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Gardening & Agriculture gardening   agriculture General

Wastewater farming – a forced risk that could become a solution

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by: Ariana M
wastewater farming   a forced risk that could become a solution

It is no secret that world’s population has grown very rapidly in the past decades. This has put a lot of pressure on natural resources, especially when it comes to the most important one of them all – water. With it becoming more and more scarce, we are now turning to reusing waste water and for some farming communities it has become the only solution – but it is much more dangerous than they realise.

Naturally, nobody would want to drink waste water and yet it seems like less of a concern when it comes to watering our plants with it. It is true that wastewater can provide plants with important nutrients and act as a natural fertiliser, however when untreated it can also introduce heavy metals, organic contaminants, pathogens or antibiotic-resistant bacteria into our food. So why do some communities still take the risk of using it?

The answer is very simple – untreated wastewater is free. In some areas this is the only way a farmer can afford irrigation, while in others it is simply a way of increasing profits. According to the World Health Organisation nearly 10% of the world’s population relies on food grown on waste water, but in reality the true extent of the problem is unknown due to lack of regulations and checks in some developing countries.

waste water pipes

How untreated wastewater farming puts everyone at risk

The Mezquital Valley in Mexico is a textbook example of the problem. Lack of appropriate water treatment facilities and rapid expansion of Mexico City has forced local farmers to use untreated wastewater for irrigation. High prices of pre-treated water made unsafe practices the only way that produce could be grown at a low cost.

Affordable produce came at a very high price – it cost the population their health. Mezquital Valley has the highest incidence of kidney cancer in the region, as well as very high rates of helminith and severe gastrointestinal diseases. As using untreated waste water has been practiced in this region for more than a 100 years, many generations of locals were affected and it is likely that future generations will be affected as well.

A controversial solution

Luckily, the government has recognized the issue and a new water treatment plant called Atotonilco plant has been in the works since 2010. It is expected to be able to provide enough water for irrigation of 80,000 hectares of land.

While many see this as a great step forward, there are some that don’t want to see this project finished – the farmers themselves. Switching to treated water would require them to switch to using fertilizers and agrochemicals, which will increase costs. Many farmers are concerned that they will not be able to sustain these additional costs and would thus have to quit the trade that has been passed down in their family for many generations. Most of them also downplay the risks of using untreated water, claiming that their families haven’t suffered from it – in fact, some wash their hands with that water before eating. This is a conflict that will be hard to resolve in a way that would leave both sides of it happy – the farmers want to see no reduction in the amount of water they get or how much organic material it contains, while the government wants to see a drastic improvement in water quality.

Is there still hope?

Unfortunately, experience has shown that even the latest technology does not eliminate all of the risks of using wastewater. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria and other pollutants can still find ways to pass through these treatment systems and pose a serious thread to human health. This can make developing countries less likely to invest in plants such as the Atotonilco one as they are incredibly costly (according to the company behind the plant’s contruction, it has required an investment of more than 560 million euros so far, which is nearly 650 million USD) and their limitations might seem insufficient by some.

World Health Organisation has been campaigning for safer waste water use in farming for many decades and various solutions are being developed for low-income countries. They work with experts across various industries to define safe practice guidelines and offer low-cost options that, while imperfect, will reduce health risks for both farmers and locals.

Mezquital Valley’s situation has illustrated that we cannot avoid using wastewater for farming and that more needs to be done to make it safer. New technology, governmental regulations and policies and educating communities about risks are all needed for us to be sustainable without risking more in the process.

Have you heard of other communities affected by using untreated wastewater for farming? What other steps do you think can be taken to make the practice safer for everyone? We would love to hear your opinion in the comments!

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