Vertical Flow Constructed Wetland

A vertical flow constructed wetland is a planted filter bed that is drained at the bottom. Wastewater is poured or dosed onto the surface from above using a mechanical dosing system. The water flows vertically down through the filter matrix to the bottom of the basin where it is collected in a drainage pipe. The important difference between a vertical and horizontal wetland is not simply the direction of the flow path, but rather the aerobic conditions.

By intermittently dosing the wetland (4 to 10 times a day), the filter goes through stages of being saturated and unsaturated, and, accordingly, different phases of aerobic and anaerobic conditions. During a flush phase, the wastewater percolates down through the unsaturated bed. As the bed drains, air is drawn into it and the oxygen has time to diffuse through the porous media.

The filter media acts as a filter for removing solids, a fixed surface upon which bacteria can attach and a base for the vegetation. The top layer is planted and the vegetation is allowed to develop deep, wide roots, which permeate the filter media. The vegetation transfers a small amount of oxygen to the root zone so that aerobic bacteria can colonize the area and degrade organics. However, the primary role of vegetation is to maintain permeability in the filter and provide habitat for microorganisms. Nutrients and organic material are absorbed and degraded by the dense microbial populations. By forcing the organisms into a starvation phase between dosing phases, excessive biomass growth can be decreased and porosity increased.

Design Considerations 

The vertical flow constructed wetland can be designed as a shallow excavation or as an above ground construction. Clogging is a common problem. Therefore, the influent should be well settled in a primary treatment stage before flowing into the wetland. The design and size of the wetland is dependent on hydraulic and organic loads. Generally, a surface area of about 1 to 3 m2 per person equivalent is required. Each filter should have an impermeable liner and an effluent collection system. A ventilation pipe connected to the drainage system can contribute to aerobic conditions in the filter. Structurally, there is a layer of gravel for drainage (a minimum of 20 cm), followed by layers of sand and gravel. Depending on the climate, Phragmites australis (reed), Typha sp. (cattails) or Echinochloa pyramidalis are common plant options. Testing may be required to determine the suitability of locally available plants with the specific wastewater. Due to good oxygen transfer, vertical flow wetlands have the ability to nitrify, but denitrification is limited. In order to create a nitrification-denitrification treatment train, this technology can be combined with a Free-Water Surface or Horizontal Flow Wetland.


The vertical flow constructed wetland is a good treatment for communities that have primary treatment (e.g., Septic Tanks) but are looking to achieve a higher quality effluent. Because of the mechanical dosing system, this technology is most appropriate where trained maintenance staff, constant power supply, and spare parts are available. Since vertical flow constructed wetlands are able to nitrify, they can be an appropriate technology in the treatment process for wastewater with high ammonium concentrations. Vertical flow constructed wetlands are best suited to warm climates, but can be designed to tolerate some freezing and periods of low biological activity.

Health Aspects/Acceptance

Pathogen removal is accomplished by natural decay, predation by higher organisms, and filtration. The risk of mosquito breeding is low since there is no standing water. The system is generally aesthetic and can be integrated into wild areas or parklands. Care should be taken to ensure that people do not come in contact with the influent because of the risk of infection.

Operation & Maintenance

During the first growing season, it is important to remove weeds that can compete with the planted wetland vegetation. Distribution pipes should be cleaned once a year to remove sludge and biofilm that might block the holes. With time, the gravel will become clogged by accumulated solids and bacterial film. Resting intervals may restore the hydraulic conductivity of the bed. If this does not help, the accumulated material has to be removed and clogged parts of the filter material replaced. Maintenance activities should focus on ensuring that primary treatment is effective at reducing the concentration of solids in the wastewater before it enters the wetland. Maintenance should also ensure that trees do not grow in the area as the roots can harm the liner.


Further Readings

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    TILLEY, E.; ULRICH, L.; LUETHI, C.; REYMOND, P.; SCHERTENLEIB, R.; ZURBRUEGG, C. (2014): Compendium of Sanitation Systems and Technologies (Arabic). 2nd Revised Edition. Duebendorf, Switzerland: Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag). PDF

    This is the Arabic version of the Compendium of Sanitation Systems and Technologies. The Compendium gives a systematic overview on different sanitation systems and technologies and describes a wide range of available low-cost sanitation technologies.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    KADLEC, R. H.; WALLACE, S. D. (2009): Treatment Wetlands. 2nd Edition. Boca Raton: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group. URL [Accessed: 18.06.2014]. PDF

    This book supports in making informed decisions regarding wetland design.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    KUSCHK, P. ; WIESSNER, A.; MUELLER, R.; KAESTNER, M. (2005): Constructed Wetlands – Treating Wastewater with Cenoses of Plants and Microorganisms. Leipzig-Halle: UFZ Centre for Environmental Research. URL [Accessed: 12.10.2011]. PDF

    The underlying philosophy of phytoremediation research at UFZ (Centre for Environmental Research) is to exploit and to optimise the processes in the rhizosphere. Low-cost, simple systems will be developed to control the environmental problems of different countries in several continents irrespective of their industrial capabilities and conditions – without losing sight of the key principle of cleaning up polluted environmental media in a natural, ecologically balanced way.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    SASSE, L. ; BORDA (Editor) (1998): DEWATS. Decentralised Wastewater Treatment in Developing Countries. Bremen: Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association (BORDA). PDF

    Exhaustive report on technological, operational and economic aspects of decentralised waste water treatment systems. Spreadsheet examples support the reader in designing and planning waste water treatment systems components.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    WHO (Editor) (2006): Guidelines for the safe use of wastewater excreta and greywater. Volume IV. Excreta and Greywater Use in Agriculture. Geneva: World Health Organisation. URL [Accessed: 26.02.2010]. PDF

    Volume IV of the Guidelines for the Safe Use of Wastewater, Excreta and Greywater recognizes the reuse potential of wastewater and excreta (including urine) in agriculture and describes the present state of knowledge as regards potential health risks associated with the reuse as well as measures to manage these health risks following a multi-barrier approach.

Case Studies

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    ECOSAN CLUB (Editor) (2013): Selected contributions from the 1st WATERBIOTECH conference, 9-11 October 2012, Cairo, Egypt. Vienna: Ecosan Club. URL [Accessed: 29.01.2013]. PDF

    This issue publishes selected contributions from the 1st WATERBIOTECH conference. WATERBIOTECH („Biotechnology for Africa‘s sustainable water supply“) is a coordination and support action funded within the Africa call of the EU 7th Framework Programme.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    LIPKOW, U.; MUENCH, E. von (2010): Constructed Wetland for a Peri-urban Housing Area Bayawan City, Philippines. Eschborn: Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA). URL [Accessed: 10.01.2011]. PDF

    Case study on constructed wetlands for a peri-urban housing area. Septic tanks are used to pre-treat the sewage. The pre-treated wastewater is transported through a small-bore sewer system.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    MOHAMED, A. ; KLINGEL, F.; BRACKEN, P.; WERNER, C. (2009): Effluent reuse from constructed wetland system Haran Al-Awamied, Syria. Eschborn: Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) . URL [Accessed: 26.01.2011]. PDF

    In the village of Haran Al-Awamied a gravity sewer system already existed and waste water was collected for irrigation without any treatment. GTZ and MHC (Syrian Ministry of Housing and Construction) initiated a project for a new ecological treatment plant (settling tank and a vertical flow CW).

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    ROBBINS, D.; STRANDE, L.; DOCZI, J. (2012): Opportunities in Fecal Sludge Management for Cities in Developing Countries: Experiences from the Philippines. North Carolina: RTI International . URL [Accessed: 15.01.2013]. PDF

    In July 2012, a team from RTI International deployed to the Philippines to evaluate four FSM programs with the goal of reporting on best practices and lessons learned. The four cases—Dumaguete City, San Fernando City, Maynilad Water for the west zone of metro Manila, and Manila Water from the east zone of metro Manila—were chosen to highlight their different approaches to implementing FSM.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    U.S. EPA (Editor) (1993): Constructed Wetlands for Wastewater Treatment and Wildlife Habitat. Washington DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). URL [Accessed: 22.09.2011]. PDF

    This document provides brief descriptions of 17 wetland treatment systems from that are providing significant water quality benefits while demonstrating additional benefits such as wildlife habitat. The projects described include systems involving both constructed and natural wetlands, habitat creation and restoration, and the improvement of municipal effluent, urban stormwater and river water quality. Each project description was developed by individuals directly involved with or very familiar with the project in a format that could also be used as a stand-alone brochure or handout for project visitors.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    GAUSS, M.; WSP (Editor) (2008): Constructed Wetlands: A Promising Wastewater Treatment system for Small Localities. Experiences from Latin America. Washington D.C.: The World Bank. URL [Accessed: 12.12.2011]. PDF

    This report provides an overview of how constructed wetlands serve as natural wastewater treatment systems. It focuses especially on the subsurface horizontal flow type—a technology that has high potential for small and medium-size communities because of its simplicity, performance reliability, and low operation and maintenance requirements. The ability of this wetland to reduce pathogens renders the effluent suitable for irrigation of certain crop species if additional health and environmental protection measures are taken. This report describes several experiences with constructed wetland schemes in Central and South America: a full-scale pilot plant in Nicaragua, a community-managed constructed wetland scheme in El Salvador, and other systems in Colombia, Brazil, and Peru.

  • Cover image of a reference journal article.

    JENSSEN, P. (2005): Decentralized Urban Greywater Treatment at Klosterenga Oslo. In: Ecological Engineering-Bridging between Ecology and Civil Engineering, 84.URL [Accessed: 21.02.2012]. PDF

    Today it is possible to foresee completely decentralized wastewater treatment systems in urban areas where the blackwater fractions (urine and faecal matter) is reclaimed for fertilizer and potentially energy production. The water from kitchen sinks and showers (greywater) is treated locally in compact low maintenance systems that constitute attractive landscape elements. These systems can coexist with decentralized water supply.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    MUELLEGGER, E. (Editor); LANGERGRABER, G. (Editor); LECHNER, M. (Editor) (2012): Treatment Wetlands. Vienna: EcoSan Club. URL [Accessed: 18.07.2012]. PDF

    Issue 12 of Sustainable Sanitation Practice (SSP) on „Treatment wetlands“ includes 6 contributions: (1.) the Austrian experience with single-stage sand and gravel based vertical flow systems with intermittent loading (the Austrian type is for treating mechanically pre-treated wastewater), (2.) the French experiences with two-stage vertical flow systems treating raw wastewater. (3.) EcoSan Club‘s experiences with TWs in Uganda, (4.) results from multi-stage TW treating raw wastewater in Morocco. (5.) results from horizontal flow experimental systems from Egypt, and (6.) experiences from Denmark and UK on reed beds treating excess sludge from activated sludge plants.

Awareness Material

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    HORWITZ, P.; FINLAYSON, M.; WEINSTEIN, P. (2012): Healthy Wetlands, Healthy People: A Review of Wetlands and Human Health Interactions. Ramsar Technical Report No. 6. Gland and Geneva: Secretariat of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and The World Health Organization (WHO). URL [Accessed: 05.03.2012]. PDF

    Despite the production of more food and extraction of more water globally, wetlands continue to decline and public health and living standards for many do not improve. Why is this – and what needs to change to improve the situation? If we manage wetlands better, can we improve the health and well-being of people? Indeed, why is this important? This report seeks to address these questions.

Training Material

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    UNEP (Editor) (n.y.): Waste Stabilization Ponds and Constructed Wetlands Manual. . United Nations Environmental Programme International Environmental Technology Center (UNEP-IETC) and the Danish International Development Agency (Danida). URL [Accessed: 19.04.2010]. PDF

    Design manual for designers, builders and operators on the design and operation of artificially constructed wetlands and waste stabilization ponds. The supporting information includes a standard systems approach which can be adopted universally; the theoretical background on the biological, chemical and physical processes of each method, the current state of the technology and technical knowledge on how to design, operate and maintain them; and theoretical knowledge on how best the models may be used to describe the systems.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    UN-HABITAT (Editor) (2008): Constructed Wetlands Manual. Kathmandu: UN-HABITAT, Water for Asian Cities Program. URL [Accessed: 15.02.2012]. PDF

    This manual has been prepared as a general guide to the design, construction, operation and maintenance of constructed wetlands for the treatment of domestic wastewater as well as introduction to the design of constructed wetland for sludge drying.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    U.S. EPA (Editor) (1999): Manual – Constructed Wetlands Treatment of Municipal Wastewater. Washington D.C.: United States: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). URL [Accessed: 24.08.2011]. PDF

    This manual discusses the capabilities of constructed wetlands, a functional design approach, and the management requirements to achieve the designed purpose. The manual also attempts to put the proper perspective on the appropriate use, design and performance of constructed wetlands. Furthermore, the document contains two case studies.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    WAFLER, M. (2008): Small-scale Constructed Wetlands for Greywater and Total Domestic Wastewater Treatment. Vienna: seecon international gmbh. PDF

    This training material quantifies and characterises grey- and total domestic wastewater production and exemplifies designing of small-scale horizontal and vertical flow constructed wetland system.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    WAFLER, M. (2008): Technical Lecture Greywater Management. Vienna: seecon international gmbh. PDF

    This PDFPresentation quantifies and characterises grey- and total domestic wastewater production and exemplifies designing of small-scale horizontal and vertical flow constructed wetland system.