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The institutional mechanism to handle wastewater has failed

The institutional mechanism to handle wastewater has failed

India should make provisions for water sanctuaries for conservation of the precious resource in its rapidly growing cities, says Dr Suresh Kumar Rohilla, Programme Director, Water Management, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

What are the key challenges in water and wastewater management in India?
There are a variety of challenges in water and wastewater management. One of the major issues is that of the widening demand-supply gap in the water sector as well as treatment of wastewater. There is also the question of efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability about the efforts being made currently. And in terms of solutions, there is a total disconnect between technological solutions, society and economic costs.

How important is people’s participation in water conservation?
As I said before, there is a total disconnect, which clearly means that an individual has been reduced to the paradigm of a subscriber number. This hardly leaves any role for an individual in planning, designing and implementation of a solution. He has no say in production of water or its pricing. It’s left to a group of engineers and politicians to decide how water has to be provided and treated.

You often emphasise on new technology and knowledge-sharing as essential to urban communities evolving sustainable water solutions. Please elaborate…
Currently there is only lip service on community involvement. In the past four decades, the institutional mechanism that was developed to handle water and wastewater has failed miserably. If you really desire to introduce governance in water management, you have to engage with people by making them a party to the decision-making process. So, from the first stage of the solution, you will keep people informed that they will have to pay Rs 10 per 1,000 litres if they are supplied water from the Tehri Dam. Then, after 10 or 15 years, pipelines have to be changed, (and) they will be charged Rs 2 extra. However, what is happening today is that there are government proposals saying that water will be provided free. Since nothing is free in this world, that means ‘no water’!

So, where does that leave us?
I just said I am against giving free water. However, if governments decide on providing free water to citizens, they must still charge for the sewage treatment in full. Automatically half of your problem will be resolved as sewage treatment is four to ten times costlier than producing drinking water. In the process, you might lose money on 20 per cent, but 80 per cent will be sewage. Presently it’s the other way around; you charge Rs 500 for water and only 50 per cent of that for wastewater treatment. How can you have sustainable water management when you are charging less than its factor cost? Citizens, including the poor, have the right to water, but not the right to pollute.

Given the increased pressure on traditional sources of water, are the various ongoing projects to supply 24×7 potable water to citizens feasible?
In the technical sense, 24×7 water supply means that you have sustained hydropneumatics pressure. But that requires lot of investment. And there are hardly any successful examples in India except for Malkapur in Maharashtra. Even in Nagpur, it is not in the entire city but only a few wards in the industrial township. Similarly, there are a few wards in Hubli-Dharwar (Karnataka) where it has been implemented, but never on a city-wide basis.

Maybe that was the case in the past, owing to sufficient availability of groundwater. A feasibility study for a 24×7 water supply project for a small township will cost Rs 5 crore. And an urban local body might not have that kind of a budget. You have to actually start from scratch by putting in completely new infrastructure in place. It is being done in New Delhi’s Malviya Nagar on a pilot basis. The provider has full control on the project cost, pipelines, and repairs and overhaul.

Going forward, are we likely to witness any significant increase in wastewater generation?
Obviously! With improvement in quality of life, there will be increase in consumption. Bucket baths will become shower baths. With the new toilet campaign under the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, a house that didn’t have a toilet earlier, will now have a flush toilet. That requires 70 litres of water per capita annually. For a sewerage system and flush toilet, you need 150 litres per capita, which means you need 60 to 70 litres per person, per day. That means wastewater generation is going to increase manifold.

Currently, we are unable to treat even 30 per cent of wastewater generated in the country. The daily water supply in India works out to around 75,000 million litres per day. Out of the total capacity to treat wastewater, around 35 to 40 per cent treatment capacity is in Delhi and Mumbai alone. This means there is a huge demand-supply gap in wastewater generation and treatment. This figure is based on the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report of 2015, which clearly says that there has been a 30 per cent increase in wastewater generation over the last seven to eight years. We are talking about 500 AMRUT Cities (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) and 100 Smart Cities. Currently the strategy is to provide more and more water, which is supply-side planning. We are not making cities that are ‘water prudent’. The criterion seems to be that the more water you consume, the more developed you are. If you see the standards for water supply elsewhere, you will find that in Denmark it is 80 litres per capita, per day, while in India, it is 150 litres per capita, per day, at a basic technical level. But already big cities are supplying 300 to 400 litres per capita, per day. This means they are already receiving more water than the technical norm. They should reduce the supply as well as focus on curtailing 30 to 40 per cent leakage and distribution losses. There is another major contradiction. The Ministry of Urban Development says that for a small city to transform into a big city, it needs to supply water from 70 to 150 litres per capita, per day. However, the National Water Mission says that there should be 20 per cent saving in water consumption by 2020. Meanwhile, the unaccounted losses in water supply have to be borne by the water utility. As of date, a water utility’s recovery is in the range of 10 to 20 per cent, which is barely sufficient to cover its operation and maintenance costs, with hardly any recovery of the production cost.

Have the tie-ups with national and international private players for treatment of wastewater and industrial effluents been impactful?
There are a lot of players in the business of water supply and wastewater treatment. But they have been trying to sell solutions that are over 100 years old for 250 cities and towns in 21st century India. We need solutions for 2017, and not the methodology for cleaning up of River Thames sometime in the early 20th century. We urgently require new solutions, new lessons and new learnings. Presently, the 1990s-era consultants are planning for 2050. They have no experience of the complex urban organisational structures existing in our cities such as Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai. Despite their never having seen those volumes of slum dwellings, they are trying to provision water supply to them, with scant idea about how to recover project costs.

In your view, is enough being done at the municipal level for rainwater harvesting?
Rainwater harvesting has become something of a joke. In a municipal area, it is the local body that exercises control. You pay a certain percentage of the cost of your house towards external services such as water. In case a municipality is unable to supply that, it can meet the shortfall through rainwater harvesting. However, in a bid to hide their own inefficiencies, municipalities are asking citizens to make their own arrangements for rainwater harvesting. Why can’t the storm water runoff be put back into the water-supply network after being treated at plants located in zones, blocks or public parks?

What needs to be done towards effective conservation of groundwater reserves?
Conservation of groundwater reserves means that you need to create more opportunities for recharge. Just like extraction points, recharge points should also be evenly distributed. Flood plains and natural water bodies such as lakes and ponds need to be preserved. Why can’t river floodplains be declared groundwater sanctuaries? For instance, Delhi state only has two days of back up stored in case of any major disruption to its water supply, though it must be braced for the worst. Therefore, if the water supply is affected for any reason, the city must have at least 10 days’ water supply in its reserves.

– MANISH PANT

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