India is one of the most water-stressed regions in the world, with 600 million Indians facing extreme water stress, according to a NITI Aayog report from 2018. The report warns that by 2030 water demand could be twice the existing supply which could lead to severe water scarcity for millions of people and a ~6% loss to the country’s GDP. Thus, the importance of understanding and managing our water needs and resources in an efficient manner is becoming ever more crucial. Reusing and recycling our water resources is essential in maintaining a sustainable future.
The UN Waste Water Assessment Programme report states that high-income countries treat approximately 70% of the wastewater that is generated. The ratio drops to 38% in upper-middle-income countries, 28% in lower-middle-income countries and 8% in low-income countries. This adds up to around 20% of the wastewater being treated globally.
According to a recent report published by Central Pollution Control Board (March 2021), India’s current water treatment capacity is 27.3% and the sewage treatment capacity is 18.6 % (with another 5.2 % capacity being added). Though India’s waste and sewage treatment capacity is higher than the global average of around 20%, considering the enormity of the problem, it is far from adequate, and without swift measures, there could be serious complications without a prompt response.
The wastewater challenge
Normally, raw sewage dumped into a water body can clean itself through a natural process of stream cleaning and self-purification. But the rise in population, as well as large-scale urbanization, has led to an increase in sewage discharge that far exceeds the rate of natural purification. The excess nutrients thus generated cause eutrophication in the water body and gradual deterioration of the water quality.
A study conducted in 2017 using advanced modelling techniques to observe the effects of crop irrigation with untreated water has provided alarming results. The study finds that globally 65% of all irrigated areas within 40 km downstream of urban centres (35.9 million hectares) worldwide are affected by untreated wastewater. This puts 885 million global consumers, food vendors, and farmers at serious health risk. 86% of these irrigated croplands were located in five countries: China, India, Pakistan, Mexico, and Iran.
While untreated water is nutrient-rich, a 2009 study by Jos University in Nigeria, published in the Annals of African Medicine, found that “people consuming vegetables irrigated with raw wastewater are exposed to the risk of infection with ascaris, amoeba, and tapeworm.”
Presently, in India, there is no policy mandate at the central level specifically for wastewater management. This policy lacuna and the absence of a distinct regulatory framework leads to water resources mismanagement.
Untreated sewage waste is one of the major causes of surface water and groundwater pollution in India. The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 was the first legislative measure taken to directly address the issue of water pollution and conservation in the country. This Act deals with wastewater discharge as a matter of pollution.
This Act provides for establishing Central and State Pollution Control Boards responsible for the prevention and control of water pollution. It penalizes the act of disrupting the water flow by adding noxious substances into the streams, wells, sewer, or land. In terms of on-ground implementation, the efforts of SPCBs are more comprehensive and direct as it inspects sewage & trade effluents, wastewater treatment plants, as well as reviews and sets standards for the same.
These institutions also function to provide economical, reliable, and innovative wastewater treatment, utilization, and disposal methods. It regulates the wastewater discharge into water bodies and takes preventive and remedial measures to check pollution. It disseminates information and advises the State governments regarding the establishment of polluting industries. While the central entity has established networks to monitor the water quality across the country, the gap between the generation and treatment of domestic wastewater remains.
To regulate water pollution, the Water Act is complemented with the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act, 1977, which came into force in 1992. It augments the financial resources for the Central and State Boards established under the Water Act by levying taxes from individuals carrying on any industry and the local authorities. The Act further incentivizes the installation of wastewater treatment plants by granting a rebate of 25% on the payable cess.
Moreover, similar to the Water Act, the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 empowers the Central government to prescribe sewage and effluent discharge standards, investigate and ensure compliance, and conduct research. This Act applies to all kinds of environmental pollution, including water, land, air, and noise.
According to a 2019 research report, most of the sewage treatment plants established under the Ganga Action Plan and Yamuna Action Plan are not working, and out of the 33000 million litres per day (MLD) of waste generated, only 7000 MLD is collected and treated. The report further highlights that the National Policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) was adopted under Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) in 2017 because “only 64% of India’s 846 municipal sewage treatment plants were operational, resulting in a net capacity to process only 37% of the total human waste generated every day in urban India.”
As per government statistics, 62.5% of wastewater in urban India remained untreated or partially treated. The meagre infrastructural capacity of wastewater treatment and poor operational maintenance add to the country’s water pollution, conservation, recycling, reuse, and recharge woes.
Schedule 7 of the Indian constitution identifies water as a State matter, but it is explicitly subjected to the provisions mentioned in the Union List. It enables the Parliament to legislate on regulating and developing inter-state waters in the larger public interest. While the State retains the autonomy to frame laws regarding the use of water within the State on matters like water supply, irrigation, drainage and embankments, water storage, etc.
These constitutional mechanisms have resulted in power imbalances between the Centre and the States, creating federal jurisdictional ambiguity. The absence of clearly defined roles and responsibilities of all the concerned stakeholders either results in duplicity of efforts or truancy. Particularly, in the case of wastewater management, one State’s inaction affects the interests of one or more other States and causes disputes.
This disintegrated approach to wastewater and its fallouts can also be seen within the States. The governance of water resources is further fragmented at local levels, rural and urban, as per the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts. Although a decentralized approach is needed for better assessment and redressal of wastewater issues, but for the efficient functioning of policies and overall development of water bodies, water governance needs to be recognized at all levels. In this regard, wastewater must be seen not only as an environmental pollution issue but as a water sector matter to be addressed coherently by all central, state, and local governments.
A report from Malaysia suggests that dividing the management responsibilities of water supply and wastewater generation between federal and state governments negatively impacted the integrated service delivery approach. India’s National Water Policy, 2012 mentions this common integrated perspective for the planning, development, and management of water resources which is hardly being achieved on the ground. It calls for integrating and executing the urban water supply and sewage treatment schemes simultaneously. It also highlights the need to incentivise decentralised sewage treatment plants, recycling and reuse of treated water through planned tariff systems, and subsidized treatment of industrial effluents.
However, the National Water Policy fails to recognize and lay emphasis on wastewater management undertaken specifically as a means to rejuvenate water bodies, increase groundwater tables, and as an alternative to lower the burden on freshwater resources to meet the growing water demand.
Since freshwater is a scarce resource, wastewater management can offer an alternate source of water supply. Depending on the level of treatment, treated water can be sourced for direct consumption or partially treated to be used for industries and irrigation. There has been immense technological growth in nitrate and phosphorus recovery from sewage waste. High-quality manure can be obtained as a by-product of wastewater treatment. Urine contains 88% of the nitrate and 66% of the phosphorus required for plant growth.
Additionally, partially treated water is nutrient-rich while also maintaining a lower risk of chemical contamination. Hence, it can further benefit the agricultural sector by minimizing the manure and fertilizer required for healthy crop production and ensuring food security.
Similarly, partially treated water has a strong use case for industries and factories since drinking quality water for industrial use is nothing short of an overstretch. Wastewater as a source of energy is under-exploited too. Organic compounds from sewage can be an abundant source of biogas which can be exploited to generate electricity. Such technologies have already been implemented in the American cities of Gresham, OR and Oakland, CA. Such models have proven to be financially sound and energy-efficient.
While centralised wastewater treatment solutions are imperative in large, well-developed urban centres, such treatment facilities are expensive, labour intensive, and time-consuming. They also require a well-developed network of interconnected sewers and drainage for the wastewater to be collected in a central location prior to it being treated. As such, it is imperative to complement centralised treatment plants with cheaper alternative solutions like decentralised wastewater treatment plants, phytoremediation, and bioremediation.
Decentralised wastewater treatment plants can be set up to accommodate varying degrees of the operational scale. It can be set up in small townships, urban and rural clusters, gated colonies, factories, and industrial parks. The benefit to such solutions is that they can be installed directly on-site, thus treating the wastewater directly at its source.
“This is best seen in eco-industrial parks that locate industries adjacent to one another in such a way as to take advantage of various wastewater flows, and water and by-product recycling,” according to the UN report. The report also warns that despite the presence of regulatory policies, industries may find it more economical to pay fines instead of investing in wastewater treatment plants; hence eco-industrial parks can be quite beneficial.
Bioremediation and phytoremediation are other decentralised water treatment solutions that can complement centralised and decentralized wastewater treatment plants. Bioremediation utilises microbes such as fungi and bacteria in order to break down pollutants and hazardous effluents. Traditionally, bioremediation has been utilised to clean up oil spills but can also complement more traditional water treatment plants.
“The government claims that 25 patents have been granted by the Indian Patent Office in the field of bioremediation from 1971 to 2008,” according to a report published in Livemint. A successful bioremediation procedure requires the right kind of microbes at the right place. Recent research has also shown that it can prove to be a safe and cheap method of eliminating plastics and pharmaceutical chemicals.
On the other hand, phytoremediation relies on plants to restore water quality through a natural hydroponics mechanism and has been proven quite effective at cleaning lakes and ponds throughout the country. A novel approach called Floating Treatment Wetlands (FTW) has been utilised in numerous lakes such as Hauz Khas Lake and Neknampur Lake. It can prove to be a cost-effective solution to preserve still-water bodies.
Only a handful of states such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh have adopted wastewater management policies. In the absence of a blanket central mandate and uniform laws across states to govern the untreated wastewater flowing into the water bodies, the efforts of a few states to deal with water pollution are fiddled away.
Due to the non-uniformity in sewage treatment, the waterways - rivers, lakes, ponds, etc. - remain polluted, further exacerbating the nitrate levels in the groundwater of surrounding areas. With increasing scarcity, every drop of water will be precious, and hence a proper national framework to take these challenges head-on is the need of the hour.
A Down to Earth article from 2019 by a team from Urban Water-Waste Management programme at the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi aptly questions, “India will need 1.5 trillion m3 water by 2030, according to the Central Pollution Control Board. How will it bridge the gap between water demand and supply?”
Ultimately, though setting up treatment plants can be capital intensive, the pricing must be appropriate. It is recommended that the price of treated water remain less than potable and drinking water in order for it to be widely accepted. The value generated from nutrients (such as phosphorus and nitrogen) and biogas energy could offer a suitable financial model to cover the cost of recovery from setting up the treatment plants.
Social acceptance and education towards such technology too is recommended and must be taken into account since the social stigma attached to wastewater reuse could prevent people from putting up with such technology. The UN World Water Development Report 2017 highlights the importance of raising awareness and educating the masses, including tailoring it towards consumers with varied cultural and religious backgrounds for it to be socially acceptable.
“The health risks associated with water reuse need to be assessed, managed, monitored and reported on a regular basis in order to gain public acceptance” thus, transparency can be beneficial in generating consumer trust.
The social, economic, and ecological effects from wastewater open up a pandora’s box of challenges, which has the power to not only cripple the economy and leave the country in shambles but also pose major health risks and cause mayhem to the environment. Luckily, there are plenty of readily available technological solutions. A suitable legal and regulatory framework that takes into account the available solutions and puts the onus on planning led by a central committee is of utmost importance. This could leave room for execution by the states at a federal level while ensuring NGO and corporate participation for a pan-India vision.
Such a model must also take into account wastewater management as a tool to rejuvenate the freshwater bodies and groundwater resources while making room for eco-industrial parks to prevent corrupt practices. Wastewater management models implemented by the various states can serve as a guiding blueprint towards a robust national policy framework.
Raj Shekhar Nath is a freelance writer from Guwahati, Assam and a post-graduate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
Divya Parmar is an aspiring policy professional from Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh and is currently a final year Master’s student at the School of Public Policy and Governance in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad.