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Blue Gold

Blue Gold

Warring nations over water may sound apocalyptic, but there is no denying water is going to be a major restraint on urbanisation.

Basic demand-supply rules apply here and explain to a large extent doomsday scenarios captured in Hollywood hits such as Water Wars, Blue Gold or The Water War, a documentary movie about the water conflict in Mozambique.

Water is a finite resource, and according to some scientists could well be dwindling in certain regions around the world. In India, we have already exhausted groundwater resources in all our densely populated, industrialised or farmed areas. In many other regions of the country, it is severely limited. That hasn´t stopped us from digging more than 30 million tube-wells to suck out this precious resource. Nitya Jacob, Head of Policy, WaterAid India believes cities are one of the main culprits, ¨partly because planners, engineers and politicians have failed to provide an assured supply of water; and partly because of our mentality of stockpiling. A tube-well is seen as a stockpile against an uncertain future.¨

Status check
Several studies in recent years on the status of groundwater in urban areas have indicated that groundwater levels are declining by 1-1.5 metres a year. The same studies indicate cities draw anything from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of their water requirements from aquifers. This also holds true for industrial estates and agriculture. Industrial estates are set up without thought to where their water supply will come from and where their sewage will go.

In an ideal situation, a city should draw water from a surface source such as a lake or river that is managed sustainably. This means there should be enough water left in the river or lake to perform its ecological functions; only the exact percentage is a matter of debate. However, the practice in India is to suck out all the water from the river or lake and return sewage to it. Rivers are sucked dry before they enter a city and then receive a series of drains carrying a cocktail of raw or partially treated sewage and industrial effluents. This is the case in Delhi, Hyderabad, Pune, Bhubaneswar, Lucknow, Srinagar, etc.

Continuing with the ideal situation, a city should collect, treat and reuse or discharge all the sewage or industrial effluent it produces. There are standards for the treated water. It must at least meet a BOD5 load (biochemical oxygen demands) of 30 mg/litre. River water quality where human contact happens must be below 3 mg/litre. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) guess-estimates all cities produced something like 50,000 million litres of sewage per day (MLD) but have the capacity to treat only 11,000 MLD. Therefore, about 40,000 MLD enters lakes, rivers and the groundwater each day without treatment.

AB Pandya, Chairman, Central Water Commission, says, ¨The lack of awareness among common people regarding deteriorating quantity and quality of water is a major bottleneck in planning and implementing water pollution mitigation measures¨.

Solid waste and groundwater
While the topic of solid waste management merits an article on its own, a brief mention here should suffice to relate the effects of unsafe practices in disposing solid waste. Huge landfills of untreated solid waste pose a real danger to the quality of our groundwater. Rain falling on these landfills is the main contributor to the generation of leachate (water that drains or leaches from a landfill). It is little wonder studies by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), Ministry of Water Resources have found high concentration of fluoride beyond the permissible limit of 1.5mg/l in our groundwater. CGWB´s studies show ground water in 224 districts in 19 states contain excessive fluoride content. Arsenic, as a contaminant, is significant in terms of its toxic nature with exceedingly diverse manifestations of poisoning. Elevated concentrations of arsenic in groundwater are reported from various parts of India but particularly affecting the large parts of the Ganga-Brahmaputra Plains. High concentration of arsenic beyond the permissible limit of 0.05 mg/l in groundwater has been reported from 86 districts of 10 states.

High concentration of iron (greater than 1.0 mg/l) in groundwater has been observed in more than 1.1 lakh habitations. Groundwater contaminated by iron has been reported from 22 states and the union territory of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

Positive intent and action
Many industry players are hopeful the road ahead will be a good one for the sector. Suhas Dixit, CMD of Pyrocrat Systems LLP, says, ¨Waste management was a model of corruption earlier. Today, a number of contracts are coming up for re-tendering. There is an opportunity for serious players like us.¨

Moreover, the government has started supporting private participation in the sector and introduced a number of regulatory reforms. The efforts of the Central Government with Swacch Bharat Abhiyan and National Clean Ganga Mission seems to have created awareness. However, it will need to tread a careful line. The world over, water infrastructure has been largely state-funded. Add to this the fact that in a country like India, in many cases where people are unwilling to pay for even assured clean drinking water, getting them to pay for sewage and waste-water treatment will take time.

Until then, A Vidya Vathsal, Group CEO, India, Earth Water Group & Aqualyng, says some level of subsidy has to come from the government. ¨It can´t be public private partnership. An investor is not going to risk his shirt and pant, invest into these mega ventures and then find after three or four years that this is not working out,¨ says Vathsal.

However, with the proposed tax breaks for industries that save water, recycle and reuse, Vathsal says the ¨PPP model is far more feasible in industrial waste-water management, and I expect we will begin to see many of these¨.

Huge opportunity
Let´s sample a few numbers. Indian cities generate 38 billion litres of municipal waste-water every day. Moreover, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) estimates only 22 per cent of the waste-water from class I cities and 14 per cent from class II cities is being collected through sanitary or storm sewer networks. Further, CPCB estimates there are 269 sewage treatment plants (STPs) of which only 231 are functional. Moreover, these operational plants are not working to their designed capacity, leaving a big gap between waste-water generation and treatment. Thus, the existing treatment capacity of waste-water is just 21 per cent of the generation. This leaves a big gap of almost 80 per cent of generated waste-water not being treated before its release to water bodies leading to groundwater contamination.

It is evident, therefore, the opportunity to create the required infrastructure for proper management of water and the subsequent treatment of waste-water is tremendous. The government has set the ball rolling, shown itself to be aware of the problem as it declared 2015 as ´Jal Kranti Varsh´, or the Water Revolution Year. It now needs to follow through on implementation.

  • India, the second most populous country in the world has 17.4% of the world´s population
  • In contrast, it has only 4 per cent of the world´s fresh water resources.
  • About 80% of total water supplied for domestic use gets generated as waste-water
  • Indian cities generate 38 billion litres of municipal waste-water every day
  • 80% flows untreated into rivers and streams, contaminating precious groundwater sources

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