Re-purposing waste water to combat water scarcity

Wastewater offers an alternative and readily available, though unconventional, source of water for irrigation in Egypt. In collaboration with national partners, and with funding from the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), ICARDA investigated the potential use of wastewater in the Nile Delta as the area faces severe water scarcity, which only promises to worsen with climate change.

Using wastewater — whether treated, partially so, or untreated — is a common practice throughout the world. In Egypt, agricultural drainage creates the largest amount of wastewater, much of which is untreated or only partially treated as it comes from industry sources or even wastewater treatment plants. All of this then mixes into drain water, which gets pumped back into irrigation canals and creates potentially harmful conditions for humans and the environment alike.

Treated wastewater, however, is considered an undervalued and underused resource for the region. Egypt creates about 5 billion m3 of raw sewage daily, thus creating a readily available supply that can be treated and used for groundwater recharges of aquifers, and agricultural irrigation. However, implementation of the technology faces both economic and cultural barriers. The technology is impossibly expensive for the average rural household or small farmer. Additionally, uptake of the idea has been difficult because communities can be wary of health and sanitation concerns.

Because women and children take on the duties that most closely put them in contact with wastewater, the study incorporated gender-disaggregated data that parsed out perceptions of using wastewater for agricultural and non-agricultural purposes, and the actual use of such water. The project also sought to improve awareness for stakeholders, including farmers and other decision makers, about using untreated wastewater, how to manage its use, and discuss re-use options and investment decisions.