Land & Water

Report of the symposium

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Government of Spain co-hosted the International Symposium on the Use of Nonconventional Waters for Achieving Food Security, held in Madrid, Spain, from November 14 -15, 2019.

Accelerating action in addressing water scarcity for agriculture, the Symposium fostered the sharing of knowledge and experiences from the private sector, research/academia, water associations, governments, and development banks on the fit-for-purpose use of reclaimed wastewater, desalinated water, rainwater as well as technologies such as fog and cloud harvesting for agriculture. Discussions on new mechanisms of collaboration between the public-private sectors and innovative blended financing presented opportunities in scaling up nonconventional water use.

The One Water approach to water resources management is based on the premise that all forms of water (rainwater, groundwater, surface water, brackish water, used water, fit-for-purpose reuse water) are linked and form a system that provides the most effective service when managed in an integrated fashion.

Current institutional arrangements and professional practices may represent the greatest impediment to fully implementing integrated One Water/Resource Recovery.  Thus, making the necessary changes in the area of urban water management and peri-urban irrigated agriculture production may also represent the greatest opportunity for positive change. Transitions are needed in implementing the circular economy and enhance engagement with the public, integrate utilities, and broaden practitioners’ skill sets and creating new jobs. Public and multi-sectoral stakeholders to accelerate the needed transitions in the water and agri-food sector are needed engagements, but a key outcome is establishing much greater credibility and legitimacy with the public.

In achieving food security, the linkage between urban and peri-urban areas can be served by decentralized systems with nonconventional technologies when either a centralized system is not present or it is not cost-effective to extend the centralized system to the agriculture production area and when marginal water is separately collected and managed as a local water supply. Examples are emerging rapidly, for example, in fit-for-purpose use of brackish and reclaimed water in aquaculture-agriculture hybrids.  Used water from one system can be diverted and treated to a quality level appropriate for another use, such as fish farming, irrigation, cooling, and domestic nonpotable uses. Residuals from treatment can be returned to the system and conveyed to a larger, centralized treatment facility where recovery of energy and nutrients can be recovered. 

The Symposium offered a wide range of system approaches and perspectives, including technological, government policy incentives as well as the recommended regulatory and financing changes to enable the adoption of technological innovations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  FAO aims to work with stakeholders in further develop the enabling environment for fit-for-purpose use of marginal quality waters and multi-purpose solutions, for example, water storage to address drought; or contrarily, excessive water in nature-based solutions to capture and infiltrate water.

The Symposium contributed to the global water community’s efforts to address water scarcity in countries to find the cost-effective and efficient system optimization and trade-offs.  More specifically, the Symposium aimed to contribute to overall sustainable development in SDG1, SDG2, SDG3, SDG6, SDG7, SDG9, SDG13 and SDG14, calling respectively, for achieving zero hunger and for achieving clean water and sanitation for individuals by the year 2030.

Click on the links to the left to access further information on the technical and parallel sessions and to view some of the presentations which took place during the symposium.

Technical Session 1: Achieving the SDGs – How to make it happen

The introductory panel session provided the context on the use of non-conventional waters towards achieving the SDGs.  Non-Conventional Water use alleviates the growing water security challenges, such as population growth, water pollution, and climate change. The opening session of diverse practitioners from policy, technology, and finance institutions set the three themes of the Symposium.  Key messages of the session included:

  • Removal of barriers and creation of an enabling environment by setting appropriate legislations and regulations, which enables financing mechanisms to be deployed to upscale innovative technologies on the use of non-conventional waters.
  • Awareness raising in countries and with end-users on the use of non-conventional waters is a high priority. There is need to shift paradigms that lead to a circular economy.

Technologies on the use of non-conventional waters are already present and developing at a fast pace. International cooperation and public-private partnerships need to be boosted to allow implementation of such technologies and knowledge exchange.

Technical Session 2: Non-conventional water and food security – The Untapped Opportunities 

The session discussed the untapped potential of non-conventional waters and highlighted that the potential is great for nonconventional water use.. The technologies are currently available, and they need to be scaled up in order to achieve the goals of zero hunger and clean water and sanitation for all. All sources of water will be needed to achieve these goals.

Societal barriers exist related to the potential health concerns arising from the use of treated and untreated wastewater for irrigation. However, government regulations and the involvement of stakeholders would help with changing negative perspectives about the use of nonconventional waters for food production.

Some of the following challenges and way forward were identified: 

  1. Perception change about the utility of treated and untreated wastewater for irrigation. Wastewater is a resource.
  2. Adoption of modeling techniques to evaluate alterative designs of treatment facilities in regard to both locations and methods, cropping alternatives and sites where the crops could be grown, and alternative methods to monitor the environmental consequences. 
  3. Assessment of water quality criteria, potential environmental impacts and regulatory issues  need to be resolved to foster best practices and implementation of unconventional water resources.

Parallel Session 1.1: Advancing Desalination: reducing energy consumption and the environmental footprint

With over 16,000 desalination plants and 100 million cubic meters per day of fresh water production, desalination has become a widely used technology for municipal water supply in coastal communities of the Middle East, Southern Europe, the US and Australia.  

The main challenges currently faced by the technology are its associated energy cost and the environmental impacts from brine. The cost is much influenced by productivity and the energy cost (40-60 percent of the cost of the plant), which is decreasing through the development and upscaling of renewable energy. Although, the cost of desalinated water production may be still high, it is an important alternative and additional source of water to address global water scarcity.

Spain is a pioneer in the use of desalinated water for agriculture. Many crops can support the cost of desalinated water without a significant impact on the overall product price. Integrated agri-aquaculture farms promoted by ICBA are also testing the integration of saline water sources into the farms also with the use of salt-tolerant crops. In addition, iceberg towing from Antarctica to South Africa has been presented as a feasible solution for proving drinking water to the city of Cape Town. 

Parallel Session 1.2: Fit for Purpose Water Reuse

While the session addressed a wide range of issues and regions, there were several consistent points brought up by all of the presenters, these are:

The current policies for the use of recycled (reclaimed) water are highly fragmented, and in many countries incomplete, which tends to inhibit the development of reclaimed water to serve as water supplies for irrigated agriculture.

There is a need to develop both policy and planning frameworks that can be used by governments, municipalities and waters resources groups to develop their specific policies and practices for developing recycled wastewater as a future water supply for irrigated agriculture.

Frameworks should be developed using One-Water principles, and that both water and nutrients should be appropriately valued as resources.

Technical Session 3: Technology & Innovation - Scaling Up Technology and Innovation 

Five innovative technologies and approaches were presented focusing on the use of conventional and non-conventional water resources and water production. The technologies presented were: hydro economical models, nature-inspired biomimetic membranes, cloud seeding, and water harvest from air and fog. 

The following points were highlighted:

Innovative technologies should be economically efficient, socially acceptable and environmentally sustainable.

“Top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches related to climate change adaptation and mitigation should be explored in order to embrace the proposed technological innovations.

Supply enhancement and demand management methodologies should be considered for scaling up aspects on water innovations and the necessary enabling environments should be formulated for their adoption.

Policies, regulatory frameworks should be formulated for emerging water technologies to be adopted by the communities in a much quicker and efficient way.

Training and capacity building programs should be considered for the technologies’ uptake through local and international streams.

No single technology can fully address the water challenges and technologies need to be implemented taking into account local needs and conditions. 

Technical Session 4: Policies & Regulations - Creating the Enabling Environment

The session provided an overview of the importance of developing an enabling environment through policies and regulations. It provided concrete examples, barriers and way forward from the viewpoints of governments, private sector and end-users. The key points are:

Policy uptake— Policies and regulations have a powerful role in boosting the implementation of technologies on the use of non-conventional waters both through public projects and by enabling the private sector.

Addressing end users—Low social acceptance by end-users of reclaimed water is a barrier to overcome. Governments should maintain a communication channel with end-users to address their needs and provide support in strengthening their capacity in understanding and implementing the policies.

Building trust and accountability— Joint responsibility on water management projects should be enhanced by promoting a strong communication and participation of all parties including governments, private sectors, civil society, academia, international institutions, research,  among others. This will allow full accountability of the complex governance of non-conventional waters and define roles and responsibilities of parties.

Technical Session 5: Financing - Investments and Financial Instruments in a Circular Economy

The session provided an overview of concrete financial mechanisms that are supporting the upscaling of sustainable use of non-conventional water technologies. In order to remove the barriers and reduce the investments risks, the strengthening of international and multi-stakeholder cooperation is key.

All speakers highlighted the key role of public-private partnerships. This allows to decrease the risks of investments and share the complementary human, financial and technical resources to implement long-term water projects.

Water pricing is a key component in sustainable water resources management. Pricing policies to promote the reuse of reclaimed water cannot be adopted in isolation, and it is essential to act globally on water prices including all water sources.

There is need to consider non-conventional water sources from a multiple use and circular economy viewpoint, which can address all environmental, social and economic bottom lines.