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Facilitating the circular economy in India’s food security: the social, economic and agronomic barriers and opportunities of wastewater

Project Description

Project summary:
This interdisciplinary project combines environmental and social science to quantify the potential benefits of wastewater for Indian agriculture, as well as understanding the social barriers to wastewater use, and identifying opportunities to overcome these.

Project background:
Human sewage is a rich source of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients, historically exploited as fertiliser for food production. However it is also a major medium for disease and in India additional major social barriers exist to using human waste. Consequently, this potentially valuable resource is causing dramatic eutrophication of inland and coastal waters and, instead of nutrient recycling, India has increased dependence on manufactured fertilisers. Now, with the drive to meet integrated Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, nutrient recycling to agriculture is receiving increasing attention. Nevertheless, despite the apparently obvious benefits of nutrient recycling from human sewage, numerous technical, economic and cultural barriers have limited its implementation. This project aims to test the feasibility of, and barriers to, nutrient recycling from human waste in India, which generates an estimated 62 billion litres of wastewater a day, only 30% of which is treated. Previous studies of wastewater recycling to agriculture have focused mainly on water scarcity, rather than on the nutrient content of liquid and solid components in this research.

Key research questions:
1. What is the scale and value/loss of nutrients associated with wastewater in India?
2. What are the barriers (technical/ economic/cultural) to recycling nutrients from wastewater to agriculture in India?
3. What are practicable options for generating a circular economy for nutrients in India’s wastewater?

Methodology and timetable:
Initial work will generate an understanding of the quantity, value and costs of nutrients in wastewater in India through a comprehensive review, synthesis and analysis/simple modelling of the published peer reviewed and grey literature, together with a high level understanding of potential technical options to generate a closed loop for nutrients. This might include: the masses and forms of nutrients and the presence of emerging contaminants in different wastwater systems; the pathways by which nutrients in wastewater interact with environmental receptors; the value of nutrients as a fertiliser versus the costs of environmental impact as a pollutant; and identification of technical options from relevant economies around the world. The scale of the review - whether India-wide or focusing on specific cities or states - will be decided following a pilot study and through discussion with the Indian partners. The next stage of the project will explore social and technical barriers to recycling nutrients from wastewater to agriculture in India within one or more case-study areas selected with the support of the Indian partners. It will be accomplished primarily through structured interviews with relevant stakeholders (e.g. government/state agriculture and wastewater engineering departments, community leaders, householders, farmers) identified through a stakeholder analysis. To support this work, it is anticipated that analyses of wastewater materials will be required to characterise nutrient contents and availabilities and the presence of other contaminants. The final stage of the project will build upon the understanding of barriers generated above to propose practical and acceptable options for generating a circular economy for nutrients in India’s wastewater. This could be informed by examining successful case-studies within and outwith India and conducting targeted interviews of those involved in current and future schemes.

Year 1. Literature review and analysis to generate an assessment of nutrient quantity and values/costs in Indian wastewater. Target paper in Environmental Research Letters.
Year 2. Select case-study areas in India for multidisciplinary stakeholder analysis. Characterisation of wastewater materials and social barriers. Target paper in Sustainability.
Year 3. Multi-sectoral analysis of options to recycle nutrients from wastewater to agriculture with expert interviews to validate options. Target paper in Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems.

Training: A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills. Through the supervisors and their research groups, the student will have access to expertise and training in environmental chemistry, ecology, and socio-cultural aspects. S/he will be more widely supported through networks within and outwith the University , such as the Centre for South Asian Studies, plus the India-UK Water Centre. The student will be supported during fieldwork in India by the Indian partners and supervisor contacts. S/he will have the opportunity to present their research at national and international conferences and will be supported in writing first author publications during the PhD.

Funding Notes

The PhD scholarship is fully funded for at least 3.5 years for UK/EU citizens or settled overseas students only, who have worked and/or studied in the UK for at least three years before the programme starts.

Candidates could come from a range of academic backgrounds. Ideal candidates would hold an excellent first degree in natural/ environmental/ecological sciences, and an MSc in sustainability / ecological economics / development studies or similar. Candidates will be expected to spend several months as a minimum conducting research in India.


Miller-Robbie, L. Ramaswami, A. and Amerasinghe, P., 2017. Wastewater treatment and reuse in urban agriculture: exploring the food, energy, water, and health nexus in Hyderabad, India. Environmental Research Letters. 12, 075005. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa6bfe

Rohilla, S.K., Luthra, B., Bhatnagar, A., Matto, M. and Bhonde, U., 2017. Septage Management: A Practitioner’s Guide, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi. https://smartnet.niua.org/sites/default/files/resources/septage_management_a_practitioners_guide_with_sbm_logo.pdf

WWAP (United Nations World Water Assessment Programme), 2017. The United Nations World Water Development Report 2017: Wastewater, The Untapped Resource. Paris, UNESCO. http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/water/wwap/wwdr/2017-wastewater-the-untapped-resource/

How good is research at University of Edinburgh in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 104.98

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