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as ‘wastewater’ may well be lost in leakage in pipes (in some countries this accounts for up to 70% of the water withdrawn by the municipal water supply schemes).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


“Containing the Resource Crisis”

LONDON – The proclamation of a new Cold War, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, turned out to be alarmist and premature. However, it reflected the anxiety of today’s decision-makers in the face of a crumbling global order.

With emerging economies far from committed to established norms in international relations, many governments and multinational companies are feeling vulnerable about relying on others for vital resources – the European Union’s dependence on Russian gas being a case in point.

Competition for scarce resources is sorely testing our assumptions about global governance and cooperation, at a time when collective leadership is becoming ever more necessary. But even in the absence of overarching global legal frameworks, it is possible to maintain a sense of common security if the terms of resource investments are founded on long-term political understanding and commercial relationships, rather than short-term competition.

The stakes are high. Resource scarcity is closely linked to political risks. Consider, for example, the drought that decimated Russia’s 2010 wheat harvest. In response, Russia imposed export restrictions to shore up its domestic supplies, sending food prices soaring in its main export markets, especially Egypt. This in turn helped spark the political uprisings that spread rapidly across North Africa and the Middle East. Climate change is expected to trigger many more such chains of events.

One test case for such cooperation is the potentially explosive issue of the Nile Delta’s water resources. Britain’s colonial-era treaty has, since 1929, given Egypt a veto over any upstream river project that might affect the country’s water supply

One test case for such cooperation is the potentially explosive issue of the Nile Delta’s water resources. Britain’s colonial-era treaty has, since 1929, given Egypt a veto over any upstream river project that might affect the country’s water supply. Several Nile Basin countries, including Sudan and Ethiopia, have now ratified a new, Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework agreement, which Egypt has yet to sign. Given Egypt’s concerns about potential water shortages arising from Ethiopia’s new upstream hydropower plants, its assent is far from assured.

Indeed, in Egypt’s febrile political atmosphere, its newly elected president, General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, may be tempted to escalate the threat of military action in response to Ethiopia’s hydropower projects. Such a move would send shockwaves through a region already reeling from conflict in South Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

To avoid another dangerous political-environmental chain reaction, nudging all sides toward agreement will require achieving mutual recognition of resource concerns. Ethiopia must credibly guarantee the supply of water downstream, for example, by establishing a water-replenishment rate at its dam reservoirs that does not threaten the onward flow of water to Egypt. At the same time, Egypt, while retaining the fundamental right to protect its water supply, must recognize the interests of its upstream neighbors and be ready to negotiate in good faith a new Nile Basin treaty.

Multinational companies and sovereign investors like China, which have financed hydropower projects upstream, will come under increasing pressure to adopt a position. They, too, can play a positive role by considering the cross-border investments that will address critical interdependencies, like Egypt’s wasteful agricultural irrigation practices.

Similar resource-related tensions are surfacing in other parts of the world. Water stress and food security threaten to constrain India’s economic promise, as increasing coal-powered electricity generation diverts water resources away from agriculture. The political risks of investing in Nigeria’s agriculture sector are also rising as a result of the country’s demographic explosion, high inflation, weak rule of law, and insecure land rights, with wider political consequences.

These resource strains are aggravated by foreign investments that seek to meet developed-country consumers’ voracious demand for resources without attention to their impact on sustainability in the host countries. This virtual outsourcing of the industrialized world’s environmental impacts, apart from being hypocritical, is no basis for building a strategy for global environmental sustainability.

Instead, the world needs to invest in sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and green infrastructure. To be sure, the most promising efforts by leading multinationals today must confront entrenched subsidies and vested political interests. Unless the necessary policy frameworks are put in place green investment initiatives will continue to struggle to achieve a meaningful scale. Moreover, developed and developing countries seem unable even to agree on a fair division of environmental responsibilities, even though they have become increasingly interdependent in trade, investment, and the supply of natural resources.

These difficulties should not stop us from trying. The Earth Security Initiative is working with the BMW Foundation to develop global roundtables on resource security over a two-year period, starting in Hangzhou, China, on July 17- 20. These high-level, informal meetings will bring together leaders from politics, business, and civil society in Europe and emerging economies in an effort to bridge just such differences.

We know what needs to be done, why it is important, and who must be involved to secure our planet’s long-term future. We must now address the equally vital question of how this will be achieved.

Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/alejandro-litovsky-addresses-the-increasingly-close-links-between-resource-scarcity-and-political-risk#qFDfi1xP668YyhLg.99



‘There Will Be No Water’ by 2040? Researchers Urge Global Energy Paradigm Shift

The world risks an “insurmountable” water crisis by 2040 without an immediate and significant overhaul of energy consumption and demand, a research team reported on Wednesday.

“There will be no water by 2040 if we keep doing what we're doing today,” said Professor Benjamin Sovacool of Denmark's Aarhus University, who co-authored two reports on the world's rapidly decreasing sources of freshwater.

Many troubling global trends could worsen these baseline projected shortages. According to the report, water resources around the world are “increasingly strained by economic development, population growth, and climate change.” The World Resources Institute estimates that in India, “water demand will outstrip supply by as much as 50 percent by 2030, a situation worsened further by the country's likely decline of available freshwater due to climate change,” the report states. “[P]ower demand could more than double in northern China, more than triple in India, and increase by almost three-quarters in Texas.”

“If we keep doing business as usual, we are facing an insurmountable water shortage — even if water was free, because it's not a matter of the price,” Sovacool said. “There's no time to waste. We need to act now.”

In addition to an expanding global population, economic development, and an increasing demand for energy, the report also finds that the generation of electricity is one of the biggest sources of water consumption throughout the world, using up more water than even the agricultural industry. Unlike less water-intensive alternative sources of energy like wind and solar systems, fossil fuel-powered and nuclear plants need enormous and continued water inputs to function, both for fueling thermal generators and cooling cycles.

The reports, Capturing Synergies Between Water Conservation and Carbon Dioxide Emissions in the Power Sectorand A Clash of Competing Necessities: Water Adequacy and Electric Reliability in China, India, France, and Texas and published after three years of research by Aarhus University, Vermont Law School and CNA Corporation, show that most power plants do not even log how much water they use to keep the systems going.

“It's a huge problem that the electricity sector do not even realize how much water they actually consume,” Sovacool said. “And together with the fact that we do not have unlimited water resources, it could lead to a serious crisis if nobody acts on it soon.”

Unless water use is drastically minimized, the researchers found that widespread drought will affect between 30 and 40 percent of the planet by 2020, and another two decades after that will see a severe water shortage that would affect the entire planet. The demand for both energy and drinking water would combine to aggressively speed up drought, which in turn could exacerbate large-scale health risks and other global development problems.

“The policy and technology choices made to meet demand will have immense implications for water withdrawals and consumption, and may also have significant economic, human health, and development consequences,” the report states.

The research says that utilizing alternative energy sources like wind and solar systems is vital to mitigating water consumption enough to stave off the crisis. “Unsubsidized wind power costs… are currently lower than coal or nuclear and they are continuing to drop,” the report states. When faced with its worst drought in 2011, Texas got up to 18 of its electricity from wind power and was able to avoid the kind of rolling blackouts that plague parts of China, where existing water shortages prevent power plants from operating.

An equally important step would be to shutter “thirsty” fossil fuel facilities in areas that are already experiencing water shortages, like China and India, where carbon emissions can be significantly more impactful.

“[We] have to decide where we spend our water in the future,” Sovacool said. “Do we want to spend it on keeping the power plants going or as drinking water? We don't have enough water to do both.” More


India and Pakistan at Odds Over Shrinking Indus River

Nearly 30 percent of the world's cotton supply comes from India and Pakistan, much of that from the Indus River Valley. On average, about 737 billion gallons are withdrawn from the Indus River annually to grow cotton—enough to provide Delhi residents with household water for more than two years. (See a map of the region.)

Baseera Pakistan Aug 2010

“Pakistan's entire economy is driven by the textile industry,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “The problem with Pakistan's economy is that most of the major industries use a ton of water—textiles, sugar, wheat—and there's a tremendous amount of water that's not only used, but wasted,” he added.

The same is true for India.

That impact is an important part of a complex water equation in countries already under strain from booming populations. More people means more demand for water to irrigate crops, cool machinery, and power cities. The Indus River, which begins in Indian-controlled Kashmir and flows through Pakistan on its way to the sea, is Pakistan's primary freshwater sourceon which 90 percent of its agriculture dependsand a critical outlet of hydropower generation for both countries.

(Related: “See the Global Water Footprint of Key Crops“)

Downstream provinces are already feeling the strain, with some dried-out areas being abandoned by fishermen and farmers forced to move to cities. That increases competition between urban and rural communities for water. “In areas where you used to have raging rivers, you have, essentially, streams or even puddles and not much else,” said Kugelman.

In years past, the coastal districts that lost their shares of the Indus' flows have become “economically orphaned,” the poorest districts in the country, according to Pakistani water activist Mustafa Talpur. Because Pakistani civil society is weak, he says, corruption and deteriorating water distribution tend to go hand in hand.

In the port city of Karachi, which depends for its water on the Indus, water theftin which public water is stolen from the pipes and sold from tankers in slums and around the citymay be a $500-million annual industry.

In the balance is the fate not only of people, but important aquatic species like the Indus River dolphin, which is now threatened to extinction by agricultural pollution and dams, among other pressures. Scientists estimate that fewer than 100 individuals remain.

Threat to Peace?

One of the potentially catastrophic consequences of the region's fragile water balance is the effect on political tensions.

In India, competition for water has a history of provoking conflict between communities. In Pakistan, water shortages have triggered food and energy crises that ignited riots and protests in some cities. Most troubling, Islamabad's diversions of water to upstream communities with ties to the government are inflaming sectarian loyalties and stoking unrest in the lower downstream region of Sindh.

But the issue also threatens the fragile peace that holds between the nations of India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed rivals. Water has long been seen as a core strategic interest in the dispute over the Kashmir region, home to the Indus' headwaters. Since 1960, a delicate political accord called the Indus Waters Treaty has governed the sharing of the river's resources. But dwindling river flows will be harder to share as the populations in both countries grow and the per-capita water supply plummets.

Some growth models predict that by 2025, India's population will grow to triple what it wasand Pakistan's population to six times what it waswhen the Indus treaty was signed. Lurking in the background are fears that climate change is speeding up the melting of the glaciers that feed the river.

Mountain glaciers in Kashmir play a central role in regulating the river's flows, acting as a natural water storage tank that freezes precipitation in winter and releases it as meltwater in the summer. The Indus is dependent on glacial melting for as much as half of its flow. So its fate is uniquely tied to the health of the Himalayas. In the short term, higher glacial melt is expected to bring more intense flooding, like last year's devastating deluge.

Both countries are also racing to complete large hydroelectric dams along their respective stretches of the Kashmir river system, elevating tensions. India's projects are of a size and scope that many Pakistanis fear could be used to disrupt their hydropower efforts, as well as the timing of the flows on which Pakistani crops rely.

(Related: “Seven Simple Ways to Save Water“)

“Many in Pakistan are worried that, being in control of upstream waters, India can easily run Pakistan dry either by diverting the flow of water by building storage dams or using up all the water through hydroelectric power schemes,” said Pakistani security analyst Rifaat Hussain.

For years, Pakistani politicians have claimed India is responsible for Pakistan's water troubles. More recently, militant groups have picked up their rhetoric. Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Pakistani militant group allegedly responsible for the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, even accused India of “water terrorism.”

Hope for the Future

In the past few months, however, the situation has improved, according to Kugelman. “We've been hearing nearly unprecedented statements from very high-level Pakistani officials who have essentially acknowledged that India is not stealing Pakistan's water, and that Pakistan's water problems are essentially a function of internal mismanagement issues,” he said. Militants are still griping, he said, “but not as shrilly.”

This may be because the two countries are cooperating on water and other issues better than before, and because militants are now focusing less on their archenemy in India and more on coalition forces in Afghanistan.

“But I imagine this is momentary,” said Kugelman. “The facts on the ground—the water constraints in both India and Pakistan—have not abated. They're both still very serious and getting worse.”

What's needed, he says, is more conservation and adaptation—a smarter way of doing business. More

This Article is part the National Geographic Society’s freshwater initiative and is a multiyear global effort to inspire and empower individuals and communities to conserve freshwater and preserve the extraordinary diversity of life that rivers, lakes, and wetlands sustain.


The Unity of Water

MOSCOW – In May, Vietnam became the 35th and decisive signatory of the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. As a result, 90 days later, on August 17, the convention will enter into force.

The fact that it took almost 50 years to draft and finally achieve the necessary ratification threshold demonstrates that something is very wrong with the modern system of multilateralism. Regardless of longstanding disagreements over how cross-border freshwater resources should be allocated and managed, and understandable preferences by governments and water professionals to rely on basin agreements rather than on international legal instruments, that half-century wait can be explained only by a lack of political leadership. So, though the world may celebrate the convention’s long-awaited adoption, we cannot rest on our laurels.

Roughly 60% of all freshwater runs within cross-border basins; only an estimated 40% of those basins, however, are governed by some sort of basin agreement. In an increasingly water-stressed world, shared water resources are becoming an instrument of power, fostering competition within and between countries. The struggle for water is heightening political tensions and exacerbating impacts on ecosystems.

But the really bad news is that water consumption is growing faster than population – indeed, in the twentieth century it grew at twice the rate. As a result, several UN agencies forecast that, by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in regions stricken with absolute water scarcity, implying a lack of access to adequate quantities for human and environmental uses. Moreover, two-thirds of the world’s population will face water-stress conditions, meaning a scarcity of renewable freshwater.

Without resolute counter-measures, demand for water will overstretch many societies’ adaptive capacities. This could result in massive migration, economic stagnation, destabilization, and violence, posing a new threat to national and international security.

The UN Watercourses Convention must not become just another ignored international agreement, filed away in a drawer. The stakes are too high. In today’s context of climate change, rising demand, population growth, increasing pollution, and overexploited resources, everything must be done to consolidate the legal framework for managing the world’s watersheds. Our environmental security, economic development, and political stability directly depend on it.

The convention will soon apply to all of the cross-border rivers of its signatories’ territories, not just the biggest basins. It will complement the gaps and shortcomings of existing agreements and provide legal coverage to the numerous cross-border rivers that are under increasing pressure.

Worldwide, there are 276 cross-border freshwater basins and about as many cross-border aquifers. Backed by adequate financing, political will, and the engagement of stakeholders, the convention can help address the water challenges that we are all facing. But will it?

An ambitious agenda should be adopted now, at a time when the international community is negotiating the contents of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the successor to the UN Millennium Development Goals, which will expire in 2015. We at Green Cross hope that the new goals, which are to be achieved by 2030, will include a stand-alone target that addresses water-resources management.

Moreover, the international community will soon have to agree on a climate-change framework to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Climate change directly affects the hydrological cycle, which means that all of the efforts that are undertaken to contain greenhouse-gas emissions will help to stabilize rainfall patterns and mitigate the extreme water events that so many regions are already experiencing.

But the UN Watercourses Convention’s entry into force raises as many new questions as existed in the period before its ratification. What will its implementation mean in practice? How will countries apply its mandates within their borders and in relation to riparian neighbors? How will the American and Asian countries that have largely ignored ratification respond?

Furthermore, how will the convention relate to the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, which is already in force in most European and Central Asian countries and, since February 2013, has aimed to open its membership to the rest of the world? Similarly, how will the convention’s implementation affect existing regional and local cross-border freshwater agreements?

The countries that ratified the UN Watercourses Convention are expected to engage in its implementation and to go further in their efforts to protect and sustainably use their cross-border waters. What instruments, including financial, will the convention provide to them?

Several legal instruments can be implemented jointly and synergistically: the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to name just a few. The UN Watercourses Convention’s long-delayed enactment should be viewed as an opportunity for signatory states to encourage those that are not yet party to cooperative agreements to work seriously on these issues.

Clearly, politicians and diplomats alone cannot respond effectively to the challenges that the world faces. What the world needs is the engagement of political, business, and civil-society leaders; effective implementation of the UN Watercourses Convention is impossible without it.

This is too often overlooked, but it constitutes the key to the long-term success of cooperation that generates benefits for all. Inclusive participation by stakeholders (including the affected communities), and the development of the capacity to identify, value, and share the benefits of cross-border water resources, should be an integral part of any strategy to achieve effective multilateral collaboration. More


Himalayan Water Security: The Challenges for South and Southeast Asia

The scramble for control of natural resources to support economic and population growth, combined with the uncertain effects of climate change on the Tibetan Plateau, is raising tensions in Asia over Himalayan water resources.

Ten of the region’s largest and longest rivers (the Amu Darya, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween, Tarim, Yangtze, and Yellow) originate in the Himalayas. These rivers help provide water, food, and energy for nearly 4 billion people in China and across South and Southeast Asia—nearly half of the world’s population. However, depletion and diversion of these transborder resources to meet growing industrial, agricultural, and urban demands have the potential to trigger far-reaching economic, social, and environmental challenges.

The lack of comprehensive and effective regional frameworks for cooperation hinders sustainable management of these waterways. China, which controls the headwaters of these rivers, has an enormous need for Himalayan water to satisfy economic and energy demands but has little incentive to participate in formal water-sharing and water-management agreements with its neighbors. China’s dam-building and water-diversion projects are a source of major concern to the countries downstream, which often complain about Beijing’s lack of transparency and reluctance to share information. Although managing water-sharing relations with China might be the most prominent challenge, cooperation is not much easier at the middle and lower reaches of the rivers. Collaboration in South and Southeast Asia is frequently frustrated by competing national interests, economic priorities, political disputes, and weak regional organizations. In addition to the environmental impacts of man-made diversion projects and unsustainable freshwater usage, there is also inadequate cooperation on scientific research to understand and prepare for the effects of climate change on the region’s water supplies.

This Asia Policy roundtable contains seven essays that discuss the challenges and implications of water security in Asia and recommend steps that both upstream and downstream countries could take to better manage the region’s shared water resources.

Asia’s Unstable Water Tower: The Politics, Economics, and Ecology of Himalayan Water Projects
Kenneth Pomeranz

China’s Upstream Advantage in the Great Himalayan Watershed
Jennifer L. Turner, Susan Chan Shifflett, and Robert Batten

Melting the Geopolitical Ice in South Asia
Robert G. Wirsing

Himalayan Water Security: A South Asian Perspective
Tushaar Shah and Mark Giordano

Hydropower Dams on the Mekong: Old Dreams, New Dangers
Richard P. Cronin

Climate Change and Water Security in the Himalayan Region
Richard Matthew

Securing the Himalayas as the Water Tower of Asia: An Environmental Perspective
Jayanta Bandyopadhyay

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As I have been arguing for a number of years South Asia needs to re-negotiate the Indus Water Treaty to encompass Afghainstan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan before the region starts to suffer from water insecurity and the effects of climate change. Editor