Without water, there would be no life on our planet. A human being can survive without food or nutrition for months, but without clean, fresh water for only a couple of days. Lack of clean, fresh water is a worldwide disaster that already affects billions of people. Wastewater, on a global level, accounts for seven percent (7%) 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 2019; HSY 2019).
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. 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 2019).
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 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 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 was brought up again by media in Finland and acts as a reference case.
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. Moreover, 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, 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. Unless resolved, it is a vicious circle leading to both environmental and health problems. 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 is 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.
If and when we know how harmful it is to both animals, the environment, and human beings to use contaminated water, then why do we allow this to continue on a global scale?
According to the Finnish Red Cross, every single hour 33 children worldwide die due to lack of fresh, clean water. That makes 792 dead children every day. 289.080 unnecessary deaths every year, only due to the lack of clean and fresh water. If we managed our freshwater resources better, this could all be avoided. For instance, the Red Cross distributes 500.000 litres of clean water every day at the Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria, a country that has suffered severely from a war that has been going on for more than eight (8) years by now. Some sources claim that the origin of the Syrian war can be traced back to climate change issues, and environmental problems.
Freshwater is also a basic human right, which should not be privatized or seen as a luxury product available only for the privileged. Why then, is for instance India facing its worst freshwater crisis ever? Where people living in slums hardly get any clean water and if they do, it is a constant battle. In countries like Tadzhikistan, where people depend on freshwater from the mountain glaciers, the battle for access to clean water is equally hard. These people can spend the vast majority of their days just to find clean water since they lack the resources to build even the simplest engineered systems to bring them some of the clean freshwater melting from the glaciers. The 21st century will be significant in the history of homo sapiens in terms of (the lack of) clean freshwater. In the Middle East, an effort to tackle the lack of freshwater is to import an entire iceberg from Antarctica. Can we afford to experiment with the environment and nature this way? Time will tell, and until then let us find out intelligent ways to solve the freshwater crisis, starting with (improved) wastewater management practices.
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