We live in a world where our big problems connect with other big problems. Challenges of food security, water, sanitation, energy and education compound together, often expressed in the incredibly large problem of poverty. Yet, when addressing these challenges, it seems common to consider them individually rather than collectively. Investigating schemes for wastewater irrigation underscores the point and speaks to our need to think creatively about viable engineering solutions.
Our general anxiety regarding wastewater in the developed world blocks some of our ability to think holistically about these challenges. Environmentally-aware areas of the world such as the European Union have embraced rigorous standards for wastewater reuse as measures to protect public health. Yet, policymakers created these regulations against a backdrop of highly-developed infrastructure systems designed to distance our communities from the reality of sanitation. Therefore, these regulations rely on state-of-the-art treatment modalities and speak to our overall fear of waste.
The realities in the developing world are rather stark. Open-pit defecation, carrying water gathered from questionable sources, and subsistence farming reflect normative practices. Sources of disease transmission elude many persons trying to make community improvements because nearly every known pathway is wide-open. Nearly everywhere you look, you can find evidence of fecal contamination, whether from humans or livestock. The standardized systems of the developed world simply do not exist. Moreover, the landscape littered with abandoned central infrastructure suggests the near-universal water and sanitation coverage continues as being wholly out of touch with many communities.
It strikes me as odd to assert that to change the paradigm, we must embrace reality. Regardless of what we happen to think about the issues, regardless of how our stomach may churn with disgust when we consider what actually happens, and regardless of our extant pipe dreams, we must consider that for a large population of the world “wastewater” is a concept that simply does not exist. The question remains: how can water scarce communities continue to use their limited resources productively in a way that improves their water, sanitation, and food security?
Within the context of development, developers tend to work on single projects with limited scope and quantifiable objectives. Therefore, a development project might be something like place 10 tap stands in a community or construct a demonstration plot using irrigation. Yet, agriculture projects enable developers to consider the community more holistically without losing the concrete objectives needed to complete the project.
Irrigation uses water for productive purposes. Hierarchically, productive purposes rank below consumptive and hygienic uses for water; although some researchers indicate that pressing for irrigation-related development projects often carries a gendered dynamic of inverting the relationship between hygienic uses and productive uses of water. Therefore, a systems-minded design of an irrigation project likely includes considerations of food security, water, sanitation, maternal and child health, and education.
Establishing appropriate procedures for water access and treatment forms a critical component of irrigation systems. In many situations, these procedures involve questions of water rights. However, water-scarce situations invite considerations of innovative water use, if we can consider the challenges in context. Working with a community to design an environment mindful of locally-useful agricultural productivity changes the nature of the development project. Inherently, developers have the options to say “What can be done to leverage this community’s resources towards agricultural productivity?” recognizing that water scarcity places many demands on the available water.
Best practices of modern farming in the developed world include regular irrigation and fertilization to maximize crop yields. Yet farmers have also moved away from manure-based fertilizer in favor of chemical-based fertilizer. Therefore, innovations that incorporate both human and animal manures in farming contexts meet with suspicion as these practices provide a means for feces to come into contact with food. Additionally, insistence of artificially high standards of wastewater used in irrigation blocks irrigation all together or diverts water from more pressing human health needs.
The challenges facing developers working on irrigation projects in the developed world center upon the need to mobilize resources in the community. Moreover, considerable efforts must be made to ensure project relevance. Viewing the projects more broadly as an agricultural project may encourage more holistic solutions, particularly as sanitation improvements may make the community’s agriculture more productive.