Why wastewater? Don’t let it go down the drain!

Sewage Treatment Plant at Kavoor, Mangalore, India.

This year’s theme for World Water Day is wastewater – and rightly so: globally, over 80% of the wastewater generated by society flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused, entailing major health risks and causing significant environmental pollution. Elsa Semmling points out three insights that could improve the situation in developing countries.

Developing countries particularly lack the infrastructure and resources to efficiently and sustainably address wastewater management. This is a pity as, particularly in water-scarce countries, opportunities for exploiting wastewater as a resource are enormous. If treated and applied safely, wastewater is an affordable and sustainable source of both water and nutrients, contributing to water and food security, and improved livelihoods. One initiative highlighting the potential of this unconventional resource for irrigation in rural areas was the SWIM-Sustain Water MED project, which demonstrated reuse-oriented approaches in the MENA Region.

In Morocco, insufficient management and treatment of wastewater threatens the quality of already scarce water resources. Most of the rural population is not connected to sewerage systems, and many households and public buildings in rural areas lack any kind of sanitation facilities. As a result, only 15% of wastewater is treated in Morocco, while the country is under increasing water stress due to increasing water demand and vulnerability to climate change. 87% of Moroccan water demand is a result of agriculture, with 1.5 million ha under irrigation. The National Water Plan currently under revision makes the improvement of sanitation, wastewater treatment and reuse in rural communities a priority of the National Programme for Sanitation and Reuse in Rural Areas (PNAR), aiming to increase reuse of treated wastewater by 30% by 2018.

A promising path: ensuring sustainable sanitation while optimising the reuse of products

Sustain Water MED demonstrated an effective and cost-efficient concept for the decentralised management, treatment and reuse of wastewater in seven pilot sites in Ait Idir, a village located in the Dadès oasis valley in the southwest of Morocco. The "ecological sanitation" scheme designed for Ait Idir applies various technologies to meet the needs of rural communities while enabling proper treatment of wastewater, contributing to reduced health risks, and alleviating the pressure on the environment, mainly on groundwater, caused by the uncontrolled disposal of domestic and livestock wastewater and wastes. The success of this approach lay in considerably improving local sanitary conditions by providing simple systems for individual sanitation in private and public places, which at the same time offered considerable potential for reuse. The recovery of water and nutrients, directly usable for local agricultural activities and the generation of biogas for domestic usage, resulted in tangible economic benefits for the local population.

The experience in Ait Idir proves that decentralised reuse-oriented wastewater management is a reliable alternative to centralised sanitation systems, which can be difficult and costly in rural areas. The project’s activities contributed to increased acceptance of decentralised sanitation systems by demonstrating measures that could be successfully replicated in other rural areas in Morocco when implementing the PNAR.

Three ways to improve reuse-oriented wastewater management and sanitation

Water reuse, and to some extent decentralised wastewater treatment as well, are officially supported by national policies and strategies in many countries facing the same challenges as water-scarce, rural Morocco. Based on the Sustain Water MED experience, adelphi has found that scaling-up pilot efforts to promote reuse-oriented wastewater management and sanitation involves:

  1. Adapting legal frameworks and permission procedures to facilitate implementation of innovative pilot projects, as overly strict regulations and administrative hurdles for wastewater management prove to be counterproductive. Where legal requirements do not seem achievable under local circumstances, people often resort to unofficial effluent discharge and/or reuse. This unofficial practice takes place beyond any control, potentially leading to health and environmental risks. Legal frameworks and requirements should therefore be based on a realistic assessment of which level of regulation is appropriate and feasible considering the existing situation and capacities.
  2. Addressing the real needs of end-users and demonstrating tangible economic benefits for the local population. Initial reluctance to reuse products from sanitation systems for agricultural purposes can be easily overcome if reuse-oriented approaches are tailored to address the urgent needs of the local population in terms of access to sanitation, ensuring reliability of water used for irrigation, and recovery of nutrients for direct use in local agricultural activities.
  3. Developing the capacities of local technology providers and construction companies, including not only specific technical training measures, but also awareness-raising measures on new market opportunities emerging from these new wastewater management and sanitation approaches. Local capacity building is a crucial aspect in terms of potentially replicating the technology in other areas of the same region, which may have similar needs.

Elsa Semmling works as a project manager in adelphi's work area of water. She has been part of the team developing pilot projects for sustainable water reuse in the MENA Region (Sustain Water MED).

Selected Projects

Selected Publications