Where Is the Wastewater Going? How Better Data Can Make Us More Resilient

Omar Malik, Indicators Research Coordinator
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UCS | September 4, 2014, 10:58 am EDT
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According to the United Nations, up to 90 percent of the developing world’s wastewater does not get treated before it goes back into the environment. That’s a staggering statistic, especially considering the implications of untreated wastewater and the huge importance of good water management today.

I’m particularly close to wastewater issues. For the 2014 edition of Yale’s Environmental Performance Index (EPI), I helped develop an indicator that uses wastewater treatment rates as proxy measures for water quality in countries around the world. It’s important because untreated wastewater leads to health problems, such as diarrhea from E. Coli and other pathogens, and can have harmful ecosystem effects due to algae blooms that kill off fish and other aquatic life. On top of it all, it’s also a simple matter of management: by choosing to maintain their waste, countries have the potential for its re-use.

Still, according to the data, a lot of the world has a long way to go on wastewater. In total, the average global score is 25% — meaning only a quarter of what gets collected for treatment actually gets treated, relative to populations connected to sewerage. That’s not enough to ensure the global community has both safe sanitation and water.

Effective wastewater management can lead to resiliency. Photo credit: antikainen / iStock / Thinkstock

Effective wastewater management can lead to resiliency. Photo: antikainen / iStock / Thinkstock

Emerging concerns

Perhaps that’s not unexpected around the world, but what about here in the United States? Are we vulnerable as well? At the AAAS Resilience Summit that was held in Washington, D.C. this past summer, one panel discussion focused on water management in the context of climate change. A former head of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and an emergency operations manager from DC Water both agreed that water crises due to extreme climate conditions—including wastewater impacts—are, in fact, the “new normal.” They also remarked that they had never really talked to each other about this problem before. Their jurisdictions are far apart, but they’re facing the same challenges.

The problem, as I see it, is that collaboration on this issue is only now just emerging at the scale needed to address the common water problems, both here in the U.S. and around the world.

A changing policy agenda

Now, it looks like the United Nations might be picking up on the wastewater issue on a wider scale thanks to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs, which will build off the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), are slated to be presented to the General Assembly this fall for review—and one of the key water targets proposed is to increase the effective treatment rates of wastewater. The SDGs, unlike the MDGS, would apply to developed countries and may produce better data on water quality issues.

This is critical because, at this time, there is no central hub of wastewater performance reporting that all countries participate in, just as there is no universal protocol in place for defining wastewater inputs or comparing levels of treatment. Local utilities, of course, already create their own data and are where “the rubber meets the road,” as one manager told me, but that data usually doesn’t make it to levels where interested parties can analyze it. Building the wastewater treatment indicator for the EPI required our research team to go country-by-country and find relevant data for places that did not provide any to the major statistical databases like the OECD and the UN Statistics Division. (And even among those datasets, the definitions for what comprised wastewater varied, and they were reported sparsely through time.)

Looking for solutions

If the municipalities in the U.S. are only now connecting the dots between wastewater concerns and climate change, it’s certainly going to be tougher at the international level. However, I think this might be where we can find room for improvement–the topic of climate resilience is another dimension of the health and ecological impacts of wastewater, perhaps offering renewed traction and new solutions. Fortunately, the draft version of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals has managed to preserve UN-Water‘s recommendation on wastewater treatment targets, including targets for re-use. This should fit nicely with the agenda at World Water Week in Stockholm, which is focusing on water-energy issues.

Sweden, home to World Water Week, performs well on wastewater treatment. Photo credit: Omar Malik

Sweden, home to World Water Week, performs well on wastewater treatment. Photo: Omar Malik

As a policy community, however, it is our job to sustain the pressure, so to speak, to keep the agenda on wastewater management moving. We can remind policymakers that water quality must remain in the agenda at all levels, and support standardized reporting mechanisms. Let’s not let opportunities for collaboration go down the drain.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy Tags: , , , ,

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  • Richard Solomon

    The recent news about the algae bloom in Lake Erie is an example of the interaction between climate change, long standing agricultural practices (the heavy use of fertilizers which get into the lake), and spotty waste water management. Although it is not making headlines any longer, a report I just saw on PBS noted that this problem will not ‘go away’ until the fall when the weather cools down and farmers stop using the fertilizers.

    The last comment about needing to prevent ‘opportunities for collaboration go down the drain’ is most relevant. UCS members need to continue to advocate with their local and state elected officials in order to get them to take more concerted and potentially helpful action on this issue. Keep emailing ’em, folks!!