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Wastewater management and sustainable development

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Context - Water resources are under pressure from the continuing population growth and urbanisation.

How can we better manage our wastewater in order to relieve some of the pressure on water resources?

This is a faithful summary of the leading report produced in 2010 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): " SICK WATER? A central role of wastewater management in sustainable development – a Rapid Response Assessment" 

  • Source document:UNEP (2010)
  • Summary & Details: GreenFacts
Latest update: 18 March 2016


Water resources are under pressure from the continuing population growth and urbanisation, particularly in developing countries. Urban populations may nearly double from current 3.4 billion to 6.4 billion by 2050, with numbers of people living in slums rising even faster. Many of those cities do not have adequate wastewater management and treatment systems.

This presents a global threat to human health and wellbeing, as well as to ecosystems. At least 1.8 million children under five years-old die every year from water related disease and over half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by people suffering from water related diseases.

World’s water resources will not change and growing future demands for water cannot be met unless wastewater management is revolutionized. The report reviews how the production and treatment cycle can be better understood and managed so that through better investment and management, major environmental, societal, and economic dividends can be achieved.

What are the major causes of the world global water quality crisis?

Wastewater production is rising and inadequate infrastructure and management systems for the increasing volume of wastewater produced are at the heart of the wastewater crisis. Globally, two million tons of sewage, industrial and agricultural waste is discharged into the world’s waterways, and this is in addition to the unregulated or illegal discharge of contaminated water. This wastewater contaminates freshwater and coastal ecosystems, threatening food security, access to safe drinking and bathing water and being a major health and environmental management challenge.

70 to 90 percent of the fresh water we use is for food production, and most of that water flows back into waterways, along with nutrients and contaminants that are joined downstream by human and industrial waste. Up to 90 per cent of wastewater flows untreated into the densely populated coastal zones. This contributes to the growth of marine dead zones, which already cover an area of 245 000 km2, approximately the same area as all the world’s coral reefs. There will be further losses in biodiversity and ecosystem resilience, undermining prosperity and efforts towards a more sustainable future.

Why is Improved sanitation and wastewater management, a central issue.

Freshwater and coastal ecosystems across the globe, upon which humanity has depended for millennia, are increasingly threatened and almost 900 million people still do not have access to safe water and some 2.6 billion, almost half the population of the developing world do not have access to adequate sanitation. Currently, most of the wastewater infrastructure in many of the fastest growing cities is lacking, under-dimensioned or outdated. It is overwhelmed, not designed to meet local conditions, poorly maintained and entirely unable to keep pace with rising urban populations. Without better infrastructure and management, many millions of people will continue to die each year from lack of access to clean water.

The financial, environmental and social costs associated with water quality and availability are projected to increase dramatically as populations continue to grow, unless wastewater management receives urgent attention.

A comprehensive and sustained wastewater management in combination with sanitation and hygiene is central to improved human health, food security, economic development, jobs and poverty reduction.

For the 1.2 billion people living in areas of water scarcity, projected to increase to 3 billion by 2025, there is no option but to consider wastewater as part of the solution. Without better infrastructure and management, many millions of people will continue to die each year from lack of access to clean water.

What should be the priority actions regarding water sanitation?

Solutions to the problem of wastewater management need to draw on a range of existing and new policy approaches and funding mechanisms for a careful and comprehensive integrated water and wastewater planning and management at national and municipal levels. This should start from better water quality legislation and voluntary agreements, to market-based instruments and partnership-based financing and management models, bringing together the public and private sectors, not forgetting the vital role of education. Education must play a central role in wastewater management and in reducing overall volumes and harmful content of wastewater produced, so that solutions are sustainable.

There are few, if any, areas where investments in integrated planning can sustainably provide greater returns across multiple sectors than the development of water infrastructure and the promotion of improved wastewater management, along the whole water supply (including coastal waters), agricultural production and disposal chain.

Wise and immediate targeted actions should take multiple forms including the reduction of the volume and extent of water pollution, capture, treatment, reuse and recycling of polluted water, and development of new and innovative technologies and management practices.

Innovation is needed at both ends of the pipe to reduce the volume and contamination of wastewater produced, how to treat or even reuse the waste, and how to do it in an affordable sustainable way.

What is the role of political and public sectors?

In terms of public spending on health issues, investing in improved wastewater management and the supply of safe water provides particularly high returns. Wastewater management should be planned with a cocktail of innovative approaches that engage the public and private sector at local, national and transboundary scales for future scenarios, not for current situations. Wastewater management should be an integral part of the urban and rural development and planning.

Countries must adopt a multi-sectorial approach to wastewater management as a matter of urgency, incorporating principles of ecosystem-based wise management from the watersheds down into the sea, and connecting sectors that will reap immediate benefits from better wastewater management.

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