Waste: An ocean of inaction

By  Sriroop Chaudhuri & Mimi Roy, Jindal School of Liberal Arts

Target 6.3 of the WHO-UNICEF’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) lays out clear directives for disposal, collection, treatment, and management of water resources and mandates on halving the proportion of untreated wastewater by increased recycling and safe reuse by 2030. Importance of wastewater handling and management ripples over other SDGs including that about health and well-being (SDG 3), clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), life below water (SDG 14), and life on land (SDG 15), among others. In essence, issues of wastewater generation and management take into stride the foundations of human sustainability and natural ecosystem services.

It draws from the fact that in today’s rapidly changing world, per capita waste load (both liquid and solid) generation is simply overwhelming. According to estimates by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 56 per cent of global freshwater withdrawals finds a way back to the environment as wastewater, mainly as municipal/industrial effluents and agricultural drainage. A nation’s commitment to treating industrial and municipal waste water is reflective of its GDP and vice versa. High-income countries treat about 70 per cent of the wastewater loads on average, while it is around 38 per cent in upper middle- and 28 per cent in lower middle-income nations. In low-income countries, less than 10 per cent of industrial and/or municipal wastewater is treated. This has a profound effect on the poorer population, particularly on the slum-dwellers in the main urban hubs, who are usually the first/direct victims of wastewater hazards.

By 2030, global freshwater demand is projected to rise by 50 per cent, mainly owing to urban growths. Urbanisation is the major driver of waste water production. Assessments from around the world show that in relatively low-income locales (such as slums) of urban areas in most developing nations, a large proportion of wastewater is just dumped into open drains or ponds and pools, and that also, mostly untreated. This is a classic case for most urban hubs in India. In addition to household effluents, urban healthcare facilities, shopping malls, motor garages, factories, add a vast bulk of municipal waste water load.

According to recent estimates of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB, 2013), there exist yawning gaps between the installed capacity of urban waste treatment plants and the actual waste generated in India. In 2015, about 38,800 million litres of sewage (62 per cent of total sewage generated) were dumped daily into water bodies in an untreated form which demonstrates the appalling attitude towards waste management in India and/or infrastructural inadequacies. The CPCB reports suggest that in 2015, total installed capacity for sewage treatment in the country stood at around 37 per cent of that of the total load generated. The metropolitan cities (population over 1 million) have just a little over half the capacity of total waste load generated. Only five metros have it around 100 per cent of their sewage generation: Chennai, Hyderabad, Ludhiana, Vadodara, and Ahmedabad. For Delhi and Mumbai, this figure is about 60 and 80 per cent, respectively. Class I cities (with a population over 100,000), which account for 93 per cent of the urban sewage generated in the country, have a combined treatment capacity of about 32 per cent of sewage generation. Class II towns (population between 50,000 and 100,000) have it around 8 per cent of their generation. A Higher disparity in the latter is due to infrastructural inadequacies in the face of rapid urban sprawl and industrialisation.

Although data on wastewater generation, collection and treatment is grossly lacking, it is clear that, worldwide, the vast majority of wastewater around the world is not collected. And even when collected, the majority of times, it is discharged directly into the environment untreated. For example, agricultural runoff is almost never collected or treated. Never so in low- or lower-middle- income nations. UN’s World Water Assessment Program (WWAP) reveals that it is quite likely that over 80 per cent of wastewater worldwide is returned to the environment without any reliable quality assurance checks. Even for high-income nations, treated wastewater quality is not ‘safe’ all the time. A major issue therein is weak O&M of the peripherals that affect overall discharge quality. Besides, during storm peaks, wastewater is frequently allowed to bypass treatment which reduces its chemical/biological quality. Thus, much of the waste water is inserted into the water cycle either untreated or inadequately treated which exposes downstream users to multiple health hazards. Not to mention how gravely it affects the aquatic ecosystem and reduces the level of natural returns expected.

The global waste sector, as it appears presently, is at its tipping point and more so in developing economies including India. But unfortunately, issues of environmental security, integrity and feedbacks, don’t quite appeal us yet, like many other South Asian nations. And it is reflected by the latest National Water Policy (2012), which doesn’t care to spend a word on the national status of wastewater generation or provisions needed to address it, though CPCB and several of its likes have repeatedly underscored its importance in ensuring safe/sustainable water supply to the millions. Moreover, legislations related to water pollution monitoring and abatement are pretty dated, most of them established in the ’70s.

Also, there is pronounced disparity in the distribution of sewage treatment plants (STP) across the nation. Presently, there are seven states, including several from the northeast, who do not yet have a single STP installed. With a rapidly urbanising model adopted for the northeast, it is a little hard to believe that they can do away without a single STP. And Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura barely got 1 or 2 STPs in total. For now, it’s only Assam that enjoys the luxury of having 5 STPs. Is this the ideal vision of Swachh Bharat we cherish in our hearts?

We can’t wait for our own crap to spill over onto our doorsteps. It’s time we get conscious, got more organised, collaborate with NGOs, civil societies, think-tanks, and moved in unison to urge the authorities tighten the noose around waste mismanagement. It’s time we had legislations amended (or put new ones in place). Research shows ample opportunities for treated sewage water to support daily needs, including irrigation of crops. Of course, there’s risk on both the producer and consumer side of such action. In many countries, including India unfortunately, farmers still use raw and untreated municipal sewage water. But this can be restricted by monitoring, developing awareness and putting in place appropriate regulations. And in our age of technological innovation, now there’s a whole spectrum of waste water treatment techniques to choose from.

Whatever it may be, we have to give ourselves some options to recycle/reuse this invaluable resource. In a world with dwindling freshwater reserves, exacerbated by growing urban demand and extreme climatic aberrations, we got to take chances. We’ve got to give ourselves ‘another’ second chance to right our wrongs.

(The article was originally published in Millennium Post)

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