Water can be shared and preserved, but it can also be recycled!

  • celine_robert

    Population growth, urbanization, climate change… water is an increasingly scarce resource, but it is often poorly managed. The UN is marking World Water Day 2017 with a call to fight against waste by reducing and reusing wastewater.

    Over 80% of this water is currently discharged untreated into the natural environment and little of it is reused. Yet while water can be shared and preserved, it can also be recycled!

    Céline Robert, Deputy Director of AFD’s Water and Sanitation Division, tells us more about the second life of wastewater.



    What are the issues concerning wastewater reuse, a topic showcased by World Water Day this year?

    The adoption of a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) in 2015 which takes into account the entire water cycle – i.e. no longer only access to water and sanitation services, but also water conservation –is a sign that there is a welcome change of approach.

    Water is an endangered resource. It comes under heavy pressure: it is poorly distributed around the world and increasingly exploited, with an explosion in water demand, which could grow by 50% by 2030. It is also increasingly polluted, with 80% of wastewater discharged untreated into the natural environment.

    This alarming observation poses several challenges: how to protect water resources by ensuring they are not wasted and by treating wastewater, share them so that the various uses and actors benefit from them in a concerted manner (Integrated Water Resources Management), but also recycle them. Giving a second life to wastewater extends the water cycle, meaning we do not need to draw on water resources as much.

    There is little awareness of this sanitation link, hence the UN’s focus this year: it is about time that we no longer consider wastewater as simply being a burden, but as a resource, with a real potential that can be tapped into!


    What is the smart way of reusing wastewater?

    Wastewater reuse already exists today: it is an ancient and spontaneous practice, mainly used in agriculture. It is especially to be found in water-stressed regions*, such as the Maghreb region. This use of untreated wastewater today allows up to 7% of cropland to be irrigated. Yet it poses a major health risk for farmers and consumers and can threaten the environment and agronomic systems.

    © Pierre Terdjman

    Consequently, it is essential to exercise appropriate institutional and regulatory control over this practice and raise the awareness of users. Wastewater collection and treatment capacities also need to be strengthened in order to ensure that there is an adequate quality for reuse. The challenge lies in switching from a spontaneous practice to a more controlled practice and developing this use on a larger scale for the benefit of the economy, the environment and populations alike.

    When these conditions are met, wastewater reuse (WWR) provides a tremendous opportunity to extend the water cycle: for every 3m3 of water withdrawn for drinking water production, up to 1m3 can be recycled instead of being directly discharged back into the natural environment.


    States continue to mobilize few resources for sanitation, what are the consequences of this?

    Indeed, sanitation is a very costly sector and is often largely ignored in public policies, particularly in developing countries. 2.4 billion people around the world still do not have access to basic sanitation and one billion people are forced to defecate in the open every day… Yet sanitation is one of the essential links in the water cycle.

    In our countries of operation, there is often a lack of demand from our partners. As water services are still unable to finance themselves, investing in sanitation may appear to be less of a priority, considering that this service is on the face of it less profitable. Yet there are huge needs (at least EUR 35bn, against EUR 17.5bn for water) and the cost of inaction is considerable.

    Indeed, while sanitation comes with a high cost, so does the lack of sanitation! It causes environmental and public health problems (diseases, child mortality, pollution), which have an impact on the economic development of countries (work absenteeism, low school enrolment rates, decline in tourism, fishing, etc.). For example, it is estimated that in Côte d’Ivoire, 1 to 2 GDP points are lost for this reason. In this context, there is a pressing need to give sanitation the priority it deserves.


    What is AFD’s approach to the sanitation issue?

    AFD not only provides financing for the infrastructure required, but also seeks to strengthen the structuring of the sector in order to ensure that it is technically and financially sustainable and make it viable (governance, regulatory framework, financial model, service performance). AFD thus provides authorities with decision-making, advisory and training tools.

    In a country like Tunisia, which has set the target of reusing 50% of wastewater, we finance wastewater treatment plants which will de facto strengthen WWR potential. We take the same approach in Morocco, bearing in mind that AFD also supports water reuse and recycling by industries.


    © Frédéric Maurel

    In a country like Bolivia, which is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, we plan to take action at several levels. For example, in Cochabamba, a city located in the Altiplano region, where the spontaneous reuse of water in agriculture is deeply rooted, we are going to work on both developing infrastructure (collection networks and wastewater treatment plants) and on developing the institutional framework (regulatory developments, support for farmers, etc.).


    What is the most effective way of developing reuse or WWR?

    The issue of treated wastewater reuse may seem marginal in terms of sanitation challenges. Yet it is an opportunity which can be used to argue the case of the entire sector.

    WWR is especially necessary in areas where there are serious water shortages: certain countries, which particularly suffer from this, are forced to address the issue and progress more rapidly than others. In all cases, and as with sanitation in general, the key lies in political will to invest not only in appropriate infrastructure, but also in the establishment of an appropriate governance of the sector.

    * Resource insufficient to meet the demands of the different human activities and needs of the environment

AFD and sanitation : the infographic

Last update in March 2017

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