The United Nations is marking World Water Day (March 22) by highlighting an overlooked solution to the growing global water crisis: wastewater.
We are talking about the water that flows down the drain after washing or flushing the toilet, and water used in industrial manufacturing processes. On World Water Day, the UN is urging everyone—from individuals to businesses to nations—to reduce and reuse wastewater.
“Why on earth do we waste water, one of our most precious resources, when the global population is growing and demand for water is increasing,” asked Guy Ryder, director-general of UN Water.
Astronauts have been recycling and reusing wastewater on the International Space Station since 2010. US astronauts even drink recycled urine, which has been treated to the purity of bottled water.
“Before you cringe at the thought of drinking your leftover wash water and leftover urine, keep in mind that the water that we end up with is purer than most of the water that you drink at home,” says Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield
Back on Earth, more than 80 percent of wastewater produced by society is released back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused. Freshwater is a limited, precious resource, and the global demand is increasing. Our attitudes and behaviors assume that we have an unlimited and abundant supply of freshwater. We waste our freshwater—and our wastewater.
The demand for water is expected to double by 2030. At the same time, the quantity of wastewater generated is increasing because of population growth, rapid urbanization, and economic development.
We have an incredible opportunity to upscale wastewater collection and management systems, and encourage the development and implementation of technologies promoting the conservation and reuse of wastewater in homes, cities, industry and agriculture.
We don’t all need to be drinking recycled urine like astronauts. There are many ways we can reuse wastewater. For example, in our homes we can reuse gray water (wastewater from baths, sinks, washing machine, etc.) for gardens. Cities can treat and reuse wastewater for green spaces. Industry can repurpose wastewater heating and cooling systems. And, agriculture can treat and reuse wastewater for irrigation and food production. These are just a handful of examples of how wastewater can be reused—the possibilities are abundant.
In developing countries, the potential to reduce and reuse waste water is enormous. Investment in wastewater collection and management systems in developing countries would improve population health, create business opportunities, and increase access to safe drinking water.
Globally, 1.8 billion people consume drinking water contaminated by fecal matter, which increases their risk of contracting life-threatening infectious diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. About 842,000 deaths each year are blamed on unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation, and poor hygiene. In addition, many sources of drinking water are polluted by industrial discharge, presenting numerous health concerns—many of which we are only beginning to understand.
By 2050, about 70 percent of the global population will live in urban areas. At the moment, most cities in developing countries do not have the appropriate infrastructure and resources for the efficient and sustainable management of wastewater. The rapid rate of urbanization in developing countries demands for investment in wastewater management technologies and systems.
Wastewater is undervalued as a sustainable source of water. It is a precious resource, rather than “waste” to be thrown out.
The economic cost of wastewater management is outweighed by the benefits to economic development, population health, and environmental sustainability. And, the development of wastewater management systems provides new business opportunities and creates green jobs.
“We shouldn’t be looking at wastewater as something to ignore and discard,” says Guy Ryder, director-general of UN Water, “We need to see it as a valuable resource that we can use for the benefit of people and the ecosystem.”