World Drains Away Valuable Energy, Nutrients & Water in Fast-Growing Wastewater Streams

Though most developed countries treat sewage, treatment levels do not generally remove nutrients from the wastewater that is discharged. One exception is the state of Maryland (U.S.) where all major sewage treatment plants are required to upgrade to enhanced nutrient removal technologies that will remove most of the nutrients from the wastewater. Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program

By Manzoor Qadir and Vladimir Smakhtin
HAMILTON, Canada, Feb 5 2020 – Vast amounts of valuable energy, agricultural nutrients, and water could be recovered from the world’s fast-growing volume of municipal wastewater.

Some 380 billion cubic meters (1 m3 = 1000 litres) of wastewater are produced annually worldwide — five times the amount of water passing over Niagara Falls annually. That’s enough to fill Africa’s Lake Victoria in roughly seven years, Lake Ontario in four.

Furthermore, wastewater volumes are increasing quickly, with a projected rise of roughly 24% by 2030, 51% by 2050.

Looked at another way, the volume of wastewater roughly equals the annual discharge from the Ganges River in India. By the mid-2030s, it will roughly equal the annual volume flowing through the St. Lawrence River, which drains North America’s five Great Lakes.

Among major nutrients, 16.6 million metric tonnes of nitrogen are embedded in the world’s current annual volume of wastewater, together with 3 million metric tonnes of phosphorus and 6.3 million metric tonnes of potassium.

Theoretically, the recovery of these nutrients could offset 13.4% of global agricultural demand for them.

Recovery of these nutrients in that quantity could generate revenue of $13.6 billion globally at current prices: $9.0 billion in nitrogen, $2.3 billion in phosphorus, and $2.3 billion in potassium.

The energy embedded in wastewater, meanwhile, could provide electricity to 158 million households — roughly the number of households in the USA and Mexico combined.

Beyond the economic gains, environmental benefits of recovering these nutrients include minimizing eutrophication — the phenomenon of excess nutrients causing dense plant growth and aquatic animal deaths due to lack of oxygen.

In its new study, funded by the Government of Canada, the UN University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) provide these estimates and projections based on a new analysis of the world’s total annual wastewater production.

In many countries, official data on wastewater is often scattered, poorly monitored and reported, or simply unavailable. Nonetheless, our study offers important approximations of global and regional wastewater volumes and insights into its potential benefits.

Our study found that Asia is the largest wastewater producing region by volume — an estimated 159 billion cubic meters, representing 42% of urban wastewater generated globally, with that proportion expected to rise to 44% by 2030.

Other top wastewater-producing regions: North America (67 billion cubic meters) and Europe (68 billion cubic meters) — virtually equal volumes despite Europe’s higher urban population (547 million vs. North America’s 295 million).

The difference is explained by per capita generation: Europeans 124 cubic meters; North Americans 231 cubic meters).

By contrast, Sub-Saharan Africa produces 46 cubic meters of wastewater per capita — about half the global average (95 cubic meters), reflecting limited water supply and poorly-managed wastewater collection systems in most urban settings.

Achieving a high rate of return on wastewater resource recovery will require overcoming a range of constraints. But success would significantly advance progress against the Sustainable Development Goals and others, including adaptation to climate change, ‘net-zero’ energy processes, and a green, circular economy.

It is important to note that many innovative technologies are available today and are being refined to narrow the gap between current and potential resource recovery levels. In the case of phosphorous, for example, recovery rates of up to 90% are already possible.

Also needed to advance progress: to leverage private capital by creating a supportive regulatory and financial environment, particularly in low- and middle-income countries where most municipal wastewater still goes into the environment untreated.

Municipal wastewater was and often still is simply deemed to be filth. However, attitudes are changing with the growing recognition of the enormous potential economic returns and other environmental benefits its proper management represents.

As the demands for freshwater grow and scarce water resources are increasingly stressed, ignoring the opportunity for greater use of safely-managed wastewater is an unthinkable waste.

We hope this study helps inspire the development of national action plans leading to wastewater collection and resource recovery and reuse.

Safely managed, wastewater is a key achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 6.3, which calls on the world to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater, and to substantially increase its recycling and safe reuse globally by 2030.

*The paper, “Global and regional potential of wastewater as water, nutrient, and energy source,” is published by Wiley in Natural Resources Forum, a UN Sustainable Development Journal. Co-authors: Manzoor Qadir, Praem Mehta, UNU-INWEH, Canada; Younggy Kim, McMaster University, Canada; Blanca Jiménez Cisneros, UNAM, Mexico; Pay Drechsel, IWMI, Sri Lanka; Amit Pramanik, Water Research Foundation, USA; Oluwabusola Olaniyan, Winnipeg Water and Waste Department, Canada.

Children are Bearing the Bitter Brunt of Counter-Terrorism Efforts: Report

Former child solider Mulume Bujiriri* (front left) from the Democratic Republic of Congo. A new report on Children and Armed Conflict states that children allegedly associated with terrorist organisations should be treated as victims of terrorism, not accomplices and noted that often governments “criminalised” children instead of offering them the proper support. Credit: Einberger/argum/EED/IPS

By Samira Sadeque
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 5 2020 – Counter-terrorism efforts adopted by governments around the world in response to threats of terrorism are affecting children negatively in numerous ways, a report by Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict (Watchlist) claimed last week. 

The policy note claimed a lot of these counter-terrorism measures “lack adequate safeguards for children” and lose sight of how they’re detrimental to children against the bigger picture of fighting terror threats. 

It further listed six ways in which children are affected through counter-terrorism efforts by states: treatment of children alleged to have terrorist affiliations; inability of governments to maintain internationally recognised juvenile justice standards; erosion of “principle of distinction”; being huddled in the definition of “foreign terrorist fighters”; denial of access to humanitarian needs brought upon by measures such as sanctions; and the Screening, Prosecution, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (SPRR) measures being loosely applied. 

Children allegedly associated with terrorist organisations should be treated as victims of terrorism, not accomplices, the report read, adding that too often governments instead “criminalise” children without providing them proper support. 

“Children have been tortured, subjected to ill-treatment, and unlawfully and/or arbitrarily detained on national security-related charges for their actual or alleged association with these groups,” read the report. 

Experts echo this sentiment.

“Children may also be vulnerable to recruitment and exploitation by these armed groups,” Brigid Kennedy Pfister, Senior Child Protection Specialist at United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) told IPS. “From north-east Nigeria to Somalia, Iraq and Syria to Yemen and beyond, children who have been recruited and exploited by armed groups in any kind of conflict are first and foremost victims whose rights have been violated.”

According to a 2019 U.N. report on terrorist exploitation of the youth, children can get recruited by terrorist units for a variety of reasons, such as their location and its proximity to a terrorist group, financial instability, societal perceptions or political marginalisation, and exposure to extremist propaganda — factors children have little control over. 

“We know that armed groups use duress, coercion, manipulation and violence to force or persuade children to join them, while some children may have lived in areas controlled by these armed groups have no meaningful choice but to associate with them,” saysPfister

That is why it’s crucial that children are provided with care instead of further marginalisation if they are preyed upon by terrorist groups.

“All children in these situations, must be treated primarily as victims of human rights violations. Children affected by armed conflict should be supported with evidence-based services that aid their recovery and support their reintegration into communities,” says Pfister of UNICEF, adding that the children should instead be provided support to “reintegrate into their communities and recover.”  

Meanwhile, it’s also important to ensure that international laws and procedures are followed in the event that children are detained. 

As the Watchlist report claims, special provisions designed for children in the justice system, as dictated by International Humanitarian Law (IHL), must be followed. 

Pfister, of UNICEF, agrees. “Detention of children should only be a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible time,” she says. “Children should not be investigated or prosecuted for alleged crimes committed by their family members or for association with designated terrorist groups or other armed groups. Children should be provided with psychosocial services, legal assistance and support to reintegrate into their families and communities.”

While children are vulnerable to falling prey to terrorist ideology or recruiting due to a number of reasons, it’s not that the population is devoid of concerns about terrorism. According to a UNICEF survey conducted across 14 countries in 2017, violence and terrorism are concerns on children’s radars — as issues that they would be impacted by as well as issues their peers will suffer from. The survey included children from the ages of 9 to 18, according to Pfister, who shared the data with IPS.

“Children across all 14 countries surveyed were equally concerned about terrorism with 65 percent of all children surveyed worrying a lot about this issue,” she said. 

As such, heavy concerns remain regarding children’s well-being in conflict-prone areas. There are numerous ways in which they can be affected, says Pfister, echoing the findings of the Witness report. 

“Children are disproportionately victims of armed conflict, including conflicts with armed groups that target and terrify civilians,” she told IPS. “Children may be caught up in attacks themselves, or lose their parents, family members or caregivers. Their homes, schools or the hospitals and health clinics they rely on may come under attack.”

Currently UNICEF operates in 14 countries providing services to children on their path out of armed forces and armed groups, says Pfister, and working with governments to advocate for children to be identified as victims so that their families receive support to rehabilitate them.