Mary Abraham, Nathaniel B Dkhar and Girija K Bharat, Mu Gamma Consultants, Gurugram


The availability of water in India is under pressure due to increasing population, urbanisation and the impact of climate change. The situation is further exacebated by water pollution caused by anthropogenic and geogenic factors. Among the anthropogenic factors, inadequate treatment of used water is a major concern in India. Approximately 70 per cent of used water being untreated is one of the main sources of pollution in surface and groundwater, writes Mary Abraham, Nathaniel B Dkhar and Girija K Bharat, Mu Gamma Consultants, Gurugram.

Background

Improved wastewater treatment capacities and their safe reuse can curb environmental pollution, make fresh water sources available for higher hierarchy uses, and support a circular economy in the water sector. This contributes towards the achievement of the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and more specifically the achievement of SDG 6.3. It is evident that the Indian government has initiated policies to recognise the need for used water treatment and effective management of this resource. The Prime Minister’s endorsement of the National Ganga Council confirms the country’s commitment to used water treatment and reuse.

Current scenario

Used water from households, commercial establishments, industries, runoff from urban and agricultural land are the main sources of pollution in many parts of India. It is estimated that 72,368 million litres per day (MLD) (CPCB, 2021) of wastewater is generated throughout the country. However, the installed capacity of the STPs is only 31,841 MLD, with actual treatment only 20,236 MLD due to the fact that several STPs are inoperative¹ (CPCB, 2021). A total of 29,129 million litres of sewage are expected to be produced from Class I and Class II cities, while treatment capacity is only 6190 million litres, resulting in a shortfall of 22,939 million litres (78.7 per cent). Despite significant expansions in treatment capacity over the past five years, a deficit remains. The mixing of industrial-used water adds to the challenge and poses a serious risk to both human health and the environment.

Bridge

The solid waste scenario is compounding to the challenges associated with used water. It is estimated that approximately 1,50,847 tons of solid waste are generated in India each day, with only 47 per cent being treated². Rivers ultimately discharge much of the untreated solid waste into the ocean. Several urban local governments are still struggling with low technical and managerial capacities in dealing with waste management, which has been further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wastewater and SDGs

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are generally interconnected and mutually reinforcing. While India has made substantial progress toward achieving SDG 6.1 and 6.2 in terms of access to water and sanitation, SDG 6.3 (to improve water quality, reduce pollution, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater, increase recycling and safe reuse by 2030) still has a long way to go. SDG 6.3 and 11.6 (urban waste and promoting urban sustainability and resilience) are closely linked in terms of lowering pollution into water bodies.

Issues and challenges

Despite the growing consensus to reduce pollution by treating wastewater, and to reduce freshwater demand by reusing treated water, several issues and challenges persist. As elaborated below, the challenges include setting up of a regulatory and institutional framework for safe reuse, conveyance of treated water to potential users, coordination and convergence between various aligned departments, funding mechanisms, public perception, monitoring, compliances and quality control in wastewater treatment plants, public health safety aspects.

Also Read | Wastewater Management in Urban India

Implementation challenges

The implementation of national and state-level legislation on the reuse of treated wastewater is a great challenge as misinterpretation of guidelines and policies can result in further issues. Public perception of reuse can pose a major challenge in terms of acceptability and willingness-to-pay. Reuse in industry is a very important option, but depends upon the geographic vicinity, conveyance of treated used water and a viable business model. In the agriculture sector, it is very safe for reuse in
non-edible food crops, urban forestry, urban greening but raises concerns about the safety of the food crops and the irrigation techniques. Therefore, enhancing infrastructural, technical and managerial capacities of the urban local bodies (ULBs), awareness among the industry as well as the farmer and other stakeholder groups is essential.

Governance challenges

The regulations governing the reuse of wastewater for various end-user groups as well as release of the treated water into the environment complying with the discharge standards need regular monitoring and evaluation. Decentralised treatment systems have the potential to complement large-scale treatment plants, especially in small cities, peri-urban areas, and regions with no access to sewers. However, these decentralised systems need to be adequately integrated within the governance framework. Capacities need to be built to plan, collect and integrate wastewater data in order to report on the progress towards SDG 6.3.

Funding challenges

Several urban regions have been concerned about the availability of funds for mobilising reuse of treated wastewater. These costs need to be allocated in the budget for a viable business model. The capital cost (CAPEX) and the operational cost (OPEX) need to be factored in. There is also a need to adjust the water supply pricing plan, sewage cess and have incentives/disincentives for uptake of treated water by industries and other stakeholder groups. The cost recovery of wastewater treatment systems from sale of treated used water is very high in some of the ULBs such as the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC), while it is very low in many others.

Opportunities

The circular economy’s main principle of sustainable waste management provides numerous opportunities. The fundamental benefit of sustainable waste management is low environmental impact with improvement in air and water quality. Safe reuse of treated water has a higher potential for cost recovery for the services provided and the products such as treated water for fit-for-purpose. The sludge generated in the process is a soil conditioner and manure.³ The Draft National Policy on Safe Reuse of Treated Water (SRTW), supported by NMCG and GIZ under the India-EU Water Partnership, presents an array of business models and a framework for the states to develop their respective SRTW policy. Many of the potential end uses except potable uses have been discussed here.

The Government of India’s flagship programs such as Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM -2.0) and AMRUT -2.0, emphasise achieving ‘water secure’ urban regions. Several Indian cities are working towards wastewater treatment and reuse. The various actions taken by the Chennai Municipal Water Supply and Sewerage Board have led to Chennai becoming the first Indian city to have successful large-scale recycling of wastewater and reuse. They are using around 60 and 75 per cent of the city’s wastewater for industrial and indirect potable reuse. Surat has also pioneered the implementation and augmentation of treated wastewater reuse under the Gujarat State Policy for reuse of wastewater and the Surat Municipal Corporation Action Plan for Reuse & Recycle of Treated Wastewater, 2019.

The Service Level Benchmarks (SLBs) of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) mandate the extent of reuse and recycling of sewage in urban areas as 20 per cent. The states are expected to introduce mandatory reuse targets appropriate to the local context as a regulatory measure or as part of incentive programmes. This will help improve the livability index of the cities, hedonic pricing, and the ranking of cities in Swachh Survekshan.

Way forward

The Government of India’s initiatives in implementing related programs has significant political support, both at the Central and at several state levels with crucial policies such as the Policy on Safe Reuse of Treated Water, the National Urban Sanitation Policy (NUSP), and other actions towards realising SDG 6.3. In SBM 2.0, there is a strong emphasis on the inclusion of the entire sanitation value chain, including the collection, containment, treatment, disposal, and recycling of faecal wastes and wastewater.

Also Read | SDG 6.3—Water Quality and Waste Water

The Central, state governments, and ULBs need to work together to promote circularity in wastewater management and reuse. Cities should have a plan in place for the safe reuse of urban wastewater to safeguard themselves from threats to their water quality and water availability. Evidence-based decision making tools regarding wastewater treatment options to invest in (based on expected CAPEX and OPEX, benefits, cost recovery, sustainability, human resource capacity, etc.) can help reduce complexity around financing, acceptance, operation, and maintenance, amongst others. Given the paucity of water and the pollution caused by wastewater in most Indian towns, wastewater reuse plans and their stringent implementation are the need of the hour.

Wastewater management should not only be the responsibility of the government but also of all stakeholders, including industry, farmer groups, and citizens. While the circular economy approach towards wastewater management can provide a framework on how to solve some of the issues that are plaguing our environment, an integrated approach involving all stakeholders will support the quest to achieve the SDGs.


1. https://cpcb.nic.in/status-of-stps/
2. https://cpcb.nic.in/openpdffile.php?id=UmVwb3J0RmlsZXMvMTQwM18 xNjU1MzU0NzkxX 21lZGlhcGhvdG8xNjQ3MS5wZGY=
3. Fijałkowski, Krzysztof & Kwarciak-Kozłowska, Anna. (2021).Sewage Sludge as Soil Conditioner and Fertilizer.10.1002/9781119670391.ch14.

 

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