Wastewater poses a growing threat to both health and the environment, emitting nearly as many greenhouse gases as the aviation sector. However, a recent analysis from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal, in collaboration with the Global Wastewater Initiative (GWWI), says that with appropriate policies, waste water could offer an alternative energy source to almost half a billion people. Furthermore, it could provide over ten times the water produced by current global desalination capacity and mitigate more than 10 percent of global fertilizer usage.
Published under the title ” Wastewater. Turning problem to solution,” the report encourages governments and businesses to consider waste water as a circular economy opportunity instead of a mere disposal issue. Effective collection, treatment, and reuse of waste water could lead to numerous benefits, including job creation and new revenue streams. Reducing the volume of wastewater produced would also yield additional advantages.
POTENTIAL OF WASTEWATER AS A VALUABLE RESOURCE
It said that only 11 percent of treated wastewater worldwide is reused today, while roughly half of untreated wastewater still finds its way into rivers, lakes, and oceans. To harness the potential of waste water as a valuable resource, the report suggests:
· Reducing the volume of wastewater generated.
· Preventing and minimizing contamination.
· Managing wastewater to recover reusable resources safely
Leticia Carvalho, Principal Coordinator of the Marine and Freshwater Branch of UNEP, emphasizes that despite its potential, wastewater is often allowed to harm the ecosystems that humanity depends on. She calls for recognizing wastewater as an alternative source of clean water, energy, and essential nutrients.
Wastewater exacerbates the global water crisis, originating from various sources like kitchens, bathrooms, industries, agriculture, storm water, and urban runoff. Its chemical constituents and excessive nutrients contribute to ecosystem degradation, leading to food insecurity and other social challenges.
A CLIMATE SOLUTION
Although wastewater releases potent greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide, accounting for approximately 1.57 percent of global emissions, it can also serve as a climate solution. Through the generation of biogas, heat, and electricity, it can produce around five times more energy than required for treatment, potentially powering nearly half a billion people annually. Proper wastewater management can also aid countries in adapting to climate change and reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers by reusing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, offsetting a significant portion of global agricultural nutrient demand.
The report emphasizes that waste water management could potentially irrigate an area equivalent to the size of Paraguay, which is approximately 40 million hectares. Additionally, various industries can benefit from recovered resources in waste water, including materials for producing paper, polymers, pesticides, rubber, biodiesel, and more.
Though improving water management and reuse is a complex challenge, the report highlights successful waste water management examples from diverse socioeconomic and environmental contexts around the world. It underscores the importance of effective governance, investment, innovation, data, capacity building, and behavior change for the successful implementation of waste water solutions.