Advancing rainwater treatment technologies for irrigation of urban agriculture: A pathway toward innovation

Lei Zheng, Yang Deng

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debate


Urban agriculture (UA) has emerged for local food security since the 1960s. However, the access to sufficient and safe irrigation water remains a significant constraint. Municipal water supply, though commonly used in UA practices, proves unsustainable due to high costs, intensive energy consumption, and limited availability in many vacant urban spaces. In contrast, rainwater harvesting (RWH) exhibits a potential as a non-traditional water supply for urban farming. This article aims to provide insights into the advantages and challenges associated with RWH for UA irrigation, analyze existing low-cost RWH treatment technologies, and identify a visionary way toward innovative, new-generation RWH treatment processes in UA practices. Despite a promising water source, harvested rainwater is challenged for crop irrigation owing to the presence of various contaminants (e.g., waterborne pathogens, potentially toxic metals and metalloids, and synthetic organic chemicals). While established RWH treatment processes (e.g., first flush diversion, sedimentation, solar disinfection, chlorination, UV irradiation, granular filtration, and bio-sand filtration) can remove certain pollutants, they cannot offer viable treatment solutions for UA irrigation due to different technical, economic, and social restrictions. Particularly, their capacity to reliably remove contaminants of emerging concern in runoff remains limited or uncertain. Consequently, it is essential to develop next-generation RWH treatment technologies tailored specifically for UA irrigation. To this end, three fundamental principles are recommended. First, the focus should be on technically viable, low-cost, simple-operation, and easy-maintenance treatment technologies capable of simultaneously addressing traditional and emerging runoff contaminants, while minimizing the production of undesirable treatment byproducts. Second, advancing the understanding of the water, soil, and crop interactions enables the development of “right” RWH treatment processes for irrigation of “right” crops at a “right” place. Last, crop nutrients, if possible, are retained in rainwater to reduce the nutrient demand for crop production. The insights and perspectives have far-reaching implications for water conservation, stormwater management, and the integration of water, food, and energy systems within the urban environment.

Original languageEnglish
Article number170087
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - 15 Mar 2024


  • Irrigation
  • Pollutants
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Stormwater runoff
  • Treatment
  • Urban agriculture


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