Linking up Sustainable Sanitation, Water Management and Agriculture
Published on SSWM (http://www.sswm.info/)

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Linking up Sustainable Sanitation, Water Management and Agriculture

Compiled by:
Katharina Conradin (seecon international gmbh)

Water management, sanitation and agriculture are inherently linked: When we use water, for agriculture, in our homes, in industry etc, we contaminate water with different substances. Yet, what we commonly call “contaminants” can be a valuable resource in other places - e.g. as nutrients in agriculture. In that way, wastewater is not a waste, but a resource that has been misplaced. This factsheet argues that sectoral thinking and current approaches to wastewater management are the root of many other problems, amongst them a lack of water and nutrients in agriculture, insufficient yields, and health problems and environmental contamination. Only an approach that recognises wastewater as a resource can overcome these problems.

Introduction

Water resources are under increasing pressure. Population growth, urbanisation and a steep increase in water consumption for domestic uses, agriculture and industry have significantly heightened water consumption. Climate change exacerbates the problem. This development leads to water scarcity and conflicts worldwide and seriously undermines progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

 

Will there be enough water and nutrients for small-scale farmers in the future? Source: K. Conradin (2007)

Will there be enough water and nutrients for small-scale farmers in the future? Source: CONRADIN (2007)

Changing consumption patterns such as an increased demand for meat and dairy products, monoculture or the production of biofuels also require more water, and furthermore also more nutrient inputs in agriculture. In particular in development countries, where artificial fertiliser is expensive (as it is bound to world market prices), the nutrients that are taken from the soil by harvesting crops are often not replaced.  The area of degraded soil increases steadily - one quarter of the surface land of the earth are already degraded, putting the livelihoods of millions of people at risk (SCIENCE DAILY 2009).

These problems are recognised, yet we do not recognise their interdependence we continue to deal with them in a sectoral manner:

Water & Wastewater

Groundwater that is taken from aquifers and then discharged into surface waters leads to decreasing water tables, thus limiting water availability in the long term. Source: CONRADIN 2010

Groundwater that is taken from aquifers and then discharged into surface waters leads to decreasing water tables, thus limiting water availability in the long term. Source: CONRADIN (2010)

Agriculture

Nutrients that are taken from the soil in the form or plants are consumed, excreted again and discharged with wastewater into watercourses. In the long term, if they are not replaced in agriculture, this leads to decreasing yields and soil degradation. To counteract this, artificial fertiliser is mined and applied — though artificial fertilisers are energy intensive and the availability of some of the constituent parts (e.g. phosphorus) are limited (see also the nutrient cycle).

There is a linear approach to how we manage nutrients at the moment: Often, they are taken from the soil, consumed, and then discharged with wastewater in aquatic ecosystems, where they cause severe problems. Source: CONRADIN 2010.

There is a linear approach to how we manage nutrients at the moment: Often, they are taken from the soil, consumed, and then discharged with wastewater in aquatic ecosystems, where they cause severe problems. Source: CONRADIN (2010)

These sectoral approaches ignore one crucial fact: The water cycle and the nutrient cycle are inherently linked. When using water, be it for agriculture, for use in households or industries, water is contaminated and wastewater produced. Parts of this “contamination” are valuable plant nutrients. Wastewater is considered a waste, because of the many negative consequences it has on health and the environment it discharged in an uncontrolled manner into the environment. Yet: they need not be. Wastewater is not a waste: It is simply a misplaced resource. If we deal with it properly, it is a highly valuable resource!

Wastewater is a resource in the following ways:

 

The benefits of wastewater can only be used if we consider agriculture, water management and sanitation together:

SEECON 2010 SSWM Loop

The SSWM Cycle. Source: SEECON (2010)

 

Such an approach to water management — linking water management, sanitation, and agriculture — is a crucial step to sustainability: 

References

CORCORAN, E. (Editor); NELLEMANN, C. (Editor); BAKER, E. (Editor); BOS, R. (Editor); OSBORN, D. (Editor); SAVELLI, H. (Editor) (2010): Sick Water? The central role of wastewater management in sustainable development. A Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UN-HABITAT, GRID-Arendal. URL [Accessed: 05.05.2010].

SCIENCE DAILY (2009): One Quarter Of The World’s Population Depends On Degrading Land. In: Science Daily, Mar 27, 2009. URL [Accessed: 26.08.2010].

For further readings, case studies, awareness raising material, training material, important weblinks or the related powerpoint presentation, see www.sswm.info/category/concept/linking-sustainable-sanitation-water-management-and-agriculture