Clean water is essential for human health, economic and social development. Wastewater discharge policies and practices are a key element of this, with societies needing to effectively treat raw sewage, agricultural runoff and industrial water discharge so that water can be returned to the cycle with a limited impact on the environment. Increased urbanization and population growth worldwide has created challenges when it comes to wastewater management. Currently, 80% of global wastewater flows back into the system untreated and many areas lack the legislation needed to ensure safe management of water supplies.
Legislative Differences Between Countries and Regions
Wastewater discharge policies vary greatly across the globe. Management of wastewater operates at three levels. Globally, organisations such as the UN and the WHO issue guidelines and goals for treatment of discharge. Legislation falls to either regional or national bodies.
The differences in wastewater legislation worldwide are largely reflected in the economic and infrastructural capacities of different countries and regions. For example, countries in Europe and North America have fairly robust regulatory standards. The EU Drinking Water Directive, updated in December 2020, states that 48 microbiological and chemical parameters must be regularly tested in member states. The US has had a Clean Water Act in place since 1972 regulating discharge, while countries such as China and Japan also have firm policies in place that are updated regularly.
By contrast, legislation in some developing countries is minimal and sometimes non-existent. The UN World Water Development Report 2017 focused on wastewater and highlighted how countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific Region in particular lacked sufficient regulatory frameworks.
The Effects of Legislation on Water Discharge Practices
The regulatory standards correlate strongly with wastewater discharge performance. Around 30% of untreated wastewater returns to the system in high-income nations, with this figure rising to 92% in low-income states. Aquastat maintains a database on individual country performance in areas such as amount of untreated wastewater discharged and number of municipal wastewater facilities.
Without sufficient rules or penalties in place, there is less incentive to implement the necessary practices and procedures to reduce pollution levels. This can be at national level in the absence of any binding regional framework, filtering down to municipal and company level if national legislation is not in place.
Why Some Countries Lag Behind in Terms of Legislation
There are a number of reasons for nations not having sufficient regulatory standards in place. First, there is a lack of state infrastructure in place in many low-income countries. The UN wastewater report identified governance problems such as lack of effective policy institutions, poor enforcement and corruption. The legislative shortfalls are therefore part of an overall problem concerning regulations and enforcement across the board.
Second, there are the issues of lack of financial investment and technological development in wastewater treatment which to an extent make discussions on regulatory improvements a moot point. Investments in treatment facilities have lagged behind the speedy growth of population and urbanization. Even if legislation was improved, there is insufficient technological infrastructure to ensure that rules are adhered to in many areas. Because of this, there is a lack of sufficient will to put the necessary rules in place.
Finally, it comes down to competing priorities. In countries dealing with problems such as widescale poverty, food insecurity or ongoing conflict, putting through wastewater discharge legislation tends to get nudged down the list.
What Can be Done?
There are efforts to improve the worldwide wastewater treatment situation, especially in the poorest countries. The UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on achieving sustainable water management and sanitation worldwide by 2030 includes a commitment to halving the proportion of untreated wastewater globally. However, it doesn’t mention legislation among its targets and indicators. But perhaps the best way forward is not to rely on top-down policies at national and supra-national level and instead focus on more decentralized bottom-up approaches that improve general standards in the absence of legislative frameworks.
These can include using technological innovations to not only treat but reuse wastewater to create a more sustainable water supply, as has happened in cities such as Manila, Kampala and Chennai. The great advantage of decentralizing water management is it allows for greater community involvement as well as that of water specialists in the private sector.
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