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3.1 Wastewater treatment technologies

Relatively simple wastewater treatment technologies can be designed to provide low cost sanitation and environmental protection while providing additional benefits from the reuse of water. These technologies use natural aquatic and terrestrial systems. They are in use in a number of locations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

These systems may be classified into three principal types, as shown in Figure 28. Mechanical treatment systems, which use natural processes within a constructed environment, tend to be used when suitable lands are unavailable for the implementation of natural system technologies. Aquatic systems are represented by lagoons; facultative, aerated, and hydrograph controlled release (HCR) lagoons are variations of this technology. Further, the lagoon-based treatment systems can be supplemented by additional pre- or post-treatments using constructed wetlands, aquacultural production systems, and/or sand filtration. They are used to treat a variety of wastewaters and function under a wide range of weather conditions. Terrestrial systems make use of the nutrients contained in wastewaters; plant growth and soil adsorption convert biologically available nutrients into less-available forms of biomass, which is then harvested for a variety of uses, including methane gas production, alcohol production, or cattle feed supplements.

Figure 28: Summary of Wastewater Treatment Technologies.

Source: Ernesto Pérez, P.E., Technology Transfer Chief, Water Management Division, USEPA Region IV, Atlanta, Georgia.

Technical Description

· Mechanical Treatment Technologies

Mechanical systems utilize a combination of physical, biological, and chemical processes to achieve the treatment objectives. Using essentially natural processes within an artificial environment, mechanical treatment technologies use a series of tanks, along with pumps, blowers, screens, grinders, and other mechanical components, to treat wastewaters. Flow of wastewater in the system is controlled by various types of instrumentation. Sequencing batch reactors (SBR), oxidation ditches, and extended aeration systems are all variations of the activated-sludge process, which is a suspended-growth system. The trickling filter solids contact process (TF-SCP), in contrast, is an attached-growth system. These treatment systems are effective where land is at a premium.

· Aquatic Treatment Technologies

Facultative lagoons are the most common form of aquatic treatment-lagoon technology currently in use. The water layer near the surface is aerobic while the bottom layer, which includes sludge deposits, is anaerobic. The intermediate layer is aerobic near the top and anaerobic near the bottom, and constitutes the facultative zone. Aerated lagoons are smaller and deeper than facultative lagoons. These systems evolved from stabilization ponds when aeration devices were added to counteract odors arising from septic conditions. The aeration devices can be mechanical or diffused air systems. The chief disadvantage of lagoons is high effluent solids content, which can exceed 100 mg/l. To counteract this, hydrograph controlled release (HCR) lagoons are a recent innovation. In this system, wastewater is discharged only during periods when the stream flow is adequate to prevent water quality degradation. When stream conditions prohibit discharge, wastewater is accumulated in a storage lagoon. Typical design parameters are summarized in Table 13.

Constructed wetlands, aquacultural operations, and sand filters are generally the most successful methods of polishing the treated wastewater effluent from the lagoons. These systems have also been used with more traditional, engineered primary treatment technologies such as Imhoff tanks, septic tanks, and primary clarifiers. Their main advantage is to provide additional treatment beyond secondary treatment where required. In recent years, constructed wetlands have been utilized in two designs: systems using surface water flows and systems using subsurface flows. Both systems utilize the roots of plants to provide substrate for the growth of attached bacteria which utilize the nutrients present in the effluents and for the transfer of oxygen. Bacteria do the bulk of the work in these systems, although there is some nitrogen uptake by the plants. The surface water system most closely approximates a natural wetland. Typically, these systems are long, narrow basins, with depths of less than 2 feet, that are planted with aquatic vegetation such as bulrush (Scirpus spp.) or cattails (Typha spp.). The shallow groundwater systems use a gravel or sand medium, approximately eighteen inches deep, which provides a rooting medium for the aquatic plants and through which the wastewater flows.

Table 13 Typical Design Features Aquatic Treatment Units


Treatment goal

Detention Time (days)

Depth (feet)

Organic Loading (lb/ac/day)

Oxidation pond





Facultative pond





Aerated pond

Secondary, polishing




Storage pond, HCR pond

Secondary, storage, polishing




Root zone Treatment, Hyacinth pond





Source: S.C. Reed, et al., Natural Systems for Waste Management and Treatment, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Aquaculture systems are distinguished by the type of plants grown in the wastewater holding basins. These plants are commonly water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) or duckweed (Lemna spp.). These systems are basically shallow ponds covered with floating plants that detain wastewater at least one week. The main purpose of the plants in these systems is to provide a suitable habitat for bacteria which remove the vast majority of dissolved nutrients. The design features of such systems are summarized in Table 14. (See also section 2.3, in Chapter 2, for a discussion of the role of the plants themselves.)

Table 14 Typical Design Features for Constructed Wetlands

Design Factor

Surface water flow

Subsurface water flow

Minimum surface area

23-115 ac/mgd

2.3-46 ac/mgd

Maximum water depth

Relatively shallow

Water level below ground surface

Bed depth

Not applicable


Minimum hydraulic residence time

7 days

7 days

Maximum hydraulic loading rate

0.2-1.0 gpd/sq ft

0.5-10 gpd/sq ft

Minimum pretreatment

Primary (secondary optional)


Range of organic loading as BOD

9-18 lb/ac/d

1.8-140 lb/ac/d

Source: USEPA, Wastewater Treatment/Disposal for Small Communities. Cincinnati, Ohio, 1992. (EPA Report No. EPA-625/R-92-005)

Sand filters have been used for wastewater treatment purposes for at least a century in Latin America and the Caribbean. Two types of sand filters are commonly used: intermittent and recirculating. They differ mainly in the method of application of the wastewater. Intermittent filters are flooded with wastewater and then allowed to drain completely before the next application of wastewater. In contrast, recirculating filters use a pump to recirculate the effluent to the filter in a ratio of 3 to 5 parts filter effluent to 1 part raw wastewater. Both types of filters use a sand layer, 2 to 3 feet thick, underlain by a collection system of perforated or open joint pipes enclosed within graded gravel. Water is treated biologically by the epiphytic flora associated with the sand and gravel particles, although some physical filtration of suspended solids by the sand grains and some chemical adsorption onto the surface of the sand grains play a role in the treatment process. (See also section 2.5, in Chapter 2.)

· Terrestrial Treatment Technologies

Terrestrial treatment systems include slow-rate overland flow, slow-rate subsurface infiltration, and rapid infiltration methods. In addition to wastewater treatment and low maintenance costs, these systems may yield additional benefits by providing water for groundwater recharge, reforestation, agriculture, and/or livestock pasturage. They depend upon physical, chemical, and biological reactions on and within the soil. Slow-rate overland flow systems require vegetation, both to take up nutrients and other contaminants and to slow the passage of the effluent across the land surface to ensure maximum contact times between the effluents and the plants/soils. Slow-rate subsurface infiltration systems and rapid infiltration systems are "zero discharge" systems that rarely discharge effluents directly to streams or other surface waters. Each system has different constraints regarding soil permeability.

Although slow-rate overland flow systems are the most costly of the natural systems to implement, their advantage is their positive impact on sustainable development practices. In addition to treating wastewater, they provide an economic return from the reuse of water and nutrients to produce marketable crops or other agriculture products and/or water and fodder for livestock. The water may also be used to support reforestation projects in water-poor areas. In slow-rate systems, either primary or secondary wastewater is applied at a controlled rate, either by sprinklers or by flooding of furrows, to a vegetated land surface of moderate to low permeability. The wastewater is treated as it passes through the soil by filtration, adsorption, ion exchange, precipitation, microbial action, and plant uptake. Vegetation is a critical component of the process and serves to extract nutrients, reduce erosion, and maintain soil permeability.

Overland flow systems are a land application treatment method in which treated effluents are eventually discharged to surface water. The main benefits of these systems are their low maintenance and low technical manpower requirements. Wastewater is applied intermittently across the tops of terraces constructed on soils of very low permeability and allowed to sheet-flow across the vegetated surface to the runoff collection channel. Treatment, including nitrogen removal, is achieved primarily through sedimentation, filtration, and biochemical activity as the wastewater flows across the vegetated surface of the terraced slope. Loading rates and application cycles are designed to maintain active microorganism growth in the soil. The rate and length of application are controlled to minimize the occurrence of severe anaerobic conditions, and a rest period between applications is needed. The rest period should be long enough to prevent surface ponding, yet short enough to keep the microorganisms active. Site constraints relating to land application technologies are shown in Table 15.

Table 15 Site Constraints for Land Application Technologies


Slow Rate

Rapid Infiltration

Subsurface Infiltration

Overland Flow

Soil texture

Sandy loam to clay loam

Sand and sandy loam

Sand to clayey loam

Silty loam and clayey loam

Depth to groundwater

3 ft

3 ft

3 ft

Not critical




Not applicable


Climatic restrictions

Growing season



Growing season


<20%, cultivated land
< 40%, uncultivated land

Not critical

Not applicable

2%-8% finished slopes

Source: USEPA, Wastewater Treatment/Disposal for Small Communities. Cincinnati, Ohio, 1992. (EPA Report No. EPA-625/R-92-005)

In rapid infiltration systems, most of the applied wastewater percolates through the soil, and the treated effluent drains naturally to surface waters or recharges the groundwater. Their cost and manpower requirements are low. Wastewater is applied to soils that are moderately or highly permeable by spreading in basins or by sprinkling. Vegetation is not necessary, but it does not cause a problem if present. The major treatment goal is to convert ammonia nitrogen in the water to nitrate nitrogen before discharging to the receiving water.

Subsurface infiltration systems are designed for municipalities of less than 2,500 people. They are usually designed for individual homes (septic tanks), but they can be designed for clusters of homes. Although they do require specific site conditions, they can be low-cost methods of wastewater disposal.

Extent of Use

These treatment technologies are widely used in Latin America and the Caribbean. Combinations of some of them with wastewater reuse technologies have been tested in several countries. Colombia has extensively tested aerobic and anaerobic mechanical treatment systems. Chile, Colombia, and Barbados have used activated sludge plants, while Brazil has utilized vertical reactor plants. Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, Curaçao, Mexico, Jamaica, and Saint Lucia have successfully experimented with different kinds of terrestrial and aquatic treatment systems for the treatment of wastewaters. Curaçao, Mexico, and Jamaica have used stabilization or facultative lagoons and oxidation ponds; their experience has been that aquatic treatment technologies require extensive land areas and relatively long retention times, on the order of 7 to 10 days, to adequately treat wastewater. An emerging technology, being tested in a number of different countries, is a hybrid aquatic-terrestrial treatment system that uses wastewaters for hydroponic cultivation. However, most of the applications of this hybrid technology to date have been limited to the experimental treatment of small volumes of wastewater.

Operation and Maintenance

Operation and maintenance requirements vary depending on the particular technology used. In mechanical activated-sludge plants, maintenance requirements consist of periodically activating the sludge pumps, inspecting the system to ensure that are no blockages or leakages in the system, and checking BOD and suspended solids concentrations in the plant effluent to ensure efficient operation.

In the case of aquatic treatment systems using anaerobic reactors and facultative lagoons for primary wastewater treatment, the following operational guidelines should be followed:

· Periodically clean the sand removal system (usually every 5 days in dry weather, and every 2 to 3 days in wet weather).

· Daily remove any oily material that accumulates in the anaerobic reactor.

· Daily remove accumulated algae in the facultative lagoons.

· Open the sludge valves to send the sludge to the drying beds.

· Establish an exotic aquatic plant removal program (aquatic plant growth can hamper the treatment capacity of the lagoons).

· Properly dispose of the materials removed, including dried sludge.

A preventive maintenance program should also be established to increase the efficiency of the treatment systems and prolong their lifespan.

When using terrestrial treatment systems or hybrid hydroponic cultivation systems for wastewater treatment, it is advisable to have two parallel systems, and to alternate applications of wastewater to these systems every 12 hours in order to facilitate aeration and to avoid damage to the system. Care is required to avoid hydraulic overload in these systems, as the irrigated plant communities could be damaged and the degree of treatment provided negated. Periodic removal of sediments accumulated in the soil is also required to improve the soil-plant interaction and to avoid soil compaction/subsidence.

Figure 29: Comparative Operation and Maintenance Cost of Wastewater Treatment Technologies.

Source: Ernesto Pérez, P.E., Technology Transfer Chief, Water Management Division, USEPA Region IV, Atlanta, Georgia.

Figure 30: Comparative Capital Cost of Wastewater Treatment Technologies.

Source: Ernesto Pérez, P.E., Technology Transfer Chief, Water Management Division, USEPA Region IV, Atlanta, Georgia.

Level of Involvement

Government involvement is essential in the implementation of most of the wastewater treatment technologies. The private sector, particularly the tourism industry, has successfully installed "packaged" or small-scale, self-contained sewage treatment plants at individual sites. In some cases, the installation of these plants has been combined with the reuse of the effluent for watering golf courses, lawns, and similar areas. The selection and construction of the appropriate wastewater treatment technology is generally initiated and financed, at least partially, by the government, with the subsequent operation and maintenance of the facility being a responsibility of the local community. Nevertheless, despite the large number of well-known and well-tested methods for wastewater treatment, there still exist a significant number of local communities in Latin America which discharge wastewater directly into lakes, rivers, estuaries, and oceans without treatment. As a result, surface water degradation, which also affects the availability of freshwater resources, is more widespread than is desirable within this region.


Construction costs and operation and maintenance costs for wastewater treatment systems with a capacity of 0.1 to 1 million gallons per day are summarized in Figures 29 and 30. Most of the cost data come from systems implemented in the United States. Similar systems in Latin America might be less expensive, in some cases, owing to lower labor costs and price differentials in construction materials. Nevertheless, the relative cost comparison among technologies is likely to be applicable to all countries.

Figure 29 compares the operating and maintenance costs (labor, energy, chemicals, and materials such as replacement equipment and parts) of the various systems of 0.1 to 1 mgd treatment capacity. All costs were obtained from the USEPA Innovative and Alternative Technology Assessment Manual. They have been indexed to the USEPA Operation, Maintenance, and Repair Index of Direct Costs for the first quarter of 1993 (4.3). All costs are presented in dollars per million gallons of wastewater treated. The cost for mechanical systems is significantly larger than for any of the other systems, particularly at smaller flows. The cost of harvesting plants from aquaculture systems is not included; this could be a significant amount for some systems.

Figure 30 compares of the capital cost of the wastewater treatment processes. The cost data are also from the Innovative and Alternative Technology Assessment Manual, with the exception of wetland and aquaculture data, which were obtained from more recent sources. All natural systems are assumed to have a facultative lagoon as the primary treatment unit. The cost of chlorination/disinfection is included for all systems except the slow rate and rapid infiltration systems. The cost of land is excluded in all cases, as is the cost of liners for the aquatic treatment systems. The mechanical treatment plant cost was derived as the cost of an oxidation ditch treatment system, and includes the cost of a clarifier, oxidation ditch, pumps, building, laboratory, and sludge drying beds. These costs also include the cost of engineering and construction management, in addition to the costs for piping, electrical systems, instrumentation, and site preparation. All costs are in March 1993 dollars.

Effectiveness of the Technology

Natural treatment systems are capable of producing an effluent quality equal to that of mechanical treatment systems. Figure 31 summarizes the treatment performance of each of the systems. All can meet the limits generally established for secondary treatment, defined as biological oxygen demand (BOD) and total suspended solids (TSS) concentrations of less than 30 mg/l. All except the lagoon systems can also produce effluents that meet the criteria generally categorized as advanced treatment, defined as BOD and TSS concentrations of less than 20 mg/l. The results of a project conducted in Bogota, Colombia, to compare the performance of different sewage treatment processes are summarized in Table 16.

Figure 31: Treatment Performance of Wastewater Treatment Technologies.

* 2ND = secondary limits of treatment for BOD and suspended solids < 30 mg/l.
* ADV = advanced treatment limits for BOD and total suspended solids < 20 mg/l.
*NH3 = 2 mg/l, TP < 2 mg/l, TN < 2 mg/l.

Source: Ernesto Pérez, P.E., Technology Transfer Chief, Water Management Division, USEPA Region IV, Atlanta, Georgia.


Mechanical systems are more suitable for places where land availability is a concern, such as hotels and residential areas. Mechanical plants are the least land intensive of the wastewater treatment methods based on natural processes.

Lagoon and oxidation pond technologies are suitable where there is plenty of land available. Slow-rate systems require as much as 760 acres. Hybrid hydroponic cultivation techniques, using aquatic and terrestrial plants for the treatment for wastewater, also require relatively large amounts of land, and are best suited to regions where suitable aquatic plants can grow naturally.


Table 17 summarizes the advantages of the various wastewater treatment technologies. In general, the advantages of using natural biological processes relate to their "low-tech/no-tech" nature, which means that these systems are relatively easy to construct and operate, and to their low cost, which makes them attractive to communities with limited budgets. However, their simplicity and low cost may be deceptive in that the systems require frequent inspections and constant maintenance to ensure smooth operation. Concerns include hydraulic overloading, excessive plant growth, and loss of exotic plants to natural watercourses. For this reason, and also because of the land requirements for biologically based technologies, many communities prefer mechanically-based technologies, which tend to require less land and permit better control of the operation. However, these systems generally have a high cost and require more skilled personnel to operate them.

Table 16 Comparative Performance of Sewage Treatment Systems


Oxygen Supply

Reactor Volume

Retention Time

Removal Efficiency

Activated sludge

Pressurized air

10 m3

4-6 hr

90%-95% organic matter 90%-95% suspended solids

Biologic rotary discs


1 m3

1-3 hr

90%-95% organic matter

Ascendant flow


2 m3

24 hr

50%-60% organic matter 57% suspended solids

Anaerobic filtration


2 m3

36 hr

40%-50% organic matter 52% suspended solids

Septic tank


2 m3

36 hr

25% organic matter

Hydroponic cultivation


6 m3

12 hr

65%-75% organic matter

Source: Ernesto Pérez, P.E., Technology Transfer Chief, Water Management Division, USEPA Region IV, Atlanta, Georgia.


Table 17 also summarizes the disadvantages of the various wastewater treatment technologies. These generally relate to the cost of construction and ease of operation. Mechanical systems can be costly to build and operate as they require specialized personnel. Nevertheless, they do offer a more controlled environment which produces a more consistent quality of effluent. Natural biological systems, on the other hand, are more land-intensive, require less-skilled operators, and can produce effluents of variable quality depending on time of year, type of plants, and volume of wastewater loading. Generally, the complexity and cost of wastewater treatment technologies increase with the quality of the effluent produced.

Cultural Acceptability

Governments and the private sector in many Latin American countries fail to fully recognize the necessity of wastewater treatment and the importance of water quality in improving the quality of life of existing and future generations. The contamination of natural resources is a major impediment to achieving the stated objective of Agenda 21 of environmentally sustainable economic growth and development.

Further Development of the Technology

The cost-effectiveness of all wastewater treatment technologies needs to be improved. New designs of mechanical systems which address this concern are being introduced by the treatment plant manufacturing industry. The use of vertical reactors with an activated-sludge system, being tested in Brazil in order to acquire data for future improvement of this technology, is one example of the innovation going on in the industry. Similar product development is occurring in the use of aquatic and terrestrial plants and hybrid hydroponic systems, as a means of wastewater treatment; however, these technologies are still in an experimental phase and will require more testing and research prior to being accepted as standard treatment technologies. In addition, education to create an awareness of the need for wastewater treatment remains a critical need at all levels of government and

Table 17 Advantages and Disadvantages of Conventional and Non-conventional Wastewater Treatment Technologies

Treatment Type



Aquatic Systems

Stabilization lagoons

Low capital cost
Low operation and maintenance costs
Low technical manpower requirement

Requires a large area of land
May produce undesirable odors

Aerated lagoons

Requires relatively little land area
Produces few undesirable odors

Requires mechanical devices to aerate the basins
Produces effluents with a high suspended solids concentration

Terrestrial Systems

Septic tanks

Can be used by individual households
Easy to operate and maintain
Can be built in rural areas

Provides a low treatment efficiency
Must be pumped occasionally
Requires a landfill for periodic disposal of sludge and septage

Constructed wetlands

Removes up to 70% of solids and bacteria
Minimal capital cost
Low operation and maintenance requirements and costs

Remains largely experimental
Requires periodic removal of excess plant material
Best used in areas where suitable native plants are available

Mechanical Systems

Filtration systems

Minimal land requirements; can be used for household-scale treatment
Relatively low cost
Easy to operate

Requires mechanical devices

Vertical biological reactors

Highly efficient treatment method
Requires little land area
Applicable to small communities for local-scale treatment and to big cities for regional-scale treatment

High cost
Complex technology
Requires technically skilled manpower for operation and maintenance
Needs spare-parts-availability
Has a high energy requirement

Activated sludge

Highly efficient treatment method
Requires little land area
Applicable to small communities for local-scale treatment and to big cities for regional-scale treatment

High cost
Requires sludge disposal area (sludge is usually land-spread)
Requires technically skilled manpower for operation and maintenance

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