimised accordingly,' Lavonen says.

Microbes, such as viruses and bacteria, may also end up in water systems, contaminating waters and causing illnesses in the worst-case scenario.

'When water from heavy rains caused by climate change wash into water systems these may be polluted.. The effects of Finland's ageing water network infrastructure and its large repair backlog are also gradually becoming evident in the form of occurrences of water contamination and even water epidemics,' says Miettinen. 

Water is available on tap and in bottle – what is your choice?

'The tap water.Tap water in Finland is of high quality, available at a fraction of the price of bottled water and delivered to your home through a pipe. Moreover, bottled water does not remain unchanged; instead, microbes will start forming in it over time, reducing the quality of bottled water,’ says Miettinen. 

Lavonen agrees, adding that municipal water production is very efficient in many countries. What other product than clean water is available to everyone at home?

'When drinking bottled water, we may forget that it could have been transported for long distances. Water is quite heavy and transporting it requires energy. Marketing of bottled water has been done very cleverly – making us buy a product that we already can access cheaper and of better quality in the tap. For me, drinking tap water is a given choice with a much smaller environmental footprint. '

The consumption of bottled water has increased globally. 'Of course, there are areas in the world where the quality of tap water is poor. In such cases, bottled water is a safe, if expensive, solution,' says Miettinen. 

Aalto is riding on the crest of a wave in clean water research

By international standards, Aalto's water expertise is at a high level. As new professors of practice, Elin Lavonen and Ilkka Miettinen strengthen Aalto's expertise in clean water technologies. 

'Aalto is very progressive in that top academic research is carried out in cooperation with, for example, municipal drinking water and wastewater treatment plants and private companies, which is essential for a rapid development. The complex problems of the water industry require cooperation between the various sectors,' Lavonen says. 

In her research, Lavonen focuses on hazardous chemical compounds among other things. Increasing amounts of organic matter are washed into surface waters, and during water treatment, such matter may form by-products that are hazardous to health. She is also concerned about the health effects of micropollutants originating in wastewater:

'It is important to understand the overall biological effects that may result from the continuous exposure of humans to complex mixtures of compounds in water. This requires that we use analytical techniques that can measure water quality holistically, and new water purification technologies.'

Miettinen’s special field of interest is microbiological water research. Miettinen is an expert in water epidemics, water microbiology and domestic water production. 

'At Aalto, impressive work on sustainable development is being carried out in water resource management and wastewater treatment. I'm hoping to expand this perspective through my own expertise related to water safety and water quality.'

Text: Marjukka Puolakka

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