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Wastewater A Resource that Can Pay Dividends for People, the Environment, and Economies

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The world’s wastewater – 80 percent of which is released into the environment without adequate treatment – is a valuable resource from which clean water, energy, nutrients, and other resources can be recovered, according to a World Bank report released today to mark World Water Day.

The report, Wastewater: From Waste to Resource, calls for smarter wastewater management, including reuse and resource recovery, and looks at wastewater projects around the world which have paid dividends for people, the environment, and economies in the short and long-term.

Efficiently investing in wastewater and other sanitation infrastructure is crucial to achieve public health benefits, improve the environment, and enhance quality of life. Safely managed water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services are an essential part of preventing disease and protecting human health during infectious disease outbreaks, including the current COVID-19 pandemic.

At a time when 36 percent of the world’s population lives in water-scarce regions, wastewater treatment for reuse is part of the solution to water scarcity and pollution problems,” said Jennifer Sara, Global Director, World Bank Water Global Practice. “Once treated, it can be used to replace freshwater for irrigation, industrial processes, or recreational purposes. It can also be used to maintain the environmental flow and by-products from its treatment can generate energy and nutrients.”

Wastewater treatment offers a double value proposition, the report says. In addition to environmental and health benefits, wastewater treatment can bring economic benefits through reuse in different sectors. Its by-products, such as nutrients and biogas, can be used for agriculture and energy generation. And additional revenues generated from this process can help cover water utilities’ operational and maintenance costs.

In this sense, wastewater should not be considered a ‘waste’ anymore, but a resource. This is at the core of a circular economy, an economic system aimed at minimizing waste and making the most of resources. As cities continue to grow, future urban development requires approaches that minimize resource consumption and focus on resource recovery, following principles of the so-called circular economy,” said Diego Juan Rodriguez, the report’s author and a Senior Water Resources Management Specialist at the World Bank. “One of the key advantages of adopting circular economy principles in wastewater management is that resource recovery and reuse could transform sanitation from a costly service to one that is self-sustaining and adds value to the economy. This will help countries bridge the funding gap in sanitation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”

The report casts a light on wastewater management experiences in the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region, which are already reaping benefits. For example:

By using treated wastewater instead of groundwater, the San Luis Potosi power plant in Mexico cut costs by 33 percent, leading to US$18 million in savings over six years for the power utility. For the water utility, the additional revenue from selling treated wastewater helped cover operations and maintenance costs.

A wastewater treatment plant in Cusco, Peru, saves US$230,000 a year in transporting biosolids (nutrient-rich organic materials resulting from the treatment of domestic sewage in a wastewater treatment facility) and landfill fees due to an agreement with the local compost producer. The compost produced with the plant’s biosolids is then used as part of the water management project to preserve the Piuray Lake.

The Brazil-based CAESB water and wastewater utility’s use of biosolids for corn production led to higher-than-average grain yields and was 21 percent more efficient than mineral fertilizers.

The operator of the La Farfana wastewater treatment plant in Santiago, Chile, after investing US$2.7 million to retrofit the plant, was able to sell biogas, accounting for an annual net profit of US$1 million for the business.

The report recommends incorporating wastewater interventions as part of river basin planning, and pairing them with policies, institutions and regulations that foster this paradigm shift. Wastewater treatment plants need to be gradually repurposed as water resource recovery facilities, while also exploring and supporting innovative financing and sustainable business models that leverage the potential revenue streams of resource recovery from wastewater.

Only 30 to 40 percent of the LAC region’s collected wastewater is treated, resulting in negative impacts on both human health and the environment.

The report shows what’s possible when governments at all levels apply circular economy principles to their wastewater challenges. For example, in the city of La Paz, Bolivia, the national and municipal governments, as well as the water utility, with support from the World Bank and other development partners, are working together to incorporate circular economy principles in the design of the La Paz wastewater treatment plant. The goal is to address water pollution and public health issues caused by low levels of wastewater treatment and unregulated use in agriculture.

We are happy to see that the necessary transformation is well under way – wastewater policies in many countries already include reuse and resource recovery, and we hope more countries will follow suit. Countries need to scale up action,” said Rodriguez.

The report was funded in part by the Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership (GWSP) and the Public-Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility (PPIAF).

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COVID-19 crisis highlights widening regional disparities in healthcare and the economy

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The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on people and economies has highlighted widening regional disparities in access to healthcare and economic growth and persistent disparities in digitalisation over the past decade, according to a new OECD report.

Regions and Cities at a Glance 2020 says that at the onset of the pandemic, some regions were less well prepared to face the health emergency. With 10 beds for every 1000 inhabitants, regions close to metropolitan areas have almost twice as many beds as remote regions. Over the last decades, most regions in OECD countries have seen a significant reduction in the number of hospital beds available per inhabitant, with an average decline of 6% since 2000 and of 22% in remote areas.

The health impact of COVID-19 has been particularly hard in some areas within countries. For example, in some regions of Colombia, Italy and Spain, the number of deaths between February and June 2020 was at least 50% higher than the average over the same period in the 2 previous years.

Morbidity rates that make some places more vulnerable to health crises than others also vary widely. In some regions in Mexico, Chile and the United States, close to 40% or more of the population is obese, posing a higher risk in terms of fatal diseases. For example, due to higher obesity levels, in Mississippi the average likelihood to suffer severe symptoms if infected with COVID-19 is roughly 23% higher than in Colorado.

People living in large cities and capitals were also more able to quickly shift to remote working. Many rural areas still suffer from a lack of access to high-speed broadband, a lower share of jobs amenable to remote working and a less well-educated workforce. One in three households in rural areas does not have access to high-speed broadband, on average. Overall, only 7 out of 26 countries have succeeded in ensuring access to high-speed connection to more than 80% of households in rural regions. And in some regions in Italy, Portugal and Turkey, 25% or more of the population does not use the Internet or does not have a computer.

Some regions were also struggling economically before the crisis. After a period of decline in the early 2000s, gaps in GDP per capita across small regions in the OECD area have increased, reflecting a long-standing process of concentration of population and economic activities in metropolitan areas.

The evolution of regional economic disparities remains very heterogeneous across countries. Contrary to the OECD-wide trend, one-half of OECD countries experienced an increase in the gap between their richest and poorest regions. Trends in regional productivity follow similar patterns. Since 2008, only one-third of OECD countries have experienced an increase in productivity in all regions.

With more than 100 indicators, Regions and Cities at a Glance 2020 combines official statistics with new, modelled indicators based on less conventional data sources, analysing trends in health, well-being, economic growth, employment and the environment, as well as regions and cities’ preparedness to face global crises and adapt to megatrends.

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Cash flow the biggest problem facing business during COVID-19 crisis

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A new report  on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic  on businesses shows that their greatest challenges have been insufficient cash flow to maintain staff and operations, supplier disruptions and access to raw materials.

With businesses already undergoing significant competitive pressure prior to the crisis, government restrictions, health challenges and the economic fall-out brought by COVID-19 further set back many enterprises.

Interrupted cash flow was the greatest problem, the survey found. More than 85 per cent reported the pandemic had a high or medium financial impact on their operations. Only a third said they had sufficient funding for recovery. Micro and small enterprises (those with 99 employees or fewer) were worst affected.

The survey, carried out by Employers and Business Membership Organizations (EBMOs), involved more than 4,500 enterprises in 45 countries worldwide. EBMOs gathered data from their enterprise members between March and June 2020. The businesses were asked about operational continuity, financial health, and their workforce.

At that time, 78 per cent of those surveyed reported that they had changed their operations to protect them from COVID-19, but three-quarters were able to continue operating in some form despite measures arising from government restrictions. Eighty-five per cent had already implemented measures to protect staff from the virus.

Nearly 80 per cent said they planned to retain their staff – larger companies were more likely to say this. However, around a quarter reported that they anticipated losing more than 40 per cent of their staff.

Looking into the future, preparing for unforeseen circumstances and mitigating risks associated with a disruption of business operations is needed. Fewer than half the enterprises surveyed had a business continuity plan (BCP) when the pandemic hit, with micro and small businesses the least likely to have made such preparations. Additionally, only 26 per cent of the enterprises who responded said they were fully insured and 54 per cent had no coverage at all. Medium-sized enterprises, (those with 100 to 250 employees), were most likely to have full or partial coverage.

Strengthening government support measures for enterprises are also vital for their recovery. Four out of ten enterprises said they had no funding to support business recovery while two-thirds said funding was insufficient. Of the sectors analysed, the tourism and hospitality sector, followed by retail and sales, were most likely to report funding issues.

The report production was facilitated by EBMOs who collected and shared the survey data with the Bureau for Employers’ Activities  (ACT/EMP) at the International Labour Organization. ACT/EMP is a specialized unit within the ILO Secretariat that maintains close and direct relations with employers’ constituents.

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Lithuania: COVID-19 crisis reinforces the need for reforms to drive growth and reduce inequality

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Effective containment measures, a well-functioning health system and swift public support to firms and households have helped Lithuania to weather the COVID-19 crisis to date. That said, the pandemic still carries significant economic risks, and the recent upsurge in infections is very concerning. Once a recovery is under way, Lithuania should aim to reform public companies, strengthen public finances, and ensure that growth benefits all people and regions, according to a new OECD report. 

The OECD’s latest Economic Survey of Lithuania says that prior to COVID-19, good economic management and an investment-friendly business climate were helping to lift average Lithuanian incomes closer to advanced country levels. While the recession provoked by the virus has been milder than elsewhere – with GDP projected to drop by 2% in 2020 before rebounding by 2.7% in 2021 – Lithuania’s small and open economy will be vulnerable to any prolonged disruption to world trade. Increasing public investment and improving governance at state-owned enterprises could help lift growth and productivity. Other reforms should focus on improving the effectiveness of spending and taxation. Over the longer term, Lithuania should establish a clear debt reduction path and a long-term debt target.

“Lithuania’s sound economic management of recent years, and its swift response to both the health and economic aspects of the pandemic, are helping the country to weather the COVID-19 crisis,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “It is now key to build on these achievements and restart the reform engine to ensure robust, sustainable and inclusive growth for the future.”

The pandemic has exposed high levels of income inequality in Lithuania, where relative poverty is high among the unemployed, the less educated, single parents and older people due to a tax-benefit system that is insufficiently redistributive. The Survey recommends Lithuania to continue providing temporary support to people and businesses hit by COVID-19, as well as to increase regular social support while retaining incentives to work.

In terms of support to the economy, the Survey notes that while Lithuania’s government spending has increased considerably over the past two years, it remains below the OECD average. Public investment also remains low. Given the importance of modernising infrastructure and stimulating crisis-hit demand, the Survey recommends maintaining or increasing current levels of investment and improving investment quality by carrying out rigorous cost-benefit analysis for individual projects. Increasing investment in rural areas, and giving local government more say in tax policy and spending, could help reduce regional disparities and promote inclusive growth.

The Survey also recommends phasing out environmentally damaging fossil fuel subsidies and increasing environmental taxation, which would benefit public finances while helping the shift to a lower-carbon economy.

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