Recycling sewage into drinking water is no big deal. They’ve been doing it in Namibia for 50 years.

And I lived to tell the tale. The cutting-edge water recycling plant serves a city with many poor neighborhoods, like this one right outside its gates. All those countries now have their own sewage recycling plants. But here, in the middle of a desert in a remote corner of southern Africa, they’ve been recycling wastewater for almost 50 years. But at the point where processed sewage would normally be discharged into a waterway, the Goreangab plant sends it through additional steps that purify it to drinking water standards. Negumbo helps oversee operations of the plant, and so helps keep this desert city of 300,000 running. “If you talk about the cradle of water reclamation, potable reclamation, everybody comes and see this. “But now sometimes during peak hours, we have around 41,000 cubic meters a day. This is where it all started in 1968.”
The plant’s been updated since then. We went through the last rainy season without having any inflow on the dams.”

Pierre van Rensburg, head of Windhoek’s water department, says local residents are proud to have led the world in water recycling. There’s a drinking fountain on the way out of the plant that burbles with clear, cool water. Credit:

Daniel Gross

Goreangab gets a lot of visitors from developed countries facing water shortages. But the technology pioneered here has proven safe. It’s so stinky that my guide, the man who runs Windhoek’s water department, tells me I might want to stay in the car.Player utilitiesPopout
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downloadListen to the Story. But they dried up, and without much rain, it seemed the only way to keep up with demand was by taking what at the time was the radical step of reusing the city’s wastewater. Related:
Can an Indian-American tackle India’s twin challenges of poor sanitation and lack of clean water? On the outskirts of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, there’s a huge, churning vat of nasty brown liquid. This place doesn’t supply every drop of Windhoek’s water. So, you always have to be innovative to try and stay a step ahead.”
Van Rensburg thinks developing countries like Namibia can lead the world in innovation — if they can gain access to funding and skilled labor. It’s strange to see such poverty right next to this cutting-edge facility. But the future here may be even drier than the past, so water recycling is more important than ever. But van Rensburg says it actually makes a lot of sense. Pierre van Rensburg says necessity is the mother of invention in developing countries like Namibia, which he thinks can lead the world in innovation — if they can gain access to funding and skilled labor. “The plant was originally designed to treat 27,000 cubic meters [of sewage] a day,” says Haihambo. In its worst water emergency since the Dust Bowl, California needs solutions fast
Desert Lunch: Coaxing Climate-Friendly Food from the World’s Driest Places And van Rensburg says locals are now proud to have pioneered the idea. Not that there was much public input at the time. “It’s a fast-changing environment. “But we know before that the dams will be out. “Our next rainy season is expected in January [or] February next year,” says water department head Pierre van Rensburg. “Water is life,” says Goreangab technician Elias Negumbo. The local reservoir, or dam, is almost empty. The Goreangab waste treatment plant is where most of the wastewater from Windhoek’s 300,000 residents ends up. PRI.org

But this is what I came to see — raw sewage, on its way to being turned back into drinking water. Credit:

Daniel Gross

Of course, it’s not like this pioneering plant helped make Windhoek a modern metropolis. But van Rensburg grew up here, and he says water was always scarce. Today, after the sewage we started with has already been cleaned to the point where most cities would just pump it back into a river or the sea, it’s sent off   to be further purified with ozone and activated carbon. Way more than it was designed for.”
That’s because Windhoek is bigger now than it was back then, and it’s again on the verge of running out of water from natural sources. Back in the ’60s, Namibia was controlled by apartheid-era South Africa, and the government wasn’t much concerned with public opinion, especially with the majority-black population. Credit:

Daniel Gross

The drought that’s ravaging much of southern Africa is hitting Namibia hard, too. It tastes delicious. The bacteria help digest the human waste and pull it out of the water, essentially mimicking what happens in nature but a whole lot faster. These days, such a plan can bring howls of protest by consumers repulsed by the idea of drinking recycled sewage. It’s cutting-edge technology, but it’s based on the humblest of creatures — bacteria. “That is the product from this plant,” says van Rensburg. Speed was important when the plant was built back in the 1960s, and it’s even more important today. Just outside Goreangab’s gates, there’s a huge slum of corrugated tin huts. “Having to bathe in the same bath as others, collecting every drop of rainwater to try and use it to keep some plants alive.”
Before the mid-1900s, Windhoek got most of its water from nearby springs. It’s the first stop in the city’s pioneering water recycling system. The city still taps groundwater and harvests some of what does fall from the sky. Credit:

Daniel Gross

“Everything is done biologically, by the organisms,” explains Justina Haihambo, a process engineer at the plant. “The fact that an idea can be generated in a developing country, that can actually inspire a similar trend in a developed country, is definitely, in my opinion, something that can happen,” he says. And we also don’t know how much rain we will get. Cities around the world are wrestling with whether they should build facilities like this. Experts have come from Australia, Singapore   and the US to see where water reclamation started. And the people who work at and run this plant put their water where their mouth is. “It’s 100 percent purified sewage water.”
I take a sip, then another. But it’s not your run-of-the-mill sewage plant. “I can remember similar to what we have now, not being able to water your lawn,” he says. The recyling process begins with a conventional sewage treatment system. Today, though, no one I talked with had any complaints about drinking recycled water. “If you look at the world, the pressing need is always in developing countries,” van Rensburg says. Namibia has struggled with basic needs, and necessity is the mother of invention.