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Food and sustainability

World Water Day 2017: new life for wastewater

Every year on 22 March we turn our attention to water, a precious resource. However, it’s also one which can have multiple lives, as shown by the numerous wastewater recycling projects underway around the globe.

On the heels of the success of 2016, a year in which the various channels launched for World Water Day reached an audience of 1.6 billion people, the initiatives continue in 2017. For the new edition, the spotlight will be on squandered water in general, and more specifically on what is defined as wastewater: water which has already been used in some way and which could potentially be used again for other purposes. 

First: waste not

“Water waste” and “wastewater” are two concepts which won’t pass by unnoticed during World Water Day 2017, dedicated precisely to these two categories and to their potential uses, especially in situations where water is scarce and difficult to come by. Water is a finite resource which a steadily rising number of people will need access to, and everyone, as upheld by the experts of the United Nations (UN), has the right to clean, safe water. It’s not by chance that one of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals is dedicated to water, with a secondary objective focusing on “the improvement of water quality and the halving of the proportion of untreated wastewater and a substantial increase in global recycling and reuse of water in a way that is safe for human health.” The first step towards effective water savings is undoubtedly the reduction of water waste, in particular in agriculture and industry, which means improving infrastructure or making farming systems more efficient. But simply reducing wasted water isn’t enough.

Reuse is possible – and a good idea

Out of all industries, agriculture undisputedly consumes the most water. As reported in the most recent edition of Eating Planet, BCFN’s publication on food and sustainability, an average of 70% of freshwater is used for irrigation, reaching 95% in the world’s poorest and driest nations. Continuously tapping into “new” water isn’t sustainable long-term, especially given the increasing global demand for this precious good. The positive news is that even water can be recycled. Today 80% of wastewater, which comes from domestic use, for example, is literally thrown away, wasting a resource with incredible potential. “It’s time to stop treating wastewater like garbage and instead manage it as a resource that can be used to grow crops and help address water scarcity in agriculture”, the experts confirmed at a meeting in Berlin for the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, dedicated to the topic of “Agriculture and Water” in 2017. 

Grateful agriculture 

The use of wastewater is an increasingly important issue in a world where many countries are faced with worsening water stress due to climate change, with rising demand for water and with pollution further reducing the already scant availability of “safe” water. Of course, water reuse can’t also usher in increased health and sanitation risks, which is why various international organisations, the WHO first and foremost, have published guidelines and recommendations for proper, safe water reuse. In this vein, the FAO considers the reuse of water for agricultural purposes in Water Report 35, demonstrating that if carried out according to well-defined and approved plans, this practice can be advantageous to the countryside, cities and the environment overall. As stated in the report, there are more than 3,300 water use plants, mainly for agriculture in approximately 50 countries, on 10% of all irrigated land. 


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