Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant in Winthrop, Massachusetts, U.S. Photo credit Henry Zbyszynski
By 2025, less than a decade away, water scarcity will be an infallible matter of fact for an estimated 1.8 billion people worldwide.
In an era where natural, critical, resources are becoming scarcer and scarcer, countries can no longer afford to simply dispose of them – though that is what we are doing. After we utilise water in our offices and homes, we throw it down the drain, and many other vital resources along with it.
Wastewater, especially, is carbon-rich and packed with many other nutrients and minerals – if amassed and given the right treatment, the wastewater has the potential to supply not only new, clean, water, but also energy and precious fertiliser. Multiple nations and metropolises have already constructed refined and modern wastewater treatment facilities capable of retrieving minerals, nutrients, and bioenergy, while also producing reusable “new water”. Unfortunately, an excess of 80 per cent of all wastewater generated is still being discharged into natural ecospheres, contaminating the environment and bringing the useful minerals and many other salvageable elements along with it.
While the complex wastewater systems established in large metropolises are efficient and effective, they are also costly to build and expensive to run and maintain. But this issue far outstrips the problems often found in the smaller cities and towns. There, the systems are poorly suited for the job that needs to be done, and lack the essential personnel required to run and maintain the facilities.
However, we can no longer afford to waste water of any form, nor do we have any justifiable reason to. Now, gathering and utilising wastewater is both financially reasonable and technologically possible.
In Latin America, small and medium-sized cities only have access to wastewater treatment in the guise of septic tanks that have a serious shortage of systematic and suitable maintenance.
Only an estimated five per cent of communities with less than 2,000 residents in Guatemala have treatment facilities, and in the Atitlan Lake Basin alone, about 12 per cent of the population there have no access to sanitation at all. If any sort of framework is present in these locations, the main objective is to gather and dump the wastewater, not to treat and re-establish it in the water cycle.
This poses an even bigger problem than you think, especially as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has reported that the populace in the small and medium-sized communities in Latin America are set to quadruple over the coming three decades. And still, majority of the wastewater management improvements and upgrades are centred on the larger metropolises in the region.
One idea is to build decentralised wastewater treatment facilities in smaller communities. There, the raw wastewater will be treated where it has been produced. In the rural countryside, this system will offer access to clean, drinkable water, while also lowering the pollution in the environment.
Because they are much smaller with a relatively low carbon footprint when compared to the larger, centralised facilities in the bigger cities, the adverse effect these decentralised treatment facilities have on the environment is less than the traditional facilities.
If managed well, our used water has the potential to transform into a sustainable and affordable source of nutrients, energy, and much more, instead of continuing as a danger to the environment.