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About UNEP
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United Nations Environment Programme
Division of Technology, Industry and Economics
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Newsletter and Technical Publications
<International Source Book On Environmentally Sound Technologies
for Wastewater and Stormwater Management>

From examination of the above natural cycles it is clear that very little organic wastes and nutrients are leached from natural ecosystems. In addition in a forest ecosystem the surface run-off has a low peak and extends over a longer period, thus solids are filtered from the water, and nutrients have a higher likelihood of being absorbed by plants. The soil in a forest ecosystem can provide additional purification processes. Soil bacteria will consume organic carbon and reduce BOD. Soil minerals (particularly clay minerals) can adsorb metals and phosphates. Plant roots take up nutrients released by bacterial decomposition from water percolating through the soil.


Figure 2.5: Phosphorus cycle

Pathogens, if any, generally die-off, because of unfavourable conditions outside their hosts for an extended period and competition with naturally occurring mirco-organisms. The water cycle therefore produces surface water and groundwater of very high quality (Figure 2.6).

Figure 2.6: Water cycle (lager image)

The natural cycles (also termed biogeochemical cycles) can provide an insight into the natural basis of wastewater and stormwater management. For disposal of wastewater and stormwater into a natural ecosystem, as long as the natural purification capacity of the ecosystem is not exceeded, we can rely on the existing natural processes to assimilate the wastes without degrading the quality of the environment. On the other hand once the natural capacity is exceeded, engineered systems are required. There is no reason, however, why the same physical, chemical and biological processes taking place in nature cannot be used as a basis for technology development and for waste management.

We note that in nature the cycling of the elements provide a pathway for reuse of the materials in the wastes. We should consider how we can use the same processes to recycle wastewater and stormwater. A limitation of natural purification processes is that they can only handle naturally occurring wastes. The latter can include human wastes, but not toxic chemicals that stop the natural processes. In addition a large human settlement removes a large area of natural ecosystem and generates a large amount of wastes, and the combination of the two rapidly and significantly impact on our natural environment. Clearing of vegetation reduces evapotranspiration, while roads and houses introduce impervious surfaces. Consequently rainfall run-off has a higher peak and is generated rapidly, promoting local flooding (Figure 2.2).

 

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