© Cecilia Saldias

Wastewater reuse for agriculture: business as usual or need for more integrity?

The importance of policies and regulations for wastewater reuse

Although a correlation between bad wastewater management and corruption is hard to establish, we can certainly argue that wastewater management reflects much of the state of local and national governments’ priorities and performance regarding water and sanitation.

Wastewater is often regarded as a burden that needs to be disposed of as far as possible or a nuisance to be ignored (UNESCO, 2017). It is estimated that over 80% of wastewater worldwide, some 95% in developing countries, is released into the environment without treatment (ibid.). Wastewater treatment is particularly weak in developing countries, a fact that has had serious consequences on the levels of water pollution and has resulted in deaths caused by contaminated drinking water, de-oxygenated dead zones, polluted marine ecosystems impacting fisheries, livelihoods and food chains (ibid.).

In recent years, wastewater has generated increased interest, mainly because of its potential as an alternative source of water in regions that face water scarcity. The 2017 World Water Development Report (UNESCO, 2017) stresses the importance of improving management of wastewater for our common future. This article answers a number of critical questions regarding wastewater reuse for agriculture, and assesses related integrity concerns and solutions. Why is planned reuse important and what are related integrity risks? Why is regulation often not effectively enforced and how can it improve in terms of integrity?


Using Wastewater in Agriculture

The use of wastewater for agriculture is not a new practice. Wastewater has been used since ancient times because farmers appreciate its nutrient content (Jiménez & Asano, 2008). Unfortunately, wastewater does not only contain domestic waste. In many cases, it also contains industrial waste, which pollutes natural water courses, harms the soils, and makes people sick. Despite the negative effects on people’s health and the environment, farmers often still use wastewater for irrigation. In many cases this is because, especially for poor farmers living in urban-rural fringes, wastewater is a source of livelihood. Different studies conducted in India, Pakistan and Ghana have reported on this aspect (see Buechler & Devi, 2003; Scott et al., 2004; Obuobie et al., 2006). In some countries, for instance in Mexico and Israel, wastewater reuse in agriculture is an important component of the agricultural sector, as wastewater represents a secure water source. Whilst the main drivers to use wastewater may vary according to regions (Drechsel & Evans, 2010), appropriate wastewater treatment is fundamental in any case. In the context of developing countries, reusing wastewater for agriculture is usually an informal and unplanned practice (Martijn & Redwood, 2005). This means that in numerous cases, there is no regulation of the practice. In other cases, farmers will use the water despite the regulations that prohibits its use. This happens in some countries in West Africa (Drechsel et al., 2006) for example.

Countries that include wastewater reuse in their policy framework generally respond to recent demand which has emerged as a consequence of water scarcity issues. Tunisia has recently largely included wastewater in its water management structure, and both Mexico and Bolivia also mention water reuse within their water policies. This has to be regarded as a major step.  Considering the potential of wastewater as an alternative source of water for the agricultural sector, there is a real need to integrate wastewater (re)use in the larger context of water resources management at the regional, national and local level. Planned wastewater reuse is becoming imperative for mainly two reasons. First, effluent discharge into natural water courses is increasingly difficult and costly: discharge and treatment regulations are more rigorous to protect quality of receiving water bodies for the aquatic life and downstream users. Second, wastewater is a potential source for various non-potable water uses, including irrigation, industry, environmental enhancement, firefighting, dust control and more (Bouwer, 2000). Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go before wastewater use becomes a formal practice and regulations are effectively enforced.


A Fair and Effective Policy and Regulatory Framework

Including reuse in a water policy framework is not straightforward. Wastewater reuse for agriculture is a complex issue, as it involves a range of different components such as food production, water quality and treatment, public health, socio-economic issues, including consumers and overall environmental risks (Huibers & van Lier, 2005).

A policy framework on reuse for agriculture needs to allow for the establishment of a fair and effective regulatory system that reflects the local capacities and accommodates the local context. It has to cover use restrictions, water access rights, tariffs, quality standards, treatment processes, and needs to be enforceable. For an effective regulatory framework to be established, it is paramount that the pillars of integrity are taken into account. Only by addressing Transparency, Accountability, Participation and Anti-Corruption measures, can planned reuse become more effective and safe.

To promote integrity in wastewater reuse, it is important that a number of risks are addressed. For instance, how does one determine water rights and access: who gets the wastewater, how, and for how much? Based on what agreements? In some contexts, this will follow the existing water rights configuration in place for other water sources; in other contexts, and in light of the quality of the water, this question will necessitate a new configuration, and standards, etc. In many cases, the costs of treatment are included in the water tariffs; in others, costs are subsidized. Exploring the willingness of farmers to pay, as final users of treated wastewater, may be interesting. In small municipalities, this could help increase the budgets for wastewater management and improve the performance of the wastewater treatment plants.

It is a complex, delicate balance, but there are already promising cases of good practice. A study conducted between 2012 and 2016 examined institutional aspects of wastewater reuse for agriculture in developing countries by comparing India, Bolivia, South Africa and Israel at different stages of formalization of wastewater reuse (Saldías, 2016). This research study identifies the main drivers for the practice, exploring water policy frameworks and how they do or do not include wastewater for agriculture, and discusses main weaknesses regarding its management.


A Framework for Wastewater Reuse in the Western Cape

The study (Saldías et al., 2016) highlights a case from Western Cape, South Africa where a group of farmers established a self-funded and self-managed irrigation system, which makes use of treated effluent from one of the municipal treatment plants of the City of Cape Town. This was facilitated by a national water policy framework with different strategies, including water resources protection, equitable water use, water conservation, water demand management, and regulation of the water sector. These strategies were introduced to cope with the growing competition for water. By-laws at the provincial level were also introduced, which provided the framework for regulation of the use of treated effluent. Under this framework, users can apply for supply of treated effluent through a single agreement. To ensure that used water is safe, the framework allows the use of treated wastewater for irrigation under various categories, depending on the level of treatment the wastewater has received.

This case has been successful for several reasons. First, general awareness of water scarcity as well as risks and effects of water pollution was fundamental for changes to occur in the policy framework.  Wastewater reuse was thereby positioned as a feasible option for policymakers and an acceptable, if not attractive, option for users. Second, the policy and regulatory framework is strong and adapted to the context: it is transparent and known, and ensures that agreements to access wastewater supply are transparent. The framework allows for demand to emanate from users and thus encourages participation. It also ensures the water reused is safe and defines clear responsibilities for stakeholders, which makes it possible to hold them to account.

Treated effluent used for irrigation of crops, Western Cape, South Africa.
Treated effluent used for irrigation of crops, South Africa

© Cecilia Saldias


Regulatory Challenges of Wastewater Reuse

Whilst regulatory frameworks for wastewater reuse may be set up effectively, the enforcement of these frameworks often lags behind, posing clear integrity risk. The research on practices and policy for wastewater reuse for irrigation (Saldías, 2016), mentioned above, highlights that one of the major difficulties for enforcement of regulations regarding wastewater for irrigation is that regulatory frameworks often don’t reflect the reality of the country in terms of capacities and resources. A lack of enforcement of regulation poses a serious integrity concern for those users and consumers affected by use of unsafe water. Often they may not be sufficiently aware of the potential risks of using the untreated water, which makes it difficult for them to bond to the regulations in place or demand accountability.


Enforcement Challenges in Bolivia

Let’s take Bolivia as an example. In Bolivia, water management is mainly place-based, reflecting the local practices, arrangements and traditions for water management. Often there is little intervention from the national or regional government, especially for irrigation. The goal of the Bolivian Government, described in the Economic and Social Development Plan 2016-2020 (ESDP), is to universalize access to basic services, namely electricity, potable water, sanitation, etc.; especially access to potable water, which is considered a fundamental right. By 2020, the plan is to achieve 70% access to sanitation in urban areas and 60% in rural areas. An important pillar of this development is the introduction of the reuse approach for restricted cultivation, as well as rehabilitation and improvement of wastewater treatment.

In recent years, wastewater has gained attention and its reuse has been included in the Bolivian policy and regulation as a strategy to cope with water scarcity. Generally, this framework is not particularly effective however. In most cases, wastewater is still used untreated, due to the lack of infrastructure to treat the water. In cases where wastewater treatment plants do exist, their performance is poor (see MMAyA, 2013). Several factors have been identified which explain the poor performance of wastewater treatment plants, among which is the lack of operation expertise, and limited financial resources for adequate operation and maintenance (O&M).

On the one hand, a big challenge is that resources, both financial and personnel, allocated for wastewater treatment plants are marginal and not seen as high priority. The result is that wastewater treatment plants’ performance is poor, with important consequences in terms of water pollution of rivers, and with high risks of negative health effects for the users of these waters for irrigation.

On the other hand, existing regulation on water pollution is very stringent (Rocha-Cuadros, 2017). Act 1333 foresees that discharges of raw wastewater to rivers must be treated prior to discharge: a difficult goal to achieve. In reality, discharge of raw or insufficiently treated wastewater occurs openly. Most operators responsible for wastewater treatment are unable to reach the standards and to get around the strict requirements, they interpret the act by applying the “transitory parameters”, which are less stringent (Ibid.). No one is held accountable because enforcement is limited and citizens rarely demand better conditions. This is closely related to risk perception and the lack of awareness regarding pollution issues, which would be needed for the people to promote significant changes.

In addition, it was identified that effective treatment of wastewater was influenced by the type of technology used (Cossio et al., 2017). Often, municipalities and other operators responsible for wastewater treatment have other priorities (assessment of 13 municipalities in Cochabamba, and 5 in Tarija, unpublished work). It was found that the costs recovered through tariffs are too small to cover minimum O&M costs (Ibid.). In most cases, wastewater is therefore discharged into rivers, and users downstream utilize the water to irrigate crops. Unfortunately, there is little accountability for the municipalities/operators that do not treat the water properly, nor for the irrigators that use this water at their risk and the risk of the consumers of their produce.



Irrigation from wastewater is a complex issue but it is important to acknowledge that it is a key component of and great opportunity for water resources management as it can serve as a strategy to cope with water scarcity. Having the right institutional arrangements, policies, and regulations in place is paramount, so that the benefits of additional water can be enjoyed in the irrigation sector, whilst at the same time protecting the people from risks related to the practice. Accountability and transparency mechanisms must be key ingredients of such a regulatory framework. Establishing regulations and ensuring their full implementation might be a long and difficult process but it has strong benefits. Political will should be part of this process. It is also crucial that the risks associated with wastewater reuse and water scarcity are recognized by all, for participation to be made possible, to facilitate institutional changes as well as generate behavior change in society, for the practice to become established and accepted, and for users to begin to hold authorities accountable for their work.


2017: Special focus on integrity and wastewater management

Poor governance in wastewater management is contributing to an environmental, sanitary, and social crisis. This year, which UN-Water dedicated to the theme ‘Why Wastewater’, WIN and partners put integrity lenses on the subject. 

We’ve seen striking images that illustrate the need for action in our 2017 photo competition on wastewater. We’re learning about the limits of regulation but also seen how citizen monitoring and participatory project planning can contribute to making wastewater management more effective and transparent.

This is the first post in our series. Stay tuned for future contributions! Should you wish to take part, please get in touch at info(AT)win-s.org

More posts:

Involving Citizens in Policy Making for Urban Sanitation

Citizens against wastewater pollution

Wastewater management in the garment industry


Bouwer, H. 2000. Integrated water management: emerging issues and challenges. Agricultural water management, 45(3), 217-228.

Buechler, S. & Devi, G. 2003. Household food security and wastewater-dependent livelihood activities along the Musi River in Andhra Pradesh, India. Report submitted to the World Health Organization. Geneva, Switzerland. http://publications.iwmi.org/pdf/H_34272.pdf (accessed 18-04-2017)

Cossio, C., McConville, J., Rauch, S., Wilén, B.M., Dalahmeh, S., Mercado, A., & Romero, A.M. 2017.   Wastewater management in small towns – understanding the failure of small treatment plants in Bolivia. Environmental Technology, doi.org/10.1080/09593330.2017.1330364.

Obuobie, E., Keraita, B., Amoah, P., Cofie, O.O., Raschid-Sally, L., Drechsel, P. 2006. Irrigated urban vegetable production in Ghana: Characteristics, benefits and risks. IWMI-RUAF-CPWF, IWMI, Accra, Ghana.

Drechsel, P., Graefe, S., Sonou, M., Cofie, O.O. 2006. Informal irrigation in urban West Africa: An overview. Research Report 102, Colombo, Sri Lanka, IWMI.

Drechsel, P. & Evans, A.E.V. 2010. Wastewater reuse in irrigated agriculture. Irrigation and Drainage Systems, 24 (1-2), 1-3.

Huibers, F.P. & van Lier, J.B. 2005. Use of wastewate rin agriculture: The water chain approach. Irrigation and Drainage, 54(1), S3-S9.

Jimenez, B. & Asano, T. 2008. Water reclamation and reuse around the world. In: B. Jiménez & T. Asano (eds.), Water Reuse: An International Survey of Current Practice, Issues and Needs, London: IWA Publishing.

Jimenez, B., Drechsel, P., Kone, D., Bahri, A., Raschid-Sally, L., Qadir, M. 2010. Wastewater, sludge, and excreta use in developing countries: an overview. In: P. Drechsel, C.A. Scott, L. Raschid-Sally, M. Redwood & A. Bahri (eds.), Wastewater irrigation and health: assessing and mitigating risk in low-income countries, p. 3-27. London, Sterling, VA: Earthscan.

Martijn, E.J. & Redwood, M. 2005. Wastewater irrigation in developing countries – limitations for farmers to adopt appropriate practices. Irrigation and Drainage, 54 (S1), S63-S70.

MMAyA: Minsiterio de Medio Ambiente y Agua. 2013. Sistematización sobre tratamiento y reúso de aguas residuales. ISBN: 978 – 99974 – 807 – 2 – 9, La Paz.

Rocha-Cuadros, J.C. 2017. Retos en la implementación de normas para el reuso de aguas tratadas en riego caso Bolivia. In: H. Hettiarachchi & R. Ardakanian (eds.), Uso seguro de aguas residuales en la agricultura: ejemplos de buenas prácticas, UNU-FLORES, Dresden, Germany.

Saldías, C. 2016. Analyzing the institutional challenges for the agricultural (re)use of wastewater in developing countries. Doctoral Thesis, Ghent University. ISBN number: 978-90-5989-858-5.

Saldías, C., Speelman, S., van Koppen, B. & Van Huylenbroeck, G. (2016) Institutional arrangements for the use of treated effluent in irrigation, Western Cape, South Africa, International Journal of Water Resources Development, 32(2), 203-218.

Scott, C., Faruqui, N.I, Raschid, L. 2004. Wastewater Use in Irrigated Agriculture: Confronting the Livelihood and Environmental Realities. CABI, IWMI, IDRC. p.206.

UNESCO. 2017. Wastewater the untapped resource. World Water Development Report. Paris, France.

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