The Science of Survival

20 April 2008

Interview with

Melinda Campbell, Science Museum & Jacob Tompkins, Waterwise

Meera - This week I've come to the Science Museum in London to visit the new Science of Survival exhibition which opened last week. The exhibition covers important issues facing our future and our survival: looking into things like global resources, climate change and the options we have towards a sustainable future. As soon as you walk in you meet four characters: Buzz, Eco, Tech and Duck who all have very different views and opinions about how we can have a sustainable future. Throughout the exhibition each character provides their opinions to give you an idea of just how differently people can see these issues. The main content developer on this exhibition is Melinda Campbell. She's here with me now to tell me more about the future and our survival. Hello Melinda.

Melinda - Hi.

Meera - What's the point you're trying to get across?

Melinda - The first thing we do in the science of survival is we look at different areas that every human needs to survive.  We look at drinking, eating, enjoying, getting from place-to-place in moving and building which is about regulating body temperature and protecting yourselves from the elements.  The fun part about the science of survival is that each section allows kids and families to make their own decisions about what kind of future they want.  On your survival card the decisions you make and the visual representations of what you created will be remembered for you.  Then when you go to Futurecity at the end of your visit you'll be able to see the implications of your choices in your very own neighbourhood for 2050.

Meera - Another section here in the exhibition is all about drinking and our water supplies in the future.  One of the consultants on this section was Jacob Tompkins from Waterwise.  Hello Jacob.

Jacob - Hello.

Meera - What was involved with the exhibition here?  What are the problems with our future water sources?

Water DropletJacob - At the moment we use about 150l per person every single day - a huge amount of water.  What we're seeing is we're using more so that amount is rising every single day. We're taking more showers, we're doing more washing - things like this. At the same time we're living in the dryer parts of the country, we're living in smaller households and what climate change really means is more floods and more droughts. There's going to be less water, that's going to be more difficult to get hold of and also we're going to be using more.

Meera - What can we do about this to ease the situation?

Jacob - Amazingly it's actually quite simple. As I say we use about 150l every day. About 50l of that is simply wasted. It sounds like a cliché but turning your tap off when you brush your teeth - if everyone did that it would provide enough water to supply the whole of Scotland. Knocking a minute off your shower, don't leave the tap running to get a drink of fresh water, fill a bottle and put it in the fridge. Simple things like this but don't cut back on cleaning or drinking obviously.

Meera - One of the ways you're getting the message across in the section is through a game. There's various things mentioned in that like fog farms so are those potential sources of water in the future?

Jacob - Probably not in the UK but it's already being used in the Ethiopian highlands and parts of South America. They've already put up meshes, large nets which actually catch dew from fog and mist and then can condense those. In the UK we're not that short of water but we do need to be looking at simple, low tech solutions like re-using sewage water. It doesn't sound very nice but what we could do is look at water from sewage treatment works, look at purifying that. You can do it through natural means, by reed beds and things like that and use that to re-augment our rivers or re-using it for supply.

Meera - So as well as games here there are cabinets showing examples of the solution. What kind of things have we got on display here?

Jacob - It's quite encouraging. There's a lot of low tech solutions on there. One of the most fun ones is something that's used quite widely in Africa, which are play pumps. They're basically like ordinary things that you'd find in a playground, seesaws and roundabouts and things. The kids, actually while they're playing, pump water. There's also some fairly simple water purification devices. The technical term is flocculate. What they effectively do is take the particles of dirt or salt in the water, settle the out so you've got fresh drinking water on top. As well as that there's one that's just come into the UK actually which is putting your basin on top of the toilet cistern.

Meera - I actually saw that. I thought it was quite a good idea.

Jacob - When you wash your hands about a third of the water we use gets flushed down the toilet. What it's doing is you wash your hands and that fills up your toilet cistern. This is grey water re-use we call this. Grey water and rain water are being used a lot. There are simple ways that water that is slightly dirty can potentially be re-used.

Meera - You say the average person uses 150l and that's on their own individual needs but obviously water is used on larger scales in consumer products and things, aren't they?

Jacob - yes, there's something we call embedded water which is basically the amount of water that goes into growing a carrot or making the tie I'm wearing or the car that people drive. If you factor that in we all use 3400l every single day! There is massive fluxes of water around the world. What we need to start thinking about is how much water has gone into the things we're using and where has it come from? The way that people start to think about carbon now we should also start thinking about water and asking questions, basically. Is it being grown efficiently, is water being wasted?

Meera - That was Jacob Tompkins from Waterwise, making sure we all turn our taps off. I've had some time to go on all the activities here so I've come to Futurecity with content developer, Melinda Campbell, who I spoke to earlier and I'm going to see what kind of world my decisions have resulted in.

Melinda - Do you want to scan in with your survival card?

Meera - Ok, I'm just going to scan in now.


Meera - Ok, so it's welcomed me to my city in 2050.

Melinda - In this case you've designed your own vehicle. You've got something that travels on rails. You've also chosen biofuel to power it. What this computer's showing you is that you're actually going to need an entire farm to create the crops for the biofuel. This is a little bit of infrastructure you might not have thought about when you designed your vehicle. Because it travels o rails you're going to need these things in your community.

Meera - I guess the exhibition's getting everybody to think about their futures. What is the future of our survival?

Melinda - I think one of the key messages in the science of survival is that future is not set. We try to inspire kids that this is about their daily life. They can make positive choices for sustainable future, we all have apart to play in making an exciting one.

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