Several organizations and government agencies marked World Water Day on March 22 by highlighting the importance of proper management of the key resource.
Specifically, the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) highlighted the opportunity treated wastewater represents for agriculture and for improving food security and nutrition, pointing out that, globally, most wastewater is released into the environment without being treated. As a result, in many regions of the world, contaminated water is discharged into rivers and lakes and ends up in oceans.
However, FAO said treated and reused wastewater can be a cost-effective and sustainable solution to water scarcity.
"We need to use water in agriculture in a more efficient, productive, equitable and environmentally friendly way, where quality is not compromised," FAO deputy director general Maria Helena Semedo said during a World Water Day ceremony at the U.N. agency's headquarters in Rome, Italy. "We should maximize the potential of wastewater as a valuable and sustainable resource."
In his remarks, Fiji's President Jioji Konousi Konrote said, "There is an urgent need for greater investment and research into the management of wastewater to reduce the life-threatening impacts that wastewater pollution has on our environment. With enough effort, there is potential to turn wastewater into a valuable resource.
"The challenges in getting this done vary by country, but many challenges are shared, and we need close cooperation between nations to push action on this issue," Konrote added.
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While agriculture accounts for around 70% of freshwater withdrawals, FAO said only a small percentage of treated wastewater is being reused by the agriculture industry. As such, FAO said it is working with its member states to increase the reuse of treated wastewater in a safe and secure way.
For example, FAO noted that 90% of treated wastewater in Jordan is used for irrigation, while in Israel, treated wastewater accounts for nearly half of all water used for irrigation. At least 50 countries worldwide are known to use wastewater for irrigation, accounting for an estimated 10% of all irrigated land. However, data are incomplete for many regions, including Africa.
The Global Framework on Water Scarcity, launched by FAO, promotes the use of alternative sources of water, such as rainwater harvesting and the reuse of treated wastewater. It also encourages sharing knowledge and developing innovative approaches to deal with water issues in agriculture.
Wastewater a resource, not a problem
This year's “United Nations World Water Development Report,” released March 22 by U.N.-Water, called for a quantum shift to viewing wastewater as a resource rather than a problem in a world where water is increasingly scarce but demand for it is growing.
Lystek International Inc., a leading provider of Thermal Hydrolysis solutions for the sustainable management of biosolids and organics, used World Water Day as an opportunity to showcase ways in which wastewater could be used as a resource.
“Recycling of wastewater, through scientifically advanced resource recovery systems, puts much-needed clean water back into circulation,” Lystek noted.
One-tenth of the world's population lacks access to clean, safe water, and when untreated sewers run through communities, it undermines health and well-being, trapping many people in a cycle of poverty, the company said.
“Conversely, when proper wastewater treatment systems are in place, they allow for the removal of bacteria and other contaminants so clean water can flow through communities that need it, thereby helping organizations like World Help save lives,” Lystek added.
The company also pointed out that advanced technical solutions can also be used to increase the production of biogas in digesters at wastewater treatment plants.
“This remarkable source of alternative energy can help to reduce operational costs, decrease greenhouse gas emissions and even power these facilities, thereby converting traditional plants into Wastewater Resource Recovery Centers (WRRCs). This can help reduce the negative impacts of climate change,” Lystek said.
With today's technologies, Lystek said it is also possible to convert biosolids into safe, pathogen-free, nutrient-rich, Class A quality biofertilizers. These products can be ideal for promoting healthy, productive soil and plant life. Healthy plants and soils are also able to retain more moisture (i.e., water), thereby reducing the potential for runoff in areas where soil degradation and erosion threaten already-scarce water supplies, Lystek said.
“Converting treatment plants into WRRCs is a great way to turn wastewater into valuable products,” the company noted.
FAO also pointed out that treated wastewater can be a potential source of raw materials, such as phosphorus and nitrates that can be turned into fertilizer. An estimated 22% of global demand for phosphorus, a finite and depleting mineral resource, could be met by reusing treated wastewater.
Lystek said there is a need to divert wastewater biosolids from landfills.
“When treated as 'waste,' wastewater biosolids are too often dumped in landfills — more than 9 million tons across North America annually. This practice is not sustainable as it takes up valuable space and sends greenhouse gases into our atmosphere," the company explained. "Conversely, when treated with methods based in sound science and research, the material can be recycled for higher and better uses, reducing the need to create more landfills.”
There are economic benefits to wastewater management as well, according to Lystek.
“There are wastewater management solutions available today that offer low capital, energy and operating costs while producing valuable, much-needed products with real market value," it said. "Forward-thinking generators are already taking advantage of these opportunities to reduce costs and make positive contributions to the circular economy.”
Many cities are also now viewing wastewater resources as an opportunity to do public good. In Lima, Peru, for example, treated wastewater has played an important role in creating a public park where residents can enjoy rare green space. The water and nutrients stay in the city, providing new benefits in their recycled form.
California is trying finding ways to decrease the amount of energy needed to manage water resources as recycling wastewater reduces the amount of energy otherwise required to pump it over long distances for further treatment or disposal, making it part of the energy conservation solution.
All in all, improved wastewater management generates social, environmental, and economic benefits, but FAO said the key to improving wastewater management is to highlight its benefits and raise social acceptance of the use of treated wastewater.