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Chapter 7 - Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources


This Chapter of the course will explore water resources in the context of sustainbility. It will begin with an overview of water resources including the types of water resources, their relationships, and global distribution; and key concepts in understanding their value as an ecosystem service and a managed resource in sustainable development. The major water issues confronting the US and the nations of the world, including climate change; drought; water wars; water demands; and development pressure such as agricultural irrigation will be analyzed for their relationship to sustainability. We will analyze major water quality and environmental concerns, and the linkage of water and disease. The "cost" of water will be examined in a discussion of resource economics. Sustainable practices for water planning and management will be examined using case studies.


Chapter Parts

Chapter 7 - Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources, Part 1 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 7 - Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources

Part 1 - US and Global Water Resources

Water is the lifeblood of the Earth. The future of water is the future of life of on the planet. Global demands on the resource including increasing population, pollution, and impacts of climate change portend a water future much different from our water past. Many areas of the globe, such as the communities surviving on glacial melt of the Andes in South America, and the population centers of Western Australia are already coping with this new reality. As the Earth changes, so too will the challenge to humanity. Peak water is a looming threat, or a present reality, for many centers of human population across the world. Change in the hydrological cycle, or consumption beyond rates of recharge, can create a crisis for survival, enhancing the potential for geopolitical conflict. Increasing human demands on the resource will challenge aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in a system of coupled dynamics that is the hydrological cycle.

In addition, the distribution, quality, and quantity of water resources is sensitive to temperature, as well as precipitation changes. Thus, climate change will be a major force in the future of water resources on Earth, shifting supply and changing weather patterns that dominate hydrosphere dynamics. While climate change won’t necessarily reduce the amount of water available, it will change how the water is distributed. For instance, according to a 2011 analysis, the 15% of the world’s population that relies on runoff from glacial melt, may experience a water crisis once the glaciers have all but melted away, while the 1.5 billion people across the globe that draw their water from aquifers may see a surplus from heavier rainfalls due to a changing climate (International Debates, Jan 2011, Vol. 9 Issue 1, p7-10, 4p).

In the totality, our water may be sufficient for now, but the long-term sustainability of this resource is clouded. Freshwater resources are limited in supply and not readily available worldwide; they are easily polluted, and often not found in the areas where the need is greatest. With over one billion people worldwide already without access to clean water, and with an ever-increasing population, demand will most likely grow in the future. Sustainable development, smarter water use, pollution controls, and advancing our water reuse and recycling capabilities will become crucial in determining how we face the challenges ahead. Ultimately, our water future will rise or fall on the efforts we make to sustainably use and manage this most valuable of resources.  



Suggested Reading

  1. Water in a Changing World, 3rd UN World Water Development Report, 2009. Overview of Key Messages. 10 pp.


Photo credit: Ferdinand Reus, 2008

Chapter 7 - Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources, Part 2 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 7 - Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources

Part 2 - Water Related Disease

Much of the world suffers from the negative effects that unsafe drinking water produces. With a combination of waterborne diseases, water-washed diseases, water-based diseases, and water vector diseases, the public health risks associated with unclean drinking and wash water are varied and often life threatening. Providing clean water for those who do not have it has been a major challenge throughout the past century. It is a challenge that will continue into our future, particularly as water becomes more scarce in some water stressed areas due to climatic variation — including the impacts of climate change, regional or trans-boundary water disruptions, water wars, and drinking water supply contamination.  

New approaches to water supply management and education, sanitation, and water-borne disease prevention and management, will advance, as the successes of the recent past and present are effectively translated, modified and implemented in all of the areas of great need. The loss of life and the loss of health due to water related disease is preventable, and in that prevention there is the hope for many. 

Education and responsible community behaviors, such as total sanitation, will yield public health benefits while enhancing access to clean water.  New science and appropriate technology to treat water will also advance safe drinking water. New strategies to combat and treat malaria are the focus of a significant ongoing research effort with integrated pest management and translational approaches to tropical medicine.  

In 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights wrote: “Water is fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a healthy life in human dignity.  It is a pre-requisite to the realization of all other human rights.” (United Nations Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, 2002)


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Suggested Reading

  1. Sustainable Control of Water-Related Infectious Diseases: A Review and Proposal for Interdisciplinary Health-Based Systems Research (2009). Batterman S,  Eisenberg J,  Hardin R,  Kruk ME,  Lemos MC,  et al. Environ Health Perspect 117(7): doi:10.1289/ehp.0800423 pp. 1-10. Open access.

(Photo credit: Centers for Disease Control, CDC)

Chapter 7 - Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources, Part 3 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 7 - Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources

Part 3 - Wastewater Treatment in Developed Countries

nonpotable water signThe water that we use in our homes and industries is one of the major waste streams of human civilization. In the United States there are over 16,000 wastewater treatment facilities. Large cities can produce over 100 million gallons of wastewater in a single day.

There are new concerns and new approaches about the water that we use and flush down our drains. Emerging classes of trace contaminants like hormonally active substances and pharmaceutical residues from human and veterinary use, are now routinely detected in untreated and treated wastewater, and there are increasing observations of these bioactive compounds in natural waters and wildlife.
New approaches to emerging contaminant removal, pathogen disinfection, and the enhanced harvesting of wastewater phosphorous for global agriculture facing a peak phosphorus supply, are on the near-term horizon. 

Enhanced programs for water reuse and recycling are becoming more common in water stressed environments like the arid southwestern US. Moving beyond the loaded description of “toilet to tap,” the recycling of water in areas of limited or diminishing water resources is increasingly the only option for sustainable development.

In developed and developing countries, effective wastewater treatment is a pillar of our civilization, and a hallmark of sustainability. It is perhaps unfortunate that we have come to call this wastewater, and not something like recyclable water, or reusable water. The harvest of this fundamental water resource will no doubt become increasingly important in many areas where growth and development outstrips a plentiful water supply.

Our future water sustainability is critically linked to our sustained development of the infrastructure and advances in technology that make this water harvest possible, while sustaining environmental quality. Water conservation, reuse, and recycling is a vital part of our present and our future.

Our responsibility for sustainable water does not stop with a simple flush.

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Suggested Reading

  1. Sustainability. Zhou, J.P., Erdal, Z.K., McCreanor, P.T., Montalto, F. (2010) Water Environment Research. Vol 81, Issue 10, pp. 1376-1389. DOI 10.2175/106143010X12756668801293


(Photo credit: Greg Möller)

Chapter 7 - Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources, Part 4 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 7 - Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources

Part 4 - Sanitation Challenges and Approaches in Developing Countries

There is a global crisis of inadequate sanitation and water-borne disease, especially in the developing world. According to the World Health Organization about 40% of the world's population, 2.6 billion people, lack safe sanitation. Sustainable sanitary practice and infrastructure is lacking in many areas, and this challenge is coupled with increasing population density and poverty. Open defecation (OD) is common in these areas. Human and animal waste-contaminated surface water and groundwater accessed by wells used for drinking water and irrigation of crops, is a primary vector of contagion.

Mitigation in the form of community-led total sanitation (CLTS) is an approach that has gained wide acceptance. According to the Handbook on Community-Led Total Sanitation (Kar and Chambers, 2008), CLTS "is an integrated approach to achieving and sustaining open defecation free (ODF) status. CLTS entails the facilitation of the community's analysis of their sanitation profile, their practices of defecation and the consequences, leading to collective action to become ODF." "CLTS processes can precede and lead on to, or occur simultaneously with, improvement of latrine design; the adoption and improvement of hygienic practices; solid waste management; waste water disposal; care; protection and maintenance of drinking water sources; and other environmental measures." CLTS advances the development of latrines and toilets. "A latrine is typically a direct pit, and a toilet is typically an arrangement with a water seal." "OD means open defecation – defecating in the open and leaving the stuff exposed. ODF means open defecation free, that is, when no faeces are openly exposed to the air. A direct pit latrine with no lid is a form of open defecation (fixed point open defecation), but with a fly-proof lid (with or without the use of ash to cover the faeces after defecation) qualifies as ODF. Defecating into a trench and covering the faeces can be part of the transition from OD to ODF."

An analysis of Socio-cultural barriers and triggers to total sanitation in West Africa (WaterAid, 2009), reported that "(i)n 2006, 28 percent of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa (or 221 million people) practised open defecation. In the four focus countries of this study — Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, and Nigeria — significant proportions of the population lack access to improved sanitation, and many rural communities practice open defecation." "Environmental sanitation is particularly poor in villages where inadequate or non-existent latrines and a lack of dedicated areas for the disposal of rubbish pollute the local environment. While a lack of sanitation facilities may be attributable to government, poverty, or other factors, community members are responsible for most of the factors that affect their environment and health. Discharging wastewater in public spaces, dumping garbage close to households, and open defecation in areas around the village affects the environment, contaminates groundwater and causes health problems." In West Africa, a major barrier to sanitation in many rural areas exists because "the practice of open defecation is ritualised and bound in tradition."

The mission of the international non-governmental organization WaterAid is to "transform lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in the world's poorest communities." WaterAid cites the following sanitation statistics:

  • "7 out of 10 people without sanitation live in rural areas. (WHO/UNICEF)
  • Diarrhea kills more children every year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. (WHO)
  • Children living in households with no toilet are twice as likely to get diarrhea as those with a toilet. (WEDC)
  • Every year, around 60 million children in the developing world are born into households without access to sanitation. (UN Water)
  • One gram of human faeces can contain 10,000,000 viruses, 1,000,000 bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts, 100 parasite eggs. (UNICEF)
  • At any one time half the hospital beds in developing countries are filled with people suffering from diarrhea. (UNDP)"


Suggested Reading

  1. Towards total sanitation Socio-cultural barriers and triggers to total sanitation in West Africa (WaterAid, 2009)
  2. Handbook on Community-Led Total Sanitation (Kar and Chambers, 2008)
  3. Economic Impacts of Sanitation Water and Sanitation Program, WSP (2011)

(Photo credit: Mark and Jo Dowle)

Chapter 7 - Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources, Part 5 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 7 - Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources

Part 5 - Water Reuse and Recycling

lakeside in bergen norwayWith increasing water demands, the reuse of reclaimed water is becoming an important issue of water management. Once the wastewater has been treated there are two main discharge paths the water can take. The first option is discharging into a surrounding water body like a river or stream. The second option is reuse. There are numerous ways water can be reused, the most common methods are:


  • Landscaping irrigation
  • Groundwater or aquifer recharge
  • Industrial recycling and reuse
  • Recreational/environmental reuse
  • Non-potable (Fire protection, air conditioning, toilet flushing)

However, there has been significant development in using reclaimed water for other purposes, including:

  • Agricultural irrigation
  • Indirect and direct potable uses

There are numerous benefits from using reclaimed water. This is not only a sustainable practice, but also reduces the use of potable water for non-potable purposes, like landscape irrigation. However there are several concerns associated with using reclaimed water. Aside from the obvious “ick” factor, the major concerns include:

  • Water quality: the level of treatment
  • Trace pathogens that are not completely removed during treatment
  • Pharmaceutical drugs/metabolites, chemical residue from personal care products, and endocrine disrupting compounds
  • Heavy metals

The United States is the leader in the use of reclaimed water, specifically in California and Florida. California has paved the way for other states in shaping water reuse standards are classifications. Currently reclaimed water is not regulated by the EPA, but by each state. Therefore reclaimed water uses and standards varies across the country. There are four recycled water classifications including A, B, C and D. Reclaimed water is classified by the level of treatment, the more intensive treatment produces Class A water.

Classification is based on the level or concentration of total coliform and turbidity.
Class A recycled water must go through intensive disinfection and tertiary treatment process. Class A water must have less than 2.2 MPN/100mL total coliform and an average turbidity level of 2NTU. Class A water can be used for food crop irrigation, landscaping irrigation and lesser restrictive uses. However, depending on the food crop, there can be further restrictions, like how the water is applied and growing point. One major concern associated with recycled water reuse is the transfer of pathogens. Pathogens can travel up to 1000 feet in the air; therefore spray irrigation is limited to only Class A water.
Class B recycled water undergoes secondary treatment, with pathogen removal. Class B water must have less than 2.2 MPN/100mL total coliform without any turbidity restrictions1. Class B water can be used for most purposes with the exception of parks and playgrounds, food crop irrigation, and non-restricted impounds.

Class C recycled water is similar to Class B, however the allowable total coliform is less than 23 MPN/100mL, with no turbidity restrictions. Typically Class C water undergoes secondary treatment with mild pathogen removal. Class C water can be used in the same applications as Class B, with the exception of food crop irrigation, non-restricted impounds, and watering yards for animals.

The last classification is Class D water. Class D water undergoes secondary treatment with no pathogen removal. Class D water is not regulated for total coliform or turbidity. The typically applications are irrigation of plants like fodder, fiber, seed orchard, tree crops and crops that are commercially processed. Class D water is prohibited from areas that would affect humans, livestock or food crops.

Water Reclamation around the World
The previously mentioned classifications apply strictly to the United States. However in other parts of the World, water reclamation is a huge part of their water management strategy. Aside from California, other world leaders in water reclamation include Japan, Australia and Spain. Currently Spain has the second largest reclamation program in the world, with recycling over 12% of their nation’s waste.

In developing countries, there are limited resources for water treatment. Typically available funds are allocated for protecting health and health delivery systems. Therefore not only is water reclamation extremely rare, but wastewater treatment as well. According to the World Health Organization over one billion people defecate in the open.

Water is integrated into every aspect of our lives and it is important to protect this valuable resource. Wastewater treatment and reuse are two ways to help protect the health our surface waters, and ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy them.


Suggested Reading

  1. "Water Recycling and Reuse | Region 9: Water | US EPA." US Environmental Protection Agency, 2011.
  2. "WHO | WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Report 2010: Progress on Sanitation and Drinking Water." Water Sanitation and Health (WSH). World Health Organization, 2011.
  3. "Direct Potable Reuse" WateReuse Research Foundation, 2011, pp. 1-85. (free order pdf download)


(Photo credit: Marex06)

Written by Kiersten Lee and Gregory Möller)

Chapter 7 - Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources, Part 6 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 7 - Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources

Part 6 - Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture

link to FAO map of endagered ag risk areas"Widespread degradation and deepening scarcity of land and water resources have placed a number of key food production systems around the globe at risk, posing a profound challenge to the task of feeding a world population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050." (FAO, 2011)

Recent analyses by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations suggest we are in a period of increasing global food security risk due to a full 25% of the Earth's lands being highly degraded. The agricultural production capacity is reaching a plateau in an increasing number of areas. In many regions, poor resource management is having large-scale impact. This degradation includes loss of soil quality, biodiversity loss and water depletion. Although we have witnessed a remarkable improvement in agricultural productivity in the past half-century, in many areas this has come at a cost to sustainable agroecology systems in many regions. Specifically, "farming practices that result in water and wind erosion, the loss of organic matter, topsoil compaction, salinization and soil pollution, and nutrient loss" are linked to the decline in projected productivity required to feed an increasing world population.

"Competition for land and water will become 'pervasive'. This includes competition between urban and industrial users as well as within the agricultural sector — between livestock, staple crops, non-food crop, and biofuel production." Already experienced in some areas, "climate change is expected to alter the patterns of temperature, precipitation and river flows upon which the world’s food production systems depend."

According to FAO, "water scarcity is growing and salinization and pollution of groundwater and degradation of water bodies and water-related ecosystems are rising. Large inland water bodies are under pressure from a combination of reduced inflows and higher nutrient loading — the excessive build up of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Many rivers do not reach their natural end points and wetlands are disappearing."

A key area to address these risks to food security is "improving the efficiency of water use by agriculture." Some approaches to increase food security include: "innovative farming practices such as conservation agriculture, agro-forestry, integrated crop-livestock systems and integrated irrigation-aquaculture systems."


Suggested Reading

  1. FAO. 2011. The state of the world's land and water resources for food and agriculture (SOLAW) - Managing systems at risk. Summary Report. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome and Earthscan, London.


(Image credit: FAO, 2011)