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Treating Wastewater with Wetlands: A Viable Model for Southeast Asia

Water News: 

Kim Irvine, professor of geography and planning at Buffalo State College, continues to make significant contributions to the effort to ensure that the people of Southeast Asia have adequate, safe drinking water. In the July 2010 issue of the Asian Journal of Water, Environment and Pollution, Irvine, with guest editorial coauthor Thammarat Koottatep of the School of Environment, Resources and Development at the Asian Institute of Technology, makes a strong case for using wetlands as an effective way to treat wastewater, citing the example of naturally occurring wetlands near Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Irvine has been concerned with the treatment and disposal of wastewater and sewage for much of his career. His research on water quality has been a resource for the Western New York region for many years. He became involved in research and education in Southeast Asia, which led to the creation of the Center for Southeast Asia Environment and Sustainable Development at Buffalo State. With colleagues Stephen Vermette, Vida Vanchan, and Tao Tang, faculty members of the Geography and Planning Department, Irvine has developed and presented workshops for Cambodian technicians as well as students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

“Too often,” he said, “advisers from developed countries want developing nations to build the kind of infrastructure to which we are accustomed. However, building wastewater treatment plants is expensive, and not always appropriate to the cultural and economic realities of developing countries.”

Wetlands, whether naturally occurring or constructed, are cost-effective ways to remove pollutants, in part or completely, from wastewater. The studies in which Irvine participated demonstrate that Boeng Cheung Ek, a naturally occurring wetland that is the main water treatment resource for the city of Phnom Penh, reduces the occurrence of various pollutants by a range of 44 percent to as much as 99.97 percent.

However, these wetlands are threatened as the city of Phnom Penh grows. Its population is projected to increase from 1.4 million people now to 2 million by 2020, which threatens to reduce the size of the wetlands area while increasing the demands placed upon it.

In addition, as Irvine notes in one of four articles he coauthored in the July issue of the journal, the wetlands are home to a peri-urban community that relies on food and crops raised in the vicinity. In “Levels of Cr, Cu and Zn in Food Stuffs from a Wastewater Treatment Wetland, Phnom Penh: A Preliminary Assessment of Health Risks,” Irvine et al measured the presence of heavy-metal contaminants during both the wet and dry seasons. While the study suggested that present levels can be tolerated by healthy adults, ingestion of snails—a common food staple of region—may pose a threat to children.

The preliminary study calls for future research and suggests that educational outreach in the affected communities could be helpful in minimizing the health risks.