Newly-released UNEP report details challenges, benefits of expanding wastewater treatment coverage.
By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue
NAIROBI, KENYA – Water and sanitation experts, policy makers and government officials who gathered here at World Water Day urged national governments to emphasize wastewater management and ecosystem restoration. Foreign aid money alone, they said, cannot improve the world’s water quality problems.
“If I had $10 billion to spend on improving water quality, I would put it toward capacity building,” said Maurice Bernard, head of the Water and Sanitation Department of the French Development Agency, “because even though development assistance can achieve much, it is far from being the solution to the problem.”
“Problems often are solved by national governments,” he added.
A theme repeated throughout the annual event — organized to raise awareness about water issues — was that improved water quality begins with rehabilitation of natural filters like wetlands and coastal mangrove forests.
“Investing in nature’s capacity to provide fertile soils, clean water and clean air is something the economic system has to integrate,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
A UNEP report released today also highlighted wastewater management investment as one of the best financial decisions a government can make.
“There are few, if any, areas where investments in integrated planning can sustainably provide greater returns across multiple sectors than the development of water infrastructure and the promotion of improved wastewater management,” according to the report, Sick Water? The Central Role of Wastewater Management in Sustainable Development.
Countries need to act quickly and plan for future needs, because the wastewater challenge is only going to grow larger, said Christian Nellemann, one of the report’s co-authors.
“Over 90 percent of wastewater from developing cities goes untreated directly into the oceans,” Nellemann said. “At the same time we see a rising urbanization worldwide. In less than 40 years we are going to see half of the world’s population today, an additional three billion people, moving into cities. We have not considered restroom facilities for three billion people entering cities.”
Presenters at the many panel discussions during the day called for a new way of thinking about how to address water quality problems.
“What historically we have done is to stay focused on water quality, on monitoring and research, but relating it to people’s lives and policies is something that we have not done very well before,” Zafar Adeel, director of UN-Water, told Circle of Blue.
Others called for solutions on a smaller scale with innovative financing techniques that are more adaptable to local conditions.
“We need a twenty-first century model,” said Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands. “Business as usual for wastewater treatment is no longer a solution. Massive trunk and branch systems that are prone to breakdowns are not the answer. We need a wholesale paradigm shift and we need it now.”
The good news is that the technology needed to make these changes already exists, said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute.
“This doesn’t require the invention of magical new technologies,” Gleick said. “We know how to solve water quality problems, we just have to do more of what we know how to do.”
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton