Revolutionizing Wastewater Management in the Asia-Pacific

Article | 1 April 2011

Tapping wastewater's potential

Wastewater management is imperative given the huge demand for water, limited freshwater resources, and high socioeconomic and environmental impacts of poor sanitation. Wastewater is a resource with potential benefits and financial returns.

In the Philippines, Manila Water, a private concessionaire, is planning to invest billions of pesos in sewerage and septage management coverage. This indicates that there are profits to be made while providing a wider social and environmental service.

With increasing climate variability, reusing water to help conserve existing water resources becomes an attractive alternative. Treated wastewater can also be sold to generate revenue. In Australia, retail water company City West Water implements several water reuse schemes, including toilet flushing, watering vegetable and other gardens, irrigating public open spaces, and general outdoor uses, such as car washing, construction, and washing down stock yards. In Surat, India, domestic wastewater is treated and sold for industrial use by a concessionaire. In Viet Nam, treated wastewater is used for irrigating more than 100 hectares of a coffee plantation.

To improve water quality, local governments turn to low cost decentralized wastewater treatment systems in urban poor and coastal communities, public markets and hospitals, whose treated wastewater is used for flushing toilets, watering plants, street cleaning, and even for fire fighting, resulting in monthly water bills savings. Similarly, constructed wetlands and reed beds provide low cost, sustainable treatment. In Bali, Indonesia, twelve 5-star hotels in the Nusa Dua complex are connected to a wastewater treatment system whose water is used for watering plants and gardens within the complex, within individual hotel grounds, and a golf course. The wastewater treatment system is a mini-ecosystem by itself, attracting recreational fishers, bird watchers and tourists.

Biosolids (by-products of wastewater treatment) can be used as organic soil conditioners in sugar and corn plantations, while biogas digesters connected to sanitation facilities have produced cheap energy source for lighting and cooking.

These experiences show that wastewater management and reuse is not an investment dead end.

Getting wastewater management on track

Many Asia-Pacific countries still do not consider wastewater management as a priority. Weak capacity, huge capital costs, unaffordable operating and maintenance costs, lack of awareness on impacts, and misconceptions on potential benefits, make it a low priority in policymakers' agenda. Low demand and low willingness to pay, together with lack of enabling environment, inhibit investors from this business. But there are ways to turn this situation around

Recognize the need.Sharing information on the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of inaction towards sanitation and wastewater management and the corresponding costs to society is important. Environmental sanitation makes the greatest contribution to improving health and has a pivotal role in socioeconomic development, water security, food production, and tourism.

Technologies are known and available.Every city in the region could do with some, if not major, improvement in the delivery of environmental sanitation services. The key is to select the level of service, and cost-effective technologies that are appropriate to local conditions.

Solutions will be expensive, but can be staged.Sewerage is indeed more expensive than water supply. For many Asian cities, solutions can be implemented over time, both in terms of the roll out of new sanitation systems and the upgrading of these systems to provide even greater sewage treatment.

Access to financing and recovery of costs are essential. Various financing sources and mechanisms are available. Lending terms from financial institutions can be prohibitive to local governments, but the key is developing bankable projects.

Capacity is required. Capacity in technical areas, such as sewage treatment and proper reuse should be provided, as well as, capacity for developing bankable projects, utility management, asset management, maintenance management and contract management.

Marketing sustainable sanitation

As Asia's population and economy grows, the need to collectively deal with the increasing pollution caused by poor sanitation and wastewater discharges becomes more pressing. Treatment and reuse of wastewater could relieve the pressures caused in water scarce areas. Impacts and benefits should be shown to policy-makers and those who allocate budgets. Governments at the national and local levels should focus more on providing the policy, incentives and institutional arrangements to attract more investments in wastewater management, either by the private sector or public utilities.

Effective regulation is required to ensure that public health is maintained and there are no detrimental environmental effects. Building capacity, especially at the local level, must get more attention than it does currently because it is at this level that effective solutions can be put in place. Partnership with the private sector can help address the lack of local capacity and resources, accompanied by adequate risk management measures, including clear and transparent policies and cost recovery mechanisms. Communities should be brought centre-stage to increase awareness, stimulate demand, and promote behavior change.

The bottom line is to market wastewater management and reuse as an economically and financially viable business. The key is phased development, with proper design and selection of level of service and technologies that are affordable, cost-effective, and supported by a reasonable financing mechanism.

Wastewater management revolution

Closing the sanitation gap will require concerted and collaborative efforts by local and national governments, private sector, development agencies, civil society, and communities. As a prelude to ramping up investments in sanitation and wastewater management, ADB is organizing the 2nd ADB - DMC and Partners Sanitation Dialogue: Making Sanitation a Sustainable Business on 23-25 May 2011 in Manila, Philippines. The Dialogue will focus on showing the investment opportunities in sanitation and wastewater management and actions needed to make sanitation a viable and sustainable business, and ensure accessibility and quality service delivery.

Concerned sectors - health, environment, urban development, rural development, social sector and energy - are encouraged to be active partners considering that sanitation is a cross-cutting issue. The Dialogue will provide a venue for sharing knowledge and experiences to enable partnerships that can answer the call to wastewater management revolution and sanitation for all.