Guess what’s about to hit the fan!

A year of taking seriously the developing world’s wastewater crisis.

In low-income countries, only an estimated 8 percent of municipal wastewater is ever collected and treated in some way – compared with 70 percent in high-income countries. Vast amounts of untreated wastewater (more than 80 percent of the total) are discharged into rivers, lakes and seas, where they not only pose a major threat to human and environmental health but also represent a missed opportunity to make safe use of resources worth potentially tens of billions of dollars.

As part of a wider global effort to seize this opportunity, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), which IWMI leads, have embarked on a year-long campaign. It aims to highlight options and entry points for using green business solutions, safety measures and other interventions (such as agro-pollution assessments) to enhance water quality and wastewater management. By engaging with global and national partners, the campaign will foster greater recognition of the need to undertake major initiatives aimed at transforming wastewater into a valuable resource.

Various approaches make it possible to return wastewater safely to the environment and thus deliver significant health and environmental benefits. It is even feasible to recover vital resources from wastewater, which can then support peri-urban agriculture, generate energy or recharge aquifers. If treated properly, the approximately 350 cubic kilometers of municipal wastewater generated globally every year (equivalent to four times the flow of the Nile River below the Aswan Dam) would be sufficient – in theory – to irrigate and fertilize millions of hectares of crops and produce enough biogas to supply millions of households with energy.

Yet, the potential of multiple approaches for achieving these ends remains largely untapped. An important exception is the informal sector, which at least partially treats significant amounts of wastewater but with insufficient attention to safety.

Through a persistent effort to turn the tide, IWMI and partners have gained extensive experience and provided valuable support worldwide for efforts aimed at accelerating the recovery of resources from wastewater. Building on recent advances, researchers are testing innovative business models, and these have given rise to novel approaches that bring together businesses, municipalities, and communities around the transformation of wastewater into “black gold.”

Close-up of bagged compost made from fecal waste - Nairobi
Close-up of bagged compost made from fecal waste – Nairobi
Photo: Thor Windham Wright/IWMI

In launching this campaign, we applaud the decision of UN-Water to designate wastewater as the theme of World Water Day on 22 March as well as the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) for designating “water and waste – reduce and reuse” as the focus of this year’s World Water Week, being held from 27 August to 1 September.  We are also grateful to SIWI for inviting IWMI to be an official partner in the 2017 event, thus providing the Institute with an excellent opportunity to share and discuss its work on recovering nutrients and other resources from wastewater.

The IWMI/WLE campaign will roll out a series of scientific publications, videos, blog posts, news stories, and related materials, while also orchestrating a major presence at key international events and in the launch of national initiatives. It doing so, it will draw on a wealth of research conducted in recent years with partners that include the World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

As the campaign unfolds, we’ll report back on new information, event outcomes, media coverage, and related activities.

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