Putting waste-water to good use

A wave of negativity surrounds the idea of waste-water. It has a bad reputation for the hazards it poses to human and environmental health and the negative impact it can have on our economies. However, when treated, it creates opportunities for greatly improving our quality of life.

By looking beyond the surface of waste-water challenges, we can delve into the value of waste-water as a precious commodity. It improves access to a sustainable and safe supply of water –– important if we are to increase food security and sustainably generate energy thereby alleviating poverty.

As Caribbean children, many of us remember with enjoyment playing in puddles of water after heavy rains without a second thought or knowledge of any risks to our health. Did we think that this water could be contaminated? We remember taking walks and drinking water directly from rivers and streams to refresh ourselves. Did we think whether this water was safe to drink?

Of course not – it was natural . . . and safe. What about today? As our surface and groundwater sources become more contaminated, including from untreated and partially treated waste-water, these childhood recollections become just that – distant memories – actions that are no longer desirable or possible. Pollution and our inadequate disposal of waste-water are the reasons for this. We have lost our connection with nature; but what if we could re-connect by altering how we manage waste-water and how we perceive it?

Think about it, every time you use water, you generate waste-water. Wise waste-water management is about controlling and regulating the treatment and flow of waste-water. While large outflows, like those coming from connected sewer systems in our homes, offices and industries, require more advanced management, there are simple and easily adaptable ways we can channel some of the waste-water we generate for reuse in our everyday life.

For example, reusing the grey water generated from washing laundry and doing dishes to water your garden or flush toilets is a simple way for us to start. United Nations Water (UN WATER) encouraged us on World Water Day in March 2017 to think of the business opportunities that waste-water can offer which can also promote a green economy.

In the Caribbean, whilst countries have realized this potential, enhancing the reuse of waste-water requires significant investment in the sector, including an identification of incentives for private sector involvement and a coordinated and inter-sectoral approach to waste-water management. But what can we do as individuals? Across the world, people are finding ways to re-purpose waste-water on an individual level.

Managing waste-water more wisely is not beyond our reach. By looking at examples from across the world, we can learn more about re-purposing waste-water so we can make informed decisions about waste-water reuse in our homes, schools and offices. We need to start by changing our perception and removing the “YUCK” factor.

Perhaps we can disassociate the word “waste” from “waste-water” and look to rebrand this substance from which we can derive so many positive and safe uses. Let us connect with nature by connecting with waste-water!

In celebrating this week’s environmental activities around the observance of World Environment Day, the Global Environment Facility-funded Caribbean Regional Fund for waste-water Management (GEF CReW) Project has chosen to look at waste-water as a resource by educating people on the opportunities for us to connect with nature through improved waste-water management practices.

By embracing the possibilities of repurposing treated waste-water, we can reduce the negative environmental and human health impacts and economic loss of not practising and lobbying for better waste-water management within our countries. By embracing the possibilities of repurposing treated waste-water, we can reduce the negative environmental and human health impacts and economic loss of not practising and lobbying for better waste-water management within our countries.

Treated waste-water is made “fit-for-purpose” by being treated to the level required to make it safe for specific purposes. These include providing a reliable supply of potable and non-potable water, enabling the reuse of nutrients as fertilizers for irrigation in agriculture and forestry, generating energy, and enhancing the goods and services provided by our ecosystems.

While the idea of drinking fully treated waste-water may take some getting used to, people in many parts of the world have been doing it for years out of a need for sustainable sources of potable water. In some parts of Namibia, Southern Africa, where there are arid lands and severe, extended droughts, for almost 50 years waste-water has been reclaimed and treated to its highest level for drinking.

Population growth and increased urbanization augment the amount of waste-water we generate on a global scale. The increased volume of waste-water offers an opportunity to capitalize on such a resource capable of meeting the demands for potable and non-potable supplies of water. Small Island Developing States are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. For example, rainfall patterns have become altered and droughts have become more regular thereby limiting the water supply in many of these countries.

In the Caribbean, approximately 50 per cent of the populace works in the agricultural sector which means there is a heavy reliance on water for food production. During dry periods, farmers must therefore find methods of irrigation beyond a dependence on rainwater. Partially treated waste-water serves as an alternative for irrigating crops whilst replenishing the soil with nitrogen and phosphorous which are vital in food production.

Farmers, who rely on the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to ensure crop productivity, could consider the reuse of partially treated waste-water. This would reduce a reliance on chemical fertilizers, which are bad for human health and eventually flow into our waterways causing further pollution, whilst promoting more organic food production.

How many times have you heard someone say, “We are what we eat”?  Our food choices impact our health and our risk of contracting diseases from unsafe food is increased if we eat food from a contaminated source like fish from polluted waters. If waste-water treatment is given equal attention as water supply, we will have better treated outflows of waste-water into our waterways. Additionally, we would be able to preserve our important marine ecosystems and aquatic life.

In some parts of the Caribbean, even at the household level, efforts are increasingly being made to partially treat waste-water and improve ecosystem services through the construction of wetlands for greywater outflow. These help dwellers to minimize their efforts in watering their lawns, enhance their green spaces, improve their soil quality, reduce soil erosion caused by poor soil composition, and ultimately people enjoy more vibrant gardens in addition to improving the quality of effluent which eventually reaches waterways and the sea.

The United Nations Environment encourages us to connect with nature. Why not start by appreciating the resourcefulness of waste-water and pledging to look for ways to give our waste-water new purpose?

(Chrishane Williams is communications consultant with the Global Environment Facility-funded Caribbean Regional Fund for waste-water Management (GEF CReW) Project)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *