Among the most urgent conces for the future is to have enough water to sustain a human population projected to reach 9.6 billion people by 2050.[1] The UN Millennium Development Goals recognize that access to water and sanitation is essential to economic development and poverty alleviation.

However, global consumption pattes indicate that we are becoming more water profligate, and the waste that pollutes water supplies generally remains an unmitigated hazard. According to some estimates, 70 percent of drinking water in India is contaminated by sewage, which is a significant impediment to equitable development that occurs in many lower-income countries.[3] The UN estimated that if water consumption trends continue unabated, 1.8 billion people will experience water shortages as soon as 2025.[4] Among solutions with great potential are the development and deployment of technologies that use wastewater as a resource, which can generate incentives for industries and municipalities to treat waste that is otherwise discharged into vital waterways.

Read a 3-part Breaking Energy series on wastewater recycling in the oil and gas industry here.

Effective wastewater management can grow an economy and protect the environment. The World Bank estimates that infrastructure for sanitation can reward investment fivefold, whereas poor sanitation can drain up to seven percent of GDP each year.[5] That is because healthcare costs are lower and labor is more productive when workers are healthy. Pursuit of prudent strategies for water management will be more active if we recognize the resource potential of wastewater, which is a powerful opportunity for sustainable economic development and growth.[6] Wastewater treatment is a desirable process for mitigating the hazards of agricultural, industrial, and municipal by-products. However, investors are wary to finance water infrastructure projects demanding high upfront costs and long development periods. That is why multi-billion dollar wastewater treatment facilities are a privilege enjoyed mainly in developed economies and advanced regions in poorer countries. A UN study articulates this disparity; on average, high-income countries treat 70 percent of generated wastewater (North America treats 75 percent, or 61 km3 of wastewater annually), while low-income countries treat only 8 percent of generated wastewater.[7] Because of projections for impending water scarcity, govements in water-poor regions are investing in technologies for desalination and water purification, but their impact will be limited to too few people and they fail to address water pollution more fully.[8]

There are novel strategies for taking advantage of the resource potential of wastewater that can simultaneously generate marketable assets while diverting effluent from water supplies. Partially treated wastewater can be coolant for electric power plants; each year 26 billion gallons of “sullage” cool the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona.[9] Biogas generated in anaerobic digesters can be used for power generation and heating; the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in New York has a 310 million gallon per day capacity, and sells enough natural gas to heat 2,500 to 5,200 homes each year.[10] Assuming that govements will be challenged for resources to address increasingly frequent and difficult wastewater problems, market mechanisms will prove more effective to stimulate solutions for capturing and utilizing wastewater.

The most promising and potentially profitable strategy for wastewater management is to utilize it in processes for algae biomass production. Stimulated by the necessity for clean water and renewable energy, several firms operate plants that combine wastewater treatment with biomass production. Earlier processes for separating energy dense lipids from algae were too energy-intensive to qualify as cost-competitive or cleaner alteatives to fossil fuels. The breakthrough innovation distinguishing the new generation of plants is that they produce various products (fuel, clean water, fertilizer) and combine several utilities, which allows these hybrid facilities to generate revenue in an efficient, resourceful, and eco-friendly manner.[11]

Despite the urgency of water sanitation issues among public health experts, dirty water is not effectively controlled by policies and regulations alone. Market-based approaches recognize problems and exploit opportunities for solutions that generate wealth, which is why there are excellent prospects for the development of wastewater resources for energy. The potential solutions above-mentioned address pressing conces, and that is why economic development in the future will be more resourceful and sensitive to its synergies with vital food, water, and energy.

Hsueh-min Patrick Hung is an M.S. student at the NYU Center for Global Affairs, where he studies inteational development, energy, and the environment. Prior to graduate school, he was an Oberlin Shansi Fellow in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.