If, as biblical wisdom reveals, the meek shall inherit the earth, then perhaps it will be the dirty, not the pure, who help build a sustainable global future—at least when it comes to water, say scientists.
As an issue of global significance, water security has recently vaulted to prominence. Half of the world’s largest cities now experience water scarcity, and roughly two-thirds of the world’s populace face seasonal or annual water stress.
The future looks even drier. Demand for water is expected to exceed supply by 40 percent within 15 years, if current conditions continue. By 2025, absolute water scarcity will be a daily reality for an estimated 1.8 billion people, according to a United Nations (UN) estimate. Water scarcity can lead to instability and violence; the crisis in Syria was triggered by, among other factors, a historic drought from 2007 to 2010.
But water security is a complex issue, and scarcity is merely one of its components.
Most activities that require water produce wastewater. As water usage grows, so does the production of wastewater. And more than 80 percent of wastewater worldwide is released into the environment untreated according to some estimates.
This discharge can contribute to devastating consequences. In 2012, for example, more than 800,000 deaths worldwide were caused by contaminated drinking water, inadequate handwashing facilities, and insufficient sanitation services.
In the oceans and larger seas, wastewater discharge sometimes causes deoxygenated dead zones that harm an estimated 245,000 square kilometers of marine ecosystems, according to UN estimates.
But instead of being discharged, wastewater can be treated—and reused. And more officials and experts are realizing the benefits of this new approach.
“Wastewater is gaining momentum as a reliable alternative source of water,” says the recently released United Nations World Water Development Report for 2017: Wastewater, the Untapped Resource.
“Wastewater is no longer seen as a problem in need of a solution, rather it is part of the solution to challenges that societies are facing today,” the report finds. “Wastewater can also be a cost-efficient and sustainable source of energy, nutrients, organic matter, and other useful by-products.”
Given the skyrocketing demand for water, the positive effect that wastewater reuse could have on the global water crisis is “immense,” says Robert Glennon, a water policy expert at the University of Arizona and author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It.
“This is a very big deal,” Glennon tells Security Management. He cites the example of the state of Arizona, which has been active in reusing water for a few decades now. Facilities like golf courses and ballparks can consume large amounts of water, he says, so Arizona’s water reuse practices have been helpful.
Moreover, state officials have formed WateReuse Arizona, a group that assists communities in achieving sustainable water supplies through reuse. Among other things, the group offers scholarships for Arizona college students interested in specializing in water reuse and reclamation.
On the U.S. federal level, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced in May that it awarded $23.6 million to seven states for researching, planning, designing, and constructing water reuse projects.
Often, treating wastewater so that it can be reused for agricultural purposes is less expensive than purifying it to the level where it can be used as drinking water. Given this, countries are becoming more aggressive in their water reuse programs, according to the report.
For example, in 2013, 71 percent of the wastewater collected in the Arab states was safely treated, and 21 percent was being reused, mostly for irrigation and groundwater recharge.
Other regions are realizing the potential benefits of wastewater reuse. In the Asia Pacific region, some countries have discovered that byproducts from domestic wastewater, such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and salt, have potential economic value.
For example, case studies in Southeast Asia have shown that revenues generated from wastewater byproducts, such as fertilizer, are significantly higher than the operational costs of treating the wastewater. That provides an economic incentive for water reuse, the report finds.
However, “more needs to be done across the region to support municipal and local governments in managing urban wastewater and capturing its resource benefits,” the report adds.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, urban wastewater treatment has almost doubled since the late 1990s, so that between 20 and 30 percent of wastewater collected in all sewer systems is now treated.
“Treated wastewater could be an important source of water supply in some cities, particularly those located in arid areas (such as Lima), or where long-distance transfers are required to meet growing demands, particularly during drought (such as São Paulo),” the report finds.
While progress in reusing wastewater has been made in the United States and around the world, there are still constraining factors hindering even more progress, Glennon says. One is cost; some localities in developing countries struggle to afford construction of wastewater treatment plants.
Another is that countries like China and India continue to use unsustainable practices when it comes to their water supply, such as “pumping groundwater with impunity.” India, for example, has yet to truly face up to its water shortage crisis and change its practices. “The rules of groundwater pumping remain so relaxed,” Glennon says.
And in places where water scarcity is currently not a huge issue, some officials have the attitude of, “Why should I bother to reuse water if I can just drill a well?” Glennon says. He compares this attitude to the mistaken belief that an unlimited number of straws can be placed in the same glass—eventually, all the liquid will be sucked out.
In addition, there are some security issues related to the practice of wastewater reuse, says Yves Duguay, CEO and founder of HCIWorld, who has had on-the-ground experience with audits of water works and other infrastructure systems. For example, systematic controls in the process are needed to ensure that health, safety, and security requirements are maintained. “Most of the time, my audits have shown a lack of oversight and controls, along with poor contract performance management. This can increase the risk for water reuse,” he says.
This is doubly important in areas where waste management operations, which can include water reuse, are linked to corruption and even organized crime. “How certain are we that waste, solid or liquid, is being disposed as expected and regulated?” he asks.
Still, developed countries like the United States and Canada can show leadership by developing a systematic approach to the recycle and reuse of wastewater, Duguay says. And since it is not an “in-your-face issue,” wastewater reuse needs more awareness and advocacy so it is not crowded out by more publicized political concerns. “There is little room on our governments’ agenda for such a topic, unless it is talked about and frequently communicated to the general public,” he explains.
Nonetheless, in areas of the world where water scarcity hits hardest, it will ultimately become a necessity to reuse treated wastewater, because supply will not hold out, Glennon says. “Some places will have to use that for drinking water—there is simply no alternative,” Glennon explains. Duguay echoes this view: “There is no doubt that we need to control our utilization of water; it’s a unique resource that is not infinite,” he says.
In the end, the UN report argues that, in a world where limited water resources are increasingly stressed by over-abstraction, pollution, and climate change, it is imperative for officials around the globe to focus on wastewater treatment and reuse.
“Neglecting the opportunities arising from improved wastewater management,” the report concludes, “is nothing less than unthinkable.”