Wastewater an untapped resource: Asia-Pacific Launch for United Nations World Water Development Report

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Bangkok: What if we were to consider the vast quantities of domestic, agricultural and industrial wastewater discharged into the environment everyday as a valuable resource rather than a costly a problem?

That is the paradigm shift called for in the 2017 United Nations’ Water Development Programme’s World Water Development Report (WWDR) – Wastewater: The Untapped Resource, which had its Asia-Pacific regional launch today on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development.

Dr. Shamshad Akhtar, United Nations Under Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and H.E. Mr. Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, Sri Lankan Honorable Senior Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, led the launch event, which has followed with the panel reflections on the theme of the report, during the Fourth Session of the Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development.

Dr. Akhtar drew attention to two important and inter-related issues to ensure a proper focus on water and sanitation within the framework of improving readiness to implement SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation in the region. “First we need the policy and institutional reforms to ensure a practical shift towards resilient water-hazards infrastructure, and these reforms should promote technical solutions for decentralized wastewater treatment systems,” she said.

“Second, smart budget appraisals can lead to impactful investments in efficient water and sanitation services to ensure sound returns on investments as well as direct and indirect benefits,” added Dr. Akhtar.

The report echoes this sentiment: “Everyone can do their bit to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal target to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater and increase safe water reuse by 2030. It’s all about carefully managing and recycling the water that runs through our homes, factories, farms and cities. Let’s all reduce and safely reuse more wastewater so that this precious resource serves the needs of increasing populations and a fragile ecosystem.”

H.E. Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, who is also the Chair of the Third Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development, said that Sri Lanka, like many countries in the region, depends on its water sources for food production. “When wastewater is discharged to inland surface water for irrigation purposes secondary treatment is mandatory by law. Low cost treatment methods are being introduced as new projects. Therefore, dominant wastewater treatment types are preliminary, primary and advanced primary and secondary types,” he said.

The United Nations World Water Development Report is a UN-Water Report
coordinated by the UN World Water Assessment Programme of UNESCO, with ESCAP playing a valuable role in regional coordination.

The report argues that effectively treated wastewater could prove invaluable in meeting growing demands for freshwater and other raw materials.

ASIA-PACIFIC CONCERNS

Untreated wastewater poses a threat to both human health and our aquatic ecosystems, and is a challenge that is particularly acute in Asia-Pacific.

This region is in the midst of a profound urban shift that is straining its already limited infrastructure and capacity to effectively treat wastewater. As of 2009, an estimated 30% of urban dwellers in the region lived in slums, low-income areas, where wastewater is often discharged into the nearest surface drain or informal drainage channel. Meanwhile, city-based hospitals and small- and medium-sized enterprises dump a slew of medical waste and toxic chemicals into wastewater systems.

Socioeconomic factors typically determine access to efficient wastewater management services that can more effectively deal with such pollution loads. Wealthier neighbourhoods are usually better served than slum areas, which are more likely to face the risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio due to consuming faeces-contaminated water. However, even in countries with improved sanitation coverage, only 26% of urban and 34% of rural sanitation and wastewater services prevent human contact with excreta along the entire sanitation chain.

Along with the human cost, there are enormous economic stakes involved in the effective management of wastewater. The WWDR estimates that for every $1 spent on sanitation, society benefits by an estimated $5.5, and notes that “neglecting the opportunities arising from improved wastewater management is nothing less than unthinkable in the context of a circular economy”.

UNTAPPED RESOURCE

A circular economy is one in which economic development and environmental sustainability are interdependent, with a strong emphasis on minimising pollution, while maximising reuse and recycling. From this perspective, wastewater is an untapped resource of unparalleled potential.

When safely treated, wastewater can be a source of water, energy, nutrients and other recoverable materials that is both affordable and sustainable. The extraction of wastewater by-products such as salt, nitrogen and phosphorous has proven lucrative in Asia-Pacific. In Southeast Asia, revenues from fertilizer have paid for the operational costs of the systems to extract them several times over.

The organic substances contained in wastewater could be used to produce biogas, which could help power wastewater treatment facilities, helping them transition from major consumers to becoming energy neutral or even net energy producers. In Japan, the government has set itself the target of recovering 30% of the biomass energy in wastewater by 2020. Every year, the city of Osaka produces 6,500 tonnes of biosolid fuels from 43,000 tonnes of sewage sludge.

Such technologies need not be out of reach for developing countries as low-cost treatment solutions already allow for the extraction of energy and nutrients. They may not yet allow for the direct recovery of potable water, but they can produce viable and safe water for other uses, such as irrigation. And sales of raw materials derived from wastewater can provide additional revenue to help cover the investment and operational costs of wastewater treatment. Today, 2.4 billion people still do not have access to improved sanitation facilities. Reducing this figure, in keeping with Sustainable Development Goal 6 on water and sanitation of the UN 2030 Agenda, will mean discharging even more wastewater, which will then need to be treated affordably.

While wastewater management receives little social or political attention, water scarcity does. Last year, for example, the World Economic Forum warned that the water crisis would be the greatest global risk faced by people and economies over the next 10 years. The problem is particularly severe in Asia-Pacific — two-thirds of the world’s population live in areas that experience water scarcity for at least one month per year and about 50% of these people live in China and India.

The lack of attention and resources devoted to effective wastewater management ignores one of the most potentially effective means of addressing the global water crisis.