Harnessing Wastewater as a Resource for Development

By Simone Schenkel

A recent UN-Water Analytical Brief argued for a paradigm shift in global water politics, starting with a dedicated water goal that explicitly recognizes wastewater as a viable alternative water source in the post-2015 Development Agenda. Given the expiring Millennium Development Goals, which focused on water quality and sanitation, the brief calls greater attention to the neglected end products of these provisions –wastewater. Here are some notable statistics about wastewater in practice, as well opportunities associated with effective wastewater management for the future of water security and development:

Open sewers like this are common in much of the world, and pose health and environmental risks

Open sewers like this are common in much of the world, and pose health and environmental risks

Wastewater treatment and reuse rates are very limited in low-income countries. In many low-income countries, only 8 percent of the wastewater generated by various industrial, commercial, domestic, and agricultural processes is treated. Meanwhile, an estimated 70 percent of wastewater is treated in high-income countries. At a global scale, an estimated 20 percent of wastewater receives adequate treatment. Low-income countries have been the hardest hit by widespread contamination of water supplies as well as the public health concerns directly associated with exposure to these water sources. UN-Water estimates that upwards of 90 percent of used water in developing countries reaches waterways without being collected or treated.

Managing wastewater will play an increasing role in sustainable agriculture. The UN Brief notes that the single largest user of freshwater sources is agriculture, which accounts for approximately 70 percent of water withdrawals globally. In the developing world, agriculture accounts for more than 90 percent of water withdrawals. Water insecurity in these regions has led to more farmers using largely untreated wastewater for irrigation. In light of the anticipated 20 percent increase in global water consumption for agriculture by 2050, as well as rising competition for diminishing freshwater resources across all sectors, there is a dire need to weigh novel options and consider alternative water sources.

The problems associated with unregulated, untreated wastewater are vast. Every day, the world’s water sources are hit by over 200 million tons of human waste. As it stands, approximately half of the world population lacks any method to dispose of sanitary wastewater from toilets – an even larger part of the population does not have the capacity to address domestic wastewater disposal. The use of untreated wastewater in the agricultural sector has created severe environmental and health repercussions.  Public health impacts have been particularly devastating: of the estimated 1.45 million people that die each year from diarrheal illnesses, 58 percent of these deaths are directly connected to poor water, sanitation and hygiene. A startling 43 percent of these deaths occur in children aged 5 and under.

The opportunities arising from effective wastewater management and reclaimed wastewater are promising. Donor dollars can be leveraged to harness these prospects. Estimates show that reclaimed wastewater is being used to irrigate 20 to 45 million hectares globally; however, this is only a fraction of what is potential with the emergence of water reuse markets. Stakeholders across sectors that utilize water in production not only have a vested interest in establishing sound policies for wastewater management, but have the potential to make a notable short and long term impact on global water security. For example, in mid-February, the IFC invested $35 million to expand wastewater treatment capacity and reuse efforts of China Everbright Water Ltd., a wastewater treatment company in China. By addressing capacity building of treatment facilities, reuse techniques and sewage treatment businesses, this investment will provide service to one million new residences and treat 1,800 million tons of wastewater per year by 2018. This reclaimed wastewater has the potential to contribute to safe irrigation for agriculture and increase energy generation. In a similar vein, after the Water Arabia 2015 conference, Saudi Arabia set ambitious goals to reuse upwards of 65 percent of its water by 2020, and more than 90 percent by 2040, by redeveloping current and future wastewater treatment investments into source water suppliers spanning all sectors.

In developing countries, the rate of water withdrawals is expected to rise by 50 percent by 2025. This poses significant threats not only to water access, but also to the vast populations engaged in agriculture with untreated wastewater. The challenges posed by decreasing freshwater resources and poor wastewater management are dire, but targeted investments to strengthen wastewater-related activities can have a positive impact on water security for consumers at all levels.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Commons: Ashley Wheaton

Simone Schenkel is a researcher with the Project on Prosperity and Development.

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