Addressing Water Scarcity and Pollution: Engineers rethink constructed wetlands for affordable wastewater treatment technology

Commentary: “2020: Lowest carbon emissions, hottest year?”
March 18, 2021
In Memoriam: Gemma Teresa T. Narisma, PhD
March 22, 2021

A team of engineers from the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) presented the “COWET: A Nature-based Solution to Water Security”, one of the top solutions in the OML Center’s first Climate Resilience Challenge, last 11 February. The public presentation was held in cooperation with the University of the Philippines Los BañosCollege of Engineering and Agro-industrial Technology (UPLB-CEAT) and the Society for the Conservation of Philippine Wetlands, Inc. (SCPW).

Students, members of civil society organizations, academe, and representatives from the private sector and national government agencies attended the public presentation.

Developed by Engr. Ma. Hazel T. Castillo, Engr. Donny Rey D. Camus, Engr. Alvin Joseph S. Dolores, and Engr. Victor Mikael de Padua, the solution aims to address water scarcity, while also treating wastewater for the agricultural sector, using constructed wetlands.

In his welcome remarks, Dr. Rodel Lasco, OML Center executive director, noted that 2020 has tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record, underscoring that climate change continues to be a looming problem as we deal with the global pandemic. He welcomed innovative solutions and encouraged participants to surface creative ways to address problems posed by the changing climate.

Ms. Kato Sarmiento, OML Center communications manager, provided a background of the Climate Resilience Challenge, explaining that it is among the efforts of the Center to bridge the knowledge-to-action gap. Launched in July 2020, the Challenge aims to surface innovative interdisciplinary and solution-oriented ideas that private and public sector actors can act on to build and enhance resilience in the Philippines, with the themes for the maiden challenge focusing on Food and Water Security, Livelihood and Essential Services, and Climate-Health Systems.

Eligible submissions were invited to participate in the ideation and development sessions where participants were given an opportunity to connect and interact with relevant public, private, and civil society sector representatives and improve upon their submissions. For the COWET team, the OML Center invited Mr. Engellau Flores, head of the Environmental Management Division of the Energy Development Corporation (EDC), and Ms. Amy Lecciones, executive director, and Dr. Catriona Devanadera, a trustee of the SCPW.

Revised submissions were endorsed to final reviewers with relevant expertise. The panel consisted of National Scientist Dr. Lourdes J. Cruz, Ms. Agnes de Jesus of the First Philippine Holdings, Ms. Janice Dugan of First Gen Corporation, Ms. Floradema Eleazar of UN Development Programme Philippines, and Ms. Lourdes V. Tibig of Climate Change Commission – National Panel of Technical Experts.

Climate Change and Water Security

To contextualize the impact of the changing climate to the country’s water security, the Center invited representatives from the national government agencies and civil society sector.

Dr. Sevillo David, Jr., executive director of the National Water Resources Board (NWRB),  discussed the global and Philippine water resources situation. He noted that population growth, increased economic activity, and improving standards of living are placing tremendous pressures on the water resource supply and service delivery systems. Dr. David added that the changing climate puts additional pressure on groundwater for water supply and irrigation use, leading to a multitude of effects, among them, water shortage and a decrease in crop production.

Dr. Antonio Daño, executive director of the River Basin Control Office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR-RBCO) underscored the need to manage our water resources efficiently and effectively given the growing demands for water, degradation of river basins, and increasing droughts and floods exacerbated by climate change. Dir. Daño shared mechanisms in place, such as the Integrated River Basin Management and Development Master Plan which provides the framework and strategies for the management and development of the country’s water resources and flood mitigation within river basins.  

Discussing the importance of wetlands in water resources management, Ms. Amy Lecciones of the SCPW highlighted how wetlands make up 40 to 45% of the value of all global ecosystems. She shared that wetlands capture and store rainwater to replenish groundwater aquifers, regulate water quantity and supply, and improve water quality by removing and absorbing pollutants. However, unsustainable development, population growth, urbanization and consumption have devastated wetlands, putting unbearable pressure on freshwater supplies. Nearly 90% of the world’s wetlands have been lost since the 1700s, Ms. Lecciones said. She added that degradation from changes to land and water use and climate change is intensifying a water crisis.

Addressing water woes

As a solution, “COWET: A Nature-based Solution to Water Security” aims to prioritize helping the agriculture sector, noting how farmers are confronted by challenges in water scarcity and water pollution. The proponents cited studies showing that only 10% of wastewater is treated in the country and how poor sanitation results in more than Php 78 billion in economic losses annually.

The team underscored the need for an alternative source of water and affordable wastewater treatment technology. Their solution, specifically a hybrid subsurface flow constructed wetland, makes use of low-cost technology and reusable materials to treat wastewater that can be reused. 

The team explained that, based on their studies, the treated wastewater should be clean enough to be used for irrigation and other non-potable activities as set by the standards of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Administrative Order (DAO 2016-08) and the Department of Agriculture (DA) Administrative Order No. 26 series of 2007. 

The solution is a product of a collaborative research effort between the team and undergraduate students of the UPLB-CEAT’s Department of Civil Engineering. 

Noting the potential of Nature-based solution

Representatives from the public and private sectors were also invited to provide reactions to the solution.

Reflecting on their work with smallholder farmers, Ms. Arianne Aldeza, senior program officer of the Jollibee Group Foundation, noted the potential applicability of the solution, citing the water-related problems encountered by farmers during the summer season. Ms. Aldeza also shared that it is important to consider the cost to set up the system as such is a critical aspect for farmers. 

Mr. Paul Puthenpurekal, director of the Solutions Using Renewable Energy (SURE) Inc., lauded the group’s effort to innovate constructed wetlands. Having worked with farmers, Mr. Puthenpurekal advised the team to consider ensuring that the setting up system is not time-consuming. 

Providing perspective as a grants-providing agency, Dr. Feliciano Calora, Jr., deputy executive director for research and development and staff of the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic, and Natural Resources Research and Development under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-PCAARRD), welcomed the solution of the team and noted its potential to help small farmers. He encouraged the engineers to submit proposals so the agency can look into the possibility of it being funded by PCAARRD. 

Closing the event, Dr. Myra Borines, OIC-Dean of UPLB-CEAT commended the engineers for developing solutions to the problems and challenges brought by climate change. She added that the country’s vulnerability to the impacts of the changing climate stresses the need for us to be innovative in finding solutions. 

Watch the public presentation on our Facebook page.

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