Global population growth, urbanisation, land use change, industrialisation, food production practices, increased living standards and poor water use practices, mean that the world today is facing a water quality crisis. India’s urban areas generate an estimated 62,000 MLD (million litres per day) of sewage and yet, the country’s sewage treatment capacity is pegged at merely 23,277 MLD (approximately). Sewage, if not treated, not only contaminates our surroundings, but also harms the environment and threatens human life, by polluting water and food sources.
As wastewater can be treated and recycled, untreated sewage also represents a lost opportunity to mitigate water stress. According to experts, our water supply shortfall is expected to reach nearly 50% by 2030. In a nation that appears likely to face significant water stress, it would thus, be unwise to not fully leverage wastewater treatment opportunities, to offset shrinking freshwater resources.
The risk of maintaining status quo
Municipal corporations and state governments have installed sewage treatment and recycling plants nationwide. However, the quantum of sewage discharged, far exceeds actual treatment capacity.
Many treatment plants have been abandoned (or are not operational), owing to lack of funds for operation and maintenance, or lack of technical capacity to perform these tasks. Thus, there is a pressing need for private intervention, to augment the nation’s wastewater treatment and recycling capacity.
Challenges to private participation
The major challenge to private participation in wastewater management (wastewater treatment and recycling), is the relatively unplanned nature of construction.
With a significant chunk of urban housing stock comprising standalone buildings that have not been planned to be resource-conscious in the long term, the incorporation of wastewater management elements is often missing.
However, planned townships offer an opportunity to incorporate water management initiatives across the design, construction and management/operations stages of buildings/developments. Since such urban development projects are relatively large-scale, wastewater management initiatives can be planned and implemented to be economically viable in the long term.
See also: Water harvesting: The best way to end water shortages
Initial capital expenditure needed for wastewater management
High capital expenditure often acts as a deterrent to the mass adoption of wastewater management systems. Sewage treatment and recycling plants, can be prohibitively expensive for standalone buildings and other unplanned developments. However, the increased scale of operations and distribution of costs amongst multiple beneficiaries, mean that such costs are viable when planning urban townships or integrated cities.
An integrated system of efficient drainage, sewage treatment plants (STPs) and tertiary treatment plants (TTPs), can be used to treat wastewater in urban townships. Enzymes and/or natural plants can also be used to treat wastewater. This treated water can be recycled and reused in various construction processes, as well as for flushing and landscaping within the site.
The way forward
India’s urban population is expected to reach 600 million by 2031, as per a recent UN-backed report. In fact, according to the last census, as many as 52 cities in India already have populations of over one million.
India’s advantage is that significant portions of its urban built environment are yet to be developed. With new townships being built, it will be easier to incorporate integrated wastewater management systems, such as sewage treatment plants and recycling infrastructure, right from the design/planning stage. We must work with, rather than against natural ecosystem processes. Also, different management approaches will be required, depending on whether the area is urban or semi-urban, the size and density of the population, level of economic development, technical capacity and systems of governance in place.
Last, but certainly not the least, the central government’s plan to set up smart cities nationwide, could provide a much-needed impetus in this direction. In this context, we must remember that we can irreversibly damage our natural environment and miss cost-effective opportunities to improve the health of citizens, if we fail to seize the opportunities that better wastewater management can offer.
(The writer is head of design and sustainability, Mahindra Lifespace Developers Ltd)