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Waste water, A Daunting Challenge of Our Times

Waste water, A Daunting Challenge of Our Times

 “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.”  (— Benjamin Franklin)

The famous saying “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch,” which in other words means “One bad fish can spoil the whole pond,” holds true for many an aspect of our lives. In the present-day context, perhaps, it’s all about water because recent researches suggest that one litre of wastewater contaminates eight litres of freshwater, that is, nearly 12000 cubic kilometres (km3) per year. At a time when the world is facing an acute water crisis, these figures are extremely alarming. It is an appalling fact that a large number of countries, hosting nearly 40% of the world’s population, are increasingly becoming water-stressed but still our annual production of wastewater is almost equal in volume to the water of world’s big rivers. However, it won’t be wrong to say that the wastewater of an estimated volume of 1500 km3 is not only a big issue but can also be a resource, if prudently used. And, it is due to this reason that World Water Day 2017 is being celebrated under the theme ‘Water and Wastewater’ which calls for bringing about a decrease in wastewater and making it fit for reuse.

Wastewater is actually a mixture of two or more types of effluents and it can originate from a combination of domestic, industrial, commercial or agricultural activities, surface runoff and from sewer inflow or infiltration. Moreover, it includes all stormwater and urban runoff, agricultural, horticultural and aquaculture effluents. Growing world population, improving living standards, economic growth and development and expansion of urban centres have been the factors behind increasing wastewater production. Amidst all this, its collection, treatment and then making it fit for reuse or discharging it into water bodies is a real challenge.

At present, on a global level, around 200 million farmers use treated or partially-treated water for the purpose of irrigation whereas untreated wastewater irrigates an area of 4 million to 20 million hectares. In developed countries, the trend of irrigation from treated wastewater is growing. But, that’s not the case with developing countries where sufficient treatment facilities are not available and farmers are increasingly using wastewater for irrigation especially because this is the only source that is available all through the year. Using wastewater for irrigation cuts their costs as they have to spend less on purchasing fertilisers. Moreover, it’s free and they do not have to spend on energy resources required to extract groundwater. In addition, it helps farmers living in urban suburbs to grow veggies that fetch higher prices in the local market.

On the other hand, wastewater is a big problem that developing countries are faced with at present because there is virtually no trend of wastewater treatment and investment in this sector is also not proportionate to the population growth rates and that is resulting in an increasing volume of wastewater. According to the Environmental Performance Index, 2016, issued by Yale University’s Center for Environmental Law and Policy, more than 80 percent of the world’s discharged wastewater is untreated when it is released into the environment. Situation in developing countries is even more alarming as suggested in a report titled ‘Sick Water?’ issued by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The report says that an estimated 90 percent of all wastewater in developing countries is discharged untreated directly into rivers, lakes or the oceans. Another report by the United Nations ‘Wastewater Management: A UN ‘Water Analytical Brief’ tells that a country’s capacity for wastewater treatment depends on its economic condition. The report suggests that developed countries have capacity to treat 70 percent of wastewater whereas in developing countries it is only 8 percent. It is especially so because many cities in the developing or underdeveloped countries lack proper infrastructure and resources for better wastewater management and what adds fuel to the fire is their growing populations which are causing an increase in the volume of wastewater. Currently, about half the world’s population lives in urban areas which is expected to grow to 70 percent by the year 2050. Hence, the cities will be producing more and more wastewater.

Lack of proper wastewater treatment facilities has three-pronged effects on human lives: first it pollutes environment, second it causes more and more health problems and third, it hampers economic activities. The biggest effect of the discharge of untreated wastewater into the water bodies is the increasing number of dead zones in the seas. About 150 such zones, spanning one kilometre to 70 kilometres, have already been identified and it is feared that since 1990 they have doubled in number. UNEP’s report ‘Sick Water?’ suggests that currently an estimated 245,000 km2 of marine ecosystems are affected with impacts on fisheries, livelihoods and the food chain. At present, 21 of the world’s 33 megacities are on the coast, having a population of approximately 1.6 billion people, wastewater generated there is discharged into the sea, frequently with little or no treatment, contaminating seafood, polluting critical ecosystems and threatening biodiversity. And, lack of proper wastewater management facilities can further aggravate the situation. According to Pacific Institute’s ‘World Water Quality Facts and Statistics’, release of untreated wastewater is adversely impacting aquatic life in rivers and lakes and globally 24 percent of mammals and 12 percent of birds connected to inland waters are considered threatened. In some regions, more than 50% of native freshwater fish species and nearly one-third of the world’s amphibians are at risk of extinction.

Wastewater is taking a heavy toll on our lives as well. Particularly in developing countries, the unchecked release of leakage of the sewerage water and wastewater is causing many ailments at a large scale. As per the findings of the United Nations, nearly 1.8 billion people worldwide drink water contaminated with human excretions and diseases like cholera, diarrhoea, typhoid, and poliomyelitis. Every year nearly 1.8 million children aged below five die of ailments caused due to the consumption of unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation facilities and lack of hygiene ­– one death in every 20 seconds. It is also important to mention here that more than half of the beds in hospitals worldwide are occupied by the people suffering from diseases caused by the use of contaminated water.

Wastewater also impedes economic activities. Industrial waste and the chemicals it contains affect the freshwater resources and soil fertility. When this contaminated water is used for irrigation, its hazardous toxicants not only affect agricultural produce and its quality but also hamper plant growth. Besides, the diseases caused by the improper disposal of contaminated water and wastewater effect an increase in expenditure on healthcare besides hampering workers’ productive capacity which, in turn, increases poverty and dims the prospects of growth.

Wastewater is simultaneously a great source and an acute problem for Pakistan; it’s a source because the country is among world’s top 36 water-stressed countries – as per a report by the World Resource Institute, Pakistan is at 26th position on this list. According to a research paper by Scientific Research Publication, per capita water availability in Pakistan has declined from 5000 cm3 in 1951 to 1000 cm3 in 2015. It is due to this decline that Pakistan is increasingly becoming a water-stressed country and economic development and human health are bearing the most part of the brunt. A big reason behind this growing threat is uncontrolled increase in population and decline is water-storage capacity of the country. Pakistan’s population has grown by 468 percent during 1951-2015 and the water-storage capacity has also drastically declined. In such a situation, every single drop of water has a great significance for Pakistan and the wastewater, if treated sufficiently, can be a great source. As per the latest data available, Pakistan annually produces 962,335 million gallons – 9,980,367,800 litres – of wastewater which after treatment can sufficiently meet daily needs of more than 55,446,000 people – on average 50 litres for housecleaning, 70 litres for toilet use and 60 litres for home-gardening. It is the minimum threshold of daily household water use as set by the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition, water supply for agricultural activities in urban suburbs can be ensured which will result in supply of fresh and healthy vegetables and fruits for the citizens.

In the context of Pakistan, wastewater causes problems because it is among the chief causes behind the contamination of our water resources under and above the earth’s surface. Only 8 percent of wastewater in Pakistan gets low quality treatment and the rest is released into rivers, lakes and the sea. In our country, around 392,511 million gallon wastewater is released into rivers – 41 percent of the total wastewater produced in the country. A report titled ‘Wastewater Production, Treatment and Use in Pakistan’ by the Institute of Soil and Environmental Sciences, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad found that out of the total wastewater discharged into the major rivers, nearly 316,740 million gallons consists of municipal and 75,771 million gallons of industrial effluents. And, if we calculate on the basis of an international research which suggests that one litre wastewater further contaminates 8 litres of freshwater, total wastewater discharged into our rivers comes out to be nearly 4.70 billion litres which is further contaminating 32.56 billion litres of freshwater. Can a water-stressed country like ours, which is already a victim of India’s water terrorism, afford such a great loss? The question warrants serious attention of the policymakers.

Besides decrease in quantity, the quality of water is also deteriorating badly by municipal, industrial and agriculture wastes. Pakistan is facing an acute crisis of water quality. According to the findings by Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), a vast majority of Pakistani population is vulnerable to the dangers of using contaminated groundwater for drinking purpose. Overexploitation of the natural resources and discharge of hazardous wastes into water bodies without proper treatment are the issues of major concern. It is estimated that about 250,000 children in Pakistan die every year of diarrhoeal diseases alone. Moreover, nearly 40 percent beds in hospitals are occupied by the patients who contract the ailments related to the use of contaminated water. Economic Survey of Pakistan 2015-16 reported that in Pakistan water-related diseases cause an estimated annual national income loss of US$380 to US$883 million. And, it is due to this reason that Pakistan’s ranking in maintaining water quality standards is 80th out of 122 nations as given by UNESCO s’ World Water Development Report.

An idea of the state of affairs on the production and treatment of wastewater can be had from a research paper “Global, Regional, and Country Level Need for Data on Wastewater Generation, Treatment, and Use,” published in Agricultural Water Management, which suggests that Pakistan is 12th (out of 113 countries) on the list of most wastewater-producing countries and in terms of wastewater treatment, it is on 35th position among 103 countries.

Pakistan is among those countries where a big chunk of population resides in urban areas. Since 1951, the population of Pakistan has grown at 4 percent per annum and it is expected that by 2030 nearly 60 percent of country’s population will be living in cities that are a primary source of wastewater production. According to National Sanitation Policy, large and intermediate cities have underground sewage systems which are subject to danger of collapse due to poor management and negligence. Most of the sewage is discharged untreated into natural water bodies resulting in severe contamination of those bodies, making the water injurious to human as well as aquatic life. Moreover, about 30 percent of urban population lives in Katchi Abadis and slums with inadequate sanitation facilities. Public toilets are highly inadequate and are not properly managed and maintained. These are virtually absent in small- and medium-sized towns and villages. Lack of toilets in about 13 percent of Pakistani households further aggravates the situation.

We will have to acknowledge the reality that water needs of the future cannot be fulfilled without better wastewater management. Target 3 of the Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals is to improve water quality, by 2030, by reducing pollution, eliminating, dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally. Better wastewater management is not only our own need but it also is our pledge to the international community. What we urgently need now is a robust policy and its implementation with full vigour.

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