From toilet to table: how wastewater can contribute to food security
On January 20th 2017, the Leibniz Research Alliance 'Food and Nutrition' (LRA) partnered with the FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia to organise an Expert Panel Discussion at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA). Aptly named 'From toilet to table: how wastewater can contribute to food security', the international podium was moderated by LRA representative Prof. Dr. Werner Kloas from Leibniz-Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB). The interdisciplinary panel consisted of Dr. Marlos de Souza from the FAO Land and Water Division, Dr. Sarantuyaa Zandaryaa from the International Hydrological Programme (IHP) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Dr. Steven N. Schonberger from the World Bank and Dr. Sophie Boisson a Technical Officer of the Water, Sanitation, Hygiene Unit of the World Health Organization (WHO). Previously an undervalued resource, wastewater is heralded as a viable option for combatting future water scarcity, global food security and climate change. The podium discussion revolved around the benefits, the current challenges in regard to safety, financial, governmental concerns and the critical next steps of wastewater use.
To attain the benefits of wastewater, context specific considerations across environments must occur. In urban settings, consumers must be sensitised to overcome the stigma of wastewater consumption. Cultural and religious values of water must be accounted for when promoting these sorts of behavioural and social changes, notes Dr. Zandaryaa. In rural contexts the acceptance of wastewater is similarly critical for resource provision, but holds additional value as an income opportunity for farmers. This income generation could feasibly work to improve gender equality as 70% of the world’s small scale farmers are female. Dr. de Souza recommends wastewater as a reliable solution for food and water security to ever growing cities and expanding farms, less susceptible to ecological emergencies such as droughts. From the panels’ perspective an integration of strategies, combining wastewater with watersheds and aquifer systems, will be key for adequate resource provision.
The benefits of wastewater are met with serious challenges. Safety remains a focal point as inappropriately treated wastewater can contain contaminants from faecal matter. These can persist and spread infection and disease in water supplies with drastic consequences on vulnerable populations (e.g. children under 5 years old), a major concern of the WHO. Additionally, UNESCO warns of pollutants, such as pharmaceuticals and chemicals, which can negatively impact the environment and aquatic life if improperly treated.
The financial and political challenges of wastewater will play a major role in the coming years. Though noted as a potential income source for farmers, current subsidies in many countries push farmers away from sustainable water use. Furthermore, the development of new wastewater infrastructure or retrofitting current systems stretch beyond the capacities of farmers and governments and often fall to private sectors, according to Dr. Schonberger. To overcome these financial hurdles wastewater could thus become a commercial venture and an opportunity for agricultural and private sectors to collaborate. Nevertheless, the role of government and policy change is not to be ignored as current subsidy structures must be reevaluated to channel the use of wastewater. Water pricing must also be reformed to reflect the price of environmental impacts.
The panel discussed the critical next steps of wastewater systems in the frame of impending climate change. The panel asserted that wastewater not be a ‘Band-Aid’ system in which inefficient practises continue, but work instead as a complimentary system to sustainable water innovations. For instance hydroponic systems, such as the INAPRO project developed in part by Prof. Kloas, exemplify efficient agricultural water initiatives. Wastewater could be a transitory approach to a resourceful and environmentally friendly future in which 'More Crops with Less Drops' is achievable.
To increase current wastewater use, further steps were considered including the role of education, individual consumption patterns, applicable crop varietals and the water footprints of food commodities. The virtual water footprints of livestock and crops, such as ruminants and legumes, are especially relevant to the current LRA Protein Paradoxes Project.
As Dr. Boisson stated, "Water affects us all" and we must begin to reappraise wastewater as a precious resource. To reuse recycled wastewater will be a valuable tool for food and water security in the face of a rapidly growing world population and climate change. Though not without challenges, it will prove essential and beneficial for our planet to act together to accept and treasure wastewater.