Catalysing the Conversation between Science and Practice in Wastewater Use

  • 2017/09/05     Stockholm, Sweden

    Image: Serena Caucci/UNU-FLORES

    By now it is no longer disputed that the world needs to see the value of wastewater if we were to solve our planet’s water-related challenges. In fact, this year’s World Water Week sought to address the very waste-water nexus under the overarching theme “Water and Waste: Reduce and Reuse”.

    Over six days (27 August–1 September), more than 3,000 water professionals from all over the world gathered and connected at the annual focal point for the globe’s water issues. Organised and hosted by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), World Water Week takes place at the Swedish capital every year.

    Rich in nutrients and carbon, wastewater use can resolve the issue of scarcities while improving food security. Harnessing the full benefits of wastewater in practice needs substantial input from the research community. But communities of practice in wastewater use are only slowly coming together.

    Opening one of the first sessions this year, UNU-FLORES Director Reza Ardakanian set the record straight: if we are to achieve target 6.3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (“by 2030 halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally”) bearing in mind SDG 2 (Zero hunger) we need to start considering using wastewater as a resource for producing food. It follows then that we need to ensure its safe use.

    Image: Serena Caucci/UNU-FLORES

    This set the basis for discussion in the session “Science Faces Practice: Benefits and Risks of Wastewater Use” co-convened by UNU-FLORES with partners Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), German Association for Water, Wastewater and Waste (DWA), and Technische Universität Dresden.

    Over 60 participants from various backgrounds including government, development aid agencies, and private companies spent their Sunday morning tuning in to presentations from both water scientists and practitioners, and actively participating in roundtable discussions. Central to the discussions on wastewater use was the issue of capacity development and how it should be financed.

    In his keynote speech, Peter Krebs (TU Dresden) addressed the complexity for wastewater treatment in urban areas, emphasising the need for tailor-made solutions for agricultural use of wastewater.

    “When properly designed and operated, it works for the purpose it was designed for!” – Peter Krebs (TU Dresden) on urban sanitation today

    During the panel discussion, Ruhiza Boroto (FAO) elaborated on the use of treated wastewater to make agriculture more resilient to climate change impacts. Further, Tamara Avellán’s (UNU-FLORES) presentation on biological treatment systems revealed that treatment wetlands can do more than just wastewater treatment – they can also provide energy. Such a Nexus Approach towards water treatment adds a dimension of multifunctionality, an approach very much welcome when we are strapped for resources.

    Addressing the ‘practice’ side of the coin, Rüdiger Heidebrecht (DWA) presented the German Technical Wastewater Reuse Standard and Skilled Staff Training while Manzoor Qadir (UNU-INWEH) spoke about the policy and institutional aspects of wastewater management.

    Image: Serena Caucci/UNU-FLORES

    Image: Serena Caucci/UNU-FLORES

    The panel discussion was followed by roundtable discussions in what was called the World Café format, where five tables addressed each of the topic presented. Participants rotated among the different tables and had a chance to engage on the various topics. Based on the vibrant discussions, the session had succeeded in catalysing the conversation between wastewater treatment specialists and irrigation experts.

    By highlighting the newest scientific findings in the benefits and risks of the safe use of wastewater in agriculture, the session had brought to the fore a nexus solution, a vital contribution towards SDG 6.3.

    In a second session addressing the same target at World Water Week, UNU-FLORES joined UNU-INWEH (lead convenor), International Water Management Institute, and the Turkish Water Institute at the event “Journey to a World Free of Untreated Wastewater”. Young professionals had a chance to share their insights as well as raise questions to wastewater leaders on innovative interim safe water reuse approaches.

    Young UNU-FLORES researcher Serena Caucci expressed in her segment her prudent take on the possibility of a world free of untreated wastewater by 2030, “It is not realistic; there are still many conditions that have yet to be met. We need to carefully define what ‘treated’ means, going beyond levels of carbon and pathogen but to also look at concentrations of antibiotic resistance, among others.”

    Image: Manzoor Qadir/UNU-INWEH

    Besides convening the aforementioned sessions, UNU-FLORES and UNU-INWEH also represented the United Nations University (UNU) in the World Water Week Exhibition. Water is a research area of focus in many Institutes across UNU – the booth showcased the various projects and publications focusing on this theme from the University as a whole. This year, we also ran a UNU-wide digital media campaign under the slogan #UNU4Water. The campaign page features a selection of work on water across all institutes.