Wastewater recycling, part of the solution to water shortage?

After the report on mountaineering and my experiences on the ascent to Mount Aconcagua, I return to the subject of water, and the opportunities and challenges in recycling it.

In earlier posts here I wrote about a very sophisticated system of wastewater recycling in Singapore, which turns it back into drinking water.

And at this year’s Singapore International Water Week, the Californian Orange County received the highest recognition, for a scheme where perfectly treated wastewater is pumped back into underground aquifers, to be later pumped up again as drinking water. It also serves as a barrier to seawater intrusion.

These two examples, especially Singapore, are probably the most far-reaching examples I know of achievement in water recycling.

Places like San Diego, hit by a drought, are now re-considering again the idea to follow the Singapore example, despite some opposition from civil society. So, to what extent is it possible to scale up these kinds of activities globally; is there potential for wastewater to contribute in a substantial way to closing the gap of some 300 cubic kilometres between the level of water withdrawals and sustainable supply?

Estimates show close to 300 cubic kilometres of wastewater is generated by municipalities per year (average 2003-12). This is the equivalent of some 50% of global average annual withdrawals for household use.

Part of the other 50% of withdrawals not counted as ‘wastewater’ may well be lost in leakage in pipes (in some countries this accounts for up to 70% of the water withdrawn by the municipal water supply schemes). Another part could be ‘used’ through evapotranspiration in lawns and gardens, etc.

As the table below shows, only about half of this wastewater is actually collected and treated, but less than 10% of the treated wastewater is directly reused.

Table 1: Municipal wastewater generation and treatment data 2003-2012, country groups by income per capita

Source: FAO aquastat


To get an idea of how municipal water could contribute to closing the gap between withdrawals and sustainable supply, let me go through the water supply chain.

The first step would require a better understanding of what happens with the 50% of municipal water apparently ‘disappearing’. Where this is down to leakage, governments have to set the right incentives so municipal water authorities address the issue.

One way proposed by the 2030 Water Resources Group (2030 WRG) in South Africa, which has been implemented by the government there, is to measure both water delivery and water intake, and to pay a premium to the schemes where the difference (i.e., water unaccounted for) gets smaller.

According to 2030 WRG cost-curve estimates, the cost savings would by far exceed the necessary spending to reduce the leakage.

As part of my proposals for targets within the water goal for post-2015 sustainable development, I suggest primary treatment of all wastewater by 2030 – an idea I will come back to in a later post.

So, what happens with 285 km³ of estimated wastewater generated, and what needs to be done? We will first have to increase collection, particularly in economically deprived areas, to make sure wastewater is collected and available for proper treatment.

Actually, only 36% of the world’s population has a sewage connection; this leaves 4.6 billion people unconnected. According to a WHO study, initial investment to set up a sewer connection is about USD 170 per capita; so the investment cost to connect them would be somewhere close to USD 800 billion. The annual cost of capital, repayment and operating cost is estimated at USD 1 per m³.

Next: treatment of both the up-to-now untreated collected – and the newly collected – wastewater. Estimates amount to USD 0.35 per m³. A big part of this cost is energy, an often forgotten link in the water-food-energy nexus framework.

And last but not least: less than 10% of treated wastewater is used directly. This can and must be increased. Direct use is, for instance, the Singapore approach, bringing treated water back to consumers as so-called ‘NEWater’.

Another example is Australia: around 1.4 cubic kilometers of municipal wastewater are treated, of which 0.4 cubic kilometers are used directly, mostly in agriculture.

At Nestlé we have a similar approach. All our factories treat wastewater (in fact the first wastewater treatment plant in the group was built in the 1930s, so we understood the need for this very early) and as much of this treated wastewater as possible is used directly.

At the same time, we should keep in mind indirect use, even though it’s often difficult to measure. Treated wastewater is returned to rivers and then often withdrawn again and treated further for human consumption.

One might, for instance, assume that a significant part of the water in the River Thames, once it reaches London, is treated wastewater from communities further up the river. Increasing the share of direct use of wastewater should clearly be encouraged – in a form accepted by local communities.

So, all in all there are some significant opportunities to use treated wastewater as a resource, helping to close the gap between freshwater withdrawals and sustainable supply. But these opportunities need to be carefully evaluated, to make sure they are fully accepted, but also cost and energy effective when compared to other solutions. Via Peter Brabeck-Letmathe – Linkedin More


ISIS and Our Times – Noam Chomsky

It is not pleasant to contemplate the thoughts that must be passing through the mind of the Owl of Minerva as the dusk falls and she undertakes the task of interpreting the era of human civilization, which may now be approaching its inglorious end.

Bajid Kandala refugee cam, Iraq

The era opened almost 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, stretching from the lands of the Tigris and Euphrates, through Phoenicia on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean to the Nile Valley, and from there to Greece and beyond. What is happening in this region provides painful lessons on the depths to which the species can descend.

The land of the Tigris and Euphrates has been the scene of unspeakable horrors in recent years. The George W. Bush-Tony Blair aggression in 2003, which many Iraqis compared to the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, was yet another lethal blow. It destroyed much of what survived the Bill Clinton-driven UN sanctions on Iraq, condemned as “genocidal” by the distinguished diplomats Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, who administered them before resigning in protest. Halliday and von Sponeck's devastating reports received the usual treatment accorded to unwanted facts.

One dreadful consequence of the US-UK invasion is depicted in a New York Times “visual guide to the crisis in Iraq and Syria”: the radical change of Baghdad from mixed neighborhoods in 2003 to today's sectarian enclaves trapped in bitter hatred. The conflicts ignited by the invasion have spread beyond and are now tearing the entire region to shreds.

Much of the Tigris-Euphrates area is in the hands of ISIS and its self-proclaimed Islamic State, a grim caricature of the extremist form of radical Islam that has its home in Saudi Arabia. Patrick Cockburn, a Middle East correspondent for The Independent and one of the best-informed analysts of ISIS, describes it as “a very horrible, in many ways fascist organization, very sectarian, kills anybody who doesn't believe in their particular rigorous brand of Islam.”

Cockburn also points out the contradiction in the Western reaction to the emergence of ISIS: efforts to stem its advance in Iraq along with others to undermine the group's major opponent in Syria, the brutal Bashar Assad regime. Meanwhile a major barrier to the spread of the ISIS plague to Lebanon is Hezbollah, a hated enemy of the US and its Israeli ally. And to complicate the situation further, the US and Iran now share a justified concern about the rise of the Islamic State, as do others in this highly conflicted region.

Egypt has plunged into some of its darkest days under a military dictatorship that continues to receive US support. Egypt's fate was not written in the stars. For centuries, alternative paths have been quite feasible, and not infrequently, a heavy imperial hand has barred the way.

After the renewed horrors of the past few weeks it should be unnecessary to comment on what emanates from Jerusalem, in remote history considered a moral center.

Eighty years ago, Martin Heidegger extolled Nazi Germany as providing the best hope for rescuing the glorious civilization of the Greeks from the barbarians of the East and West. Today, German bankers are crushing Greece under an economic regime designed to maintain their wealth and power.

The likely end of the era of civilization is foreshadowed in a new draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the generally conservative monitor of what is happening to the physical world.

The report concludes that increasing greenhouse gas emissions risk “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems” over the coming decades. The world is nearing the temperature when loss of the vast ice sheet over Greenland will be unstoppable. Along with melting Antarctic ice, that could raise sea levels to inundate major cities as well as coastal plains.

The era of civilization coincides closely with the geological epoch of the Holocene, beginning over 11,000 years ago. The previous Pleistocene epoch lasted 2.5 million years. Scientists now suggest that a new epoch began about 250 years ago, the Anthropocene, the period when human activity has had a dramatic impact on the physical world. The rate of change of geological epochs is hard to ignore.

One index of human impact is the extinction of species, now estimated to be at about the same rate as it was 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the Earth. That is the presumed cause for the ending of the age of the dinosaurs, which opened the way for small mammals to proliferate, and ultimately modern humans. Today, it is humans who are the asteroid, condemning much of life to extinction.

The IPCC report reaffirms that the “vast majority” of known fuel reserves must be left in the ground to avert intolerable risks to future generations. Meanwhile the major energy corporations make no secret of their goal of exploiting these reserves and discovering new ones.

A day before its summary of the IPCC conclusions, The New York Times reported that huge Midwestern grain stocks are rotting so that the products of the North Dakota oil boom can be shipped by rail to Asia and Europe.

One of the most feared consequences of anthropogenic global warming is the thawing of permafrost regions. A study in Science magazine warns that “even slightly warmer temperatures [less than anticipated in coming years] could start melting permafrost, which in turn threatens to trigger the release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases trapped in ice,” with possible “fatal consequences” for the global climate.

Arundhati Roy suggests that the “most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times” is the Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani soldiers have killed each other on the highest battlefield in the world. The glacier is now melting and revealing “thousands of empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate” in meaningless conflict. And as the glaciers melt, India and Pakistan face indescribable disaster.

Sad species. Poor Owl.

© 2014 Noam Chomsky
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate


Karachi thirsts for a water supply

KARACHI: On the outskirts of the slums of Pakistan’s biggest city, protesters burning tires and throwing stones have what sounds like a simple demand: They want water at least once a week.

In Karachi people go days without getting water from city trucks, sometimes forcing them to use groundwater contaminated with salt. A recent drought has only made the problem worse. And as the city of roughly 18 million people rapidly grows, the water shortages are only expected to get worse.

“During the last three months they haven’t supplied a single drop of water in my neighbourhood,” protester Yasmeen Islam said. “It doesn’t make us happy to come on the roads to protest but we have no choice anymore.”

Karachi gets most of its water from the Indus River — about 550 million gallons per day — and another 100 million gallons from the Hub Dam that is supplied by water from neighbouring Balochistan province. But in recent years, drought has hurt the city’s supply.

Misbah Fareed, a senior official with the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board that runs the city’s water supplies, said that only meets about half the city’s needs — 1.2 billion gallons a day.

Karachi’s water distribution network has exacerbated the problem by forcing much of the city to get its water through tankers instead of directly from pipes. The Karachi Water and Sewerage Board operates 12 water hydrants around the city where tankers fill up and then distribute. Even people in the richest areas of the city get their water through tankers that come a few times a week to fill up underground cisterns.

But criminals have illegally tapped into the city’s water pipes and set up their own distribution points where they siphon off water and sell it.

“I personally know some people previously associated with drug mafias who now switched to the water tanker business,” Fareed said. “Just imagine how lucrative the business is.”

Other areas of Pakistan pump massive amounts of groundwater. But in the coastal city of Karachi, the underground water is too salty to drink. Many people have pumps but they use the water for things such as showering or washing clothes.

The water shortage is exacerbated by Karachi’s massive population. Pakistani military operations and American drone strikes in the northern tribal regions, as well as natural disasters such as flooding and earthquakes, have pushed people toward a city long seen as the economic heart of Pakistan.

The city is trying to increase the amount of water it gets from the Indus River by building another canal — dubbed the K4 project. But even if they were to get political approval from the capital to take more water from the river, it would take a minimum of four years to build.

But analysts say supply isn’t the only problem. Farhan Anwar, who runs an organisation called Sustainable Initiatives in Karachi, said the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board is horribly overstaffed and many of those are political appointees. The cost for water is also very low and the agency doesn’t collect all that it’s due, Anwar said. That’s made it difficult to upgrade the ageing pipes the system does have, meaning contamination and leakages are common.

Meanwhile, Karachi residents have to spend more money or walk further and further to get water. One elderly resident Aisha Saleem said in recent months even the little water they get from the water board is salty.

“Women and kids have to go miles by foot and carry drinking water every day,” she said More