Clean Water and Sustainability—A Discussion with an SIT Australia Alum

Henry Brandes (University of Colorado Boulder) studied on SIT’s Australia: Sustainability and Environmental Action program in spring 2013. For his Independent Study Project period, he did an internship at the CSIRO Ecosciences Precinct. Below, Henry tells us about the work he did during his internship, the importance of the work to the Australian government, and the importance of sustainability to humans.

Henry with his completed Independent Study Project report outside the location of his internship

Henry with his completed Independent Study Project report outside the location of his internship

SIT Study Abroad: Why are environmental issues important to you?

Henry Brandes: Quite simply, human health is inextricably connected with environmental health. That is, the environment can survive without us, but we humans cannot survive without the environment.

Currently, humans are consuming 50 percent more resources than the planet can provide. As I see it, any type of viable future for human society cannot continue on in a “business as usual” context or without consideration to sustainability. I think that humans have a moral responsibility in promoting a healthy environment, which can simply be achieved through the facets of sustainability. I like having other humans around and want to see us exist for many generations to come.

It seems that my generation has become bestowed with the “gift” of figuring out how to deal with the destruction, pollution, and degradation left by those who came before. Unfortunately, it appears that younger generations are becoming increasingly disconnected from their environment in exchange with becoming ever more connected with the latest technological devices.

SIT: Why did you choose to study on this program?

HB: As an environmental studies undergraduate, I was sick of sitting in classrooms learning about our surrounding natural world through textbooks and lectures. I wanted to be learning about these environmental topics and systems where they actually take place. I was especially drawn to this particular program because of the field-based learning style within a small group.

Henry and his CSIRO microbiology team

Henry and his CSIRO microbiology team

SIT: Tell me about the internship you did on the program.

HB: I spent five weeks at the CSIRO Ecosciences Precinct in Brisbane, Southeast Queensland, Australia. I was working with the CSIRO Land and Water microbiology team investigating the presence of microbial pollution in roof-captured rainwater tanks.

We found a high presence of the opportunistic bacterial pathogens tested for, indicating health risks associated with the direct consumption of untreated rainwater. Additionally, our research further suggested that current methodology used in assessing roof-captured rainwater remains inadequate in determining associated health risks to potable end users.

Within Australia, 10% of the population collects and uses rainwater as a direct potable resource with an additional 5% using roof-captured rainwater for non-potable sources such as laundry, gardening, and toilet flushing. With around 15% of Australia’s population using roof-captured rainwater, this poses a risk to over 2 million people.

My participation and contribution in the research allowed me to land a spot as a co-author to CSIRO microbiologist Dr. Warish Ahmed’s paper. The paper is in preparation for publication review and should be published within a few months.

Henry pipetting rainwater samples during his internship at CSIRO

Henry pipetting rainwater samples during his internship at CSIRO

SIT: What was the purpose of this research?

To provide the transparent facts in seeking to aid and support the development of accurate policies and guidelines.

While much of the focus on bacterial pathogens in drinking water is predominantly on enteric indicators and pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella in tank water, opportunistic pathogens such as those tested in this study are also considered to be of concern for human health.

The Australian government encourages the installation of rainwater tanks; however, they do not recommend that you use roof-captured rainwater as a direct potable drinking source where mains water is available or without adequate prior treatment.

SIT: What are your plans for the future?

HB: I’ve set up an internship project in Boulder, Colorado, where I will be investigating grey-water use as a sustainable water solution in the context of water allocation and non-consumptive use. The past semester abroad provided a HUGE step up in my academic career and I’m striving to keep the positive momentum flowing.

Find out more about SIT’s Sustainability and Environmental Action program in Australia.

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