Wastewater, on a global level, accounts for seven per cent of all anthropogenic methane emissions. Not only is wastewater emitting large amounts of methane, but does contain many kinds of contaminants, bacteria and chemicals such as phosphorus and nitrogen nutrients, harmful for both our environment and for human beings. (Global Methane Initiative 2010; Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority HSY 2017).
The European Union ́s water frame directive defines the minimum level of wastewater treatment in the European Union member states, including Finland. Finland, however, has its own stricter wastewater treatment regulation based upon Finnish legislation. (Viikinmäki wastewater treatment plant 2017). In fact, Finland as a country ranks as having some of the cleanest waters worldwide: tap water is clean and safe to drink, since wastewater treatment uses advanced technologies allowing for wastewater treatment plants in Finland to process wastewater removing up to 95% of chemicals throughout the treatment process. For instance in Finland, dirt is being transformed into biogas and soil. (Viikinmäki wastewater treatment plant 2017).
Why then, does wastewater treatment matter? Why is it important to purify both household and industrial water? If wastewater is not being treated, i.e. purified, it causes horrible odors. However, this is probably the smallest of all problems involved with dirty water, which unless treated, contains bacteria, chemicals and (other) toxins harmful both to our environment and to human health. Despite of having some of the cleanest water and best water treatment facilities worldwide, Finland also experienced a water contamination crisis in Nokia in 2007. Through a single human mistake, hundreds of thousands of liters of wastewater at Nokia´s water treatment plant ended up mixed with purified water. Since the mistake was not immediately noticed, and communication failed, thousands of Nokia inhabitants ended up drinking the contaminated water and got sick – some for months, others still today have to deal with health problems that can be traced back to them having drunk this contaminated water. The Nokia case led to improvements not only in crisis communication throughout Finland´s municipalities, but also to all wastewater treatment plants in Finland being checked for any possible leakages and other risks. A decade after the Nokia contaminated water crisis the case has been brought up again by media in Finland this year. (Spiegel Online 2008; University of Helsinki; YLE: Follow-Up Study on Nokia Water Crisis).
Wastewater treatment is important both for the environment and for human health. The FAO states that wastewater treatment is necessary in order to avoid both environmental and health risks, and identifies the need for some degree of wastewater treatment before considering the usage of raw municipal wastewater to aquaculture, agriculture or landscape irrigation. In other words, dirty water should not be used directly anywhere. (FAO Corporate Document Repository – 3. Wastewater treatment). The Global Methane Initiative states that anaerobic decomposition of organic material during the treatment of wastewater leads to methane emissions. Furthermore, in countries with less advanced technologies for wastewater treatment, methane emissions from wastewater are higher. (Global Methane Initiative. Municipal Wastewater Methane: Reducing Emissions, Advancing Recovery and Use Opportunities).
The United Nations identifies that the majority of human activity involving water also produces wastewater, followed by the fact that most wastewater worldwide is being released into our environment without any kind of treatment, with an exception to most highly developed countries. In its World Water Development Report 2017, the UN presents wastewater as an untapped resource, whereby wastewater treatment worldwide is necessary to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
In the World Water Development Report 2017, the UN discusses the various aspects directly related to wastewater and its treatment, including general governance, technical aspects of wastewater, wastewater in municipalities and urban areas, wastewater from industry, agriculture and in various ecosystems, followed by wastewater by geographical region. As a conclusion, the UN suggests several response options in terms of wastewater management.
In a world with continuously growing demands for freshwater, it is simultaneously becoming an increasingly much scarce resource. Billions of people worldwide also lack access to clean water. It is a vicious circle leading to both environmental and health problems, unless resolved. The UN sees the potential for both business and sustainable development through wastewater management/treatment. (The United Nations World Water Development Report 2017).
The OECD (2015), Environment at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264235199-en highlights countries that have managed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, improved waste and water management processes, and have a higher usage of renewable energy sources. In this report, the OECD states how significant freshwater resources are both on social and economic levels, and for the environment. It also identifies that overall water quality is impacted by water abstraction, anthropogenic pollution loads, climate, and weather.
With majority of wastewater worldwide neither being collected, nor treated, the vast majority of the world population are exposed to wastewater. Moreover, at least 2/3 of world population live in areas where they are faced with water scarcity for at least one month each year. When wastewater is being directly dumped into the environment without any treatment, this only worsens the water scarcity that already affects much of the world ‘s population. (The United Nations World Water Development Report 2017).
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