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There’s gold in them there waters

05 August 2014

Dana Cordell research scientist at UTS Sustainable Futures Institute

When Dana Cordell (pictured above) speaks publically on her area of interest and scientific research: phosphorus, food security, water, waste and sustainable futures, there is something she has learned to dispense with very quickly.

She remembers a breakfast talk she gave at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney which she began with a prop: a jar of her own urine. The specimen was just about the only thing on which subsequent media coverage focussed. Then at a public participation workshop Dana was doing, the tutor, who had seen Dana speak before, asked her what she felt her three key messages would be in any speech. When Dana announced them, the tutor stood amazed and asked, but what about urine?

Excreta, it seems, are her bete noir, which is why when we meet in Sydney at the University of Technology Sydney she rapidly explains why it might have been toilets that took her to Sweden to do her Masters in water resources and livelihood security but things developed from there.

Dr Cordell is Research Principal and Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS, which she explains has a trans-disciplinary approach to research and values collaboration in the workplace. She is also Co-Founder of the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI) and a 2013 Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awardee in the Global category.

“When I started my Masters it was a time of extended drought in Australia, and any kind of toilet that was able to reduce water consumption, while capturing nutrients as a renewable resource – excreta contains phosphate and nitrogen, which are crucial to food production - I thought was brilliant and highly beneficial for us,” she explains.

That was 2004, but as Dana became more deeply involved in the issues her focus began to shift and widen.

Cut to the chase: in the process of becoming Dr Cordell ‘phosphorus specialist’, Dana uncovered a shocking gap in the world’s knowledge, and in its governance around phosphorus and the potential impact relying on a non-renewable resource has on food security.

Phosphorus is essential for growing food crops. The world’s current phosphorus resources come from a non-renewable resource, mined phosphate rock. The rock is also geo-politically scarce. One country, in fact one family, the Moroccan Royal family, controls 75 percent of the world’s remaining phosphate rock reserves.

“That sort of compromised position alone should put phosphorus on every country’s political agenda,” Dana says. “It is startling to think: How did we reach this point of unconcern about something that is very concerning?”

Much of what Dana had to say about the issue attracted and still attracts criticism and outright dismissal of her by others in her field. It was one of her reasons for founding the GPRI.

“The lack of research and inaction was affecting more than just academics and scientists interested in water and waste. The target audience for this kind of research includes farmers, governments, the fertiliser industry, and that audience needs to both understand and be part of finding solutions. GPRI allowed us to build a public platform for discussion and provide easy access to information.

“Some months after we launched the GPRI the price of phosphate rock went up 800 percent,” Dana continues.

Phosphorus had been travelling at about $US50 a tonne for about 10 years, and the price spike changed the playing field, according to Dana. It demonstrated to the world what it would be like if phosphorus became scarce and there was no other developed sustainable phosphorus resource upon which to draw.

“It also taught me the importance of windows of opportunities. Although the price spike contributed to a food and farmer crisis, it got the issues noticed,” says Dana, who points out that now awareness is awakened it’s time for action.

“In Australia we like to think we are food secure but when you look at how vulnerable we are to phosphorus scarcity it’s time to find other ways to resource ourselves. Europe is taking action. So far we’re behind in this country when it comes to policy development around renewable sources,” she notes, citing government policy around research and science as having had a major impact.

By dint of being a net food exporter, Australia exports much of its phosphorus. An analysis of Australia’s phosphorus budget by Dana and colleagues found that Australia is the world’s fifth largest phosphate importer, and that even if we were to recycle 100 percent of phosphorus in excreta that would represent just five percent of Australia’s total phosphorus demand. Dana believes that finding calls for developing other avenues, and the business opportunities are manifold.

Business opportunities

“The wastewater industry is sitting on a gold mine. They’re not just managing waste. They also have the potential to generate resources such as nutrients and energy. There’s a lot of innovation already happening in our wastewater sector,” she says.

Cutting phosphorus waste in the food system is another lucrative avenue to be explored.

In late August the fourth international Sustainable Phosphorus Summit will take place in France. As Dana’s work in the field, the work of GPRI and the international phosphorus community have gained traction, audience sizes and participation at the conference have grown. Along with the excitement attached to this success comes its fair share of stress.

“I’ve been doing a lot of knitting under the desk,” says Dana, who has another passion beyond wastewater - art and design.

In fact, a few years ago she took six months out of her 14 year career so far with the Institute for Sustainable Futures to study wallpaper making and almost began a business specialising in producing her own line of sustainable wallpapers.

“When I was awarded a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research fellowship I knew I couldn’t say no and returned to the Institute invigorated,” she says.

At the time, wallpaper was also a way to escape the unadulterated bullying she had been suffering at the hands of others in the global scientific and industry community, and elsewhere, around her work.

“I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me: ‘Well if this was such a big issue I would have heard about it by now’

“I’ve dealt with my fair share of naysayers and slowly come to understand that you can’t take it personally. One of the things I have learned to do, and which the Director here at the Institute has helped me to understand, is to step back and analyse what sits in behind the attacks - what are the agendas. They’re what you have to deal with. My colleagues at work have been an enormous support to me in this. I’ve learned to discern the patterns of criticism and they’re very clear. It will be around trying to discredit me as a scientist, or perhaps intimidate me as a young, female scientist, or block funding or publications.

“It’s important to know who the most influential critics are and find a way of rephrasing what I have to say to find overlaps, grounds of commonality from which to work,” finishes Dana.

(The Institute of Sustainable Futures has nominated another of its researchers in this year’s Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awards. Keep an eye out for what will no doubt be another dynamic woman creating business opportunities and better futures for Australia.)