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India's Wastewater Management Dilemma: A Startling Crisis Demanding Attention



As the world faces an escalating water crisis, the need for effective wastewater management has never been more critical. Yet, many cities are struggling to keep up with national mandates for wastewater management, reuse management, and treatment. This thought-provoking article draws from a research study carried out on review of waste water sector in Maharashtra and examines some of the most pressing issues and potential solutions, delving into the complexities and challenges that governments, industries, and communities must navigate to build a sustainable future.


Cities Struggling Under National Mandates: A Tale of Unequal Progress

It is hard to believe that even in the 21st century, numerous cities are struggling to survive under national mandates for wastewater management, reuse management, and treatment such as AMRUT and SBM. While some cities, like Surat and Chennai, have successfully implemented these practices for industrial use, many others lag. What factors contribute to this disparity? And more importantly, what can be done to address these challenges?


There are a variety of reasons for the unequal progress seen among cities, including differences in resource availability, local regulations, and stakeholder engagement. Addressing these disparities requires a combination of innovative policy solutions, effective communication between stakeholders, and tailored approaches that account for the unique challenges faced by each city.


The Three-Kilometre Conundrum: Is Distance the Key to Wastewater Reuse?

One critical factor in wastewater management is figuring out the potential for reuse in a given sector, and how much wastewater is available and accessible for that purpose. In the Urban River Management Plan for Kanpur[1], guidelines suggested that wastewater reuse can be carried out within a three-kilometre radius from the treatment plant. But is this distance a one-size-fits-all solution? How do we create policies that consider the unique characteristics of different cities and locations?


While the three-kilometre guideline provides a starting point, it is crucial to recognize that different cities may require different approaches to wastewater reuse. Factors such as population density, infrastructure availability, and local environmental conditions must be considered when developing wastewater reuse policies. By engaging with local stakeholders and conducting thorough assessments of each city's unique circumstances, more tailored and effective wastewater reuse strategies can be developed.


Agriculture's Wastewater Reuse Potential: A Missed Opportunity?

Thermal power plants are already mandated to use treated wastewater[2], but could policies go further by requiring treated wastewater use in agriculture and horticulture? Many cities suffer from a scarcity of potable water, and yet, we continue to fetch water from far-off places. Are we missing an opportunity to make better use of our resources? And would the three-kilometre radius or more still be feasible in these cases?


Expanding wastewater reuse in a formal structure to other sectors, such as agriculture and horticulture, could help alleviate water scarcity in many urban and peri-urban areas. However, this approach also requires careful consideration of factors such as water quality, treatment costs, and transportation infrastructure. By conducting in-depth studies of the feasibility of wastewater reuse for agriculture, horticulture and other non-industrial sectors, policymakers can make informed decisions about how best to expand wastewater reuse initiatives.


Quality Concerns: Can Treated Wastewater Meet Industry Standards?

A major concern for industries, when it comes to wastewater reuse, is the quality of the treated water. Different industries require either quaternary, tertiary or secondary treated water for their specific purposes, which doesn’t match the output standards used by the treatment plants. Surat's cost-effective model for wastewater treatment and reuse could be a potential solution[3]. How do we ensure that government-led treatment plants match the quality of the water produced with the industry standards? And how can we tailor wastewater reuse policies to meet these quality requirements?


To address industry concerns about water quality, wastewater reuse policies must consider the specific needs of different industries and ensure that treatment plants can produce water that meets these requirements. In addition to learning from successful models like Surat's, it is essential to invest in research and development of new treatment technologies that can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of wastewater treatment. Moreover, fostering collaboration between government agencies, industry representatives, and research institutions can help identify best practices and develop tailored solutions for various sectors.


Incentivizing Wastewater Management: Is It Time for Groundwater Storage Credits?

Innovative approaches to wastewater management, such as groundwater credits for the industrial sector, could encourage industries to implement upgraded wastewater management systems. For instance, the Master Plan for Noida (2031) promotes industries to use any surplus treated effluent for recharging ground water in return for storage credits, which can be used to withdraw water from permitted recovery wells[4]. How can we harness such credits to incentivize greater wastewater use by industries? And is it time for a more direct use of treated wastewater?


Groundwater storage credits could be an effective tool for promoting treated wastewater reuse, as they provide industries with an economic incentive to invest in upgraded wastewater management systems. By linking the value of these credits to the volume of treated water recharged, policymakers can create a market-driven approach that encourages industries to prioritize wastewater reuse. Furthermore, exploring the potential for direct use of treated wastewater can help alleviate water scarcity and reduce the dependence on traditional water sources.


Ecological Reuse: Is it Even Considered Reuse of Treated Water?

In urban areas, treated wastewater is a precious resource that can be utilized for various non-potable purposes such as irrigation, industrial processes, and flushing toilets. However, the ecological benefits of returning some of this treated water back to rivers and water bodies cannot be overlooked. Ecological reuse emphasizes the importance of maintaining a healthy ecological balance while reusing treated wastewater. It is not just about reusing all the wastewater, but also ensuring that good quality return flow is released into rivers and other water bodies.


The policy framework in India largely remains silent on ecological reuse of wastewater. Very few states have been focusing on it. Further, our current measurement of reuse in cities ignores the significance of ecological reuse, and as a result, this vital aspect of wastewater reuse figures remains at low level. This lack of attention to ecological reuse puts our cities at risk of perceived poor reuse performance, potential droughts and the encroachment of riverbeds and water bodies.


It is crucial to develop policy frameworks in India that promote ecological reuse of treated wastewater. Cities must prioritize maximizing the good quality return flow of treated water to rivers and other water bodies. This will help support the ecological balance of water bodies, which, in turn, will support various ecosystems and their dependent communities. Policymakers and practitioners must consider ecological reuse as a potential reuse option and develop suitable policies to maximize the ecological benefits of treated wastewater reuse.


The Business Case for Wastewater Management: A Pathway to Sustainability?

Creating a sustainable business model for wastewater management and reuse is crucial, and cities are now smart enough to recognize the potential revenue-generating opportunities. For example, in an initiative supported by the World Bank, the wastewater reuse association formed by farmers in a drought-prone village in Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar (formerly known as Aurangabad), identified operational models to reuse treated waste water for agricultural purposes at a fair price[5]. This approach has been cost-effective and has helped address water scarcity in the area. How can we replicate this success in other cities? And what key considerations need to be addressed when developing wastewater reuse policies?


Collaborative approaches, like the one employed in Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar, offer valuable lessons for other cities looking to develop sustainable business models for wastewater management. By bringing together stakeholders from various sectors, including agriculture, industry, and government, it is possible to create innovative solutions that address the needs of all parties. Key considerations for developing wastewater reuse policies include stakeholder engagement, cost and revenue modelling, and the establishment of clear regulatory frameworks that balance the interests of all involved.


The Time for Action

The wastewater management crisis is upon us, and while stakeholders are open to identifying revenue-generating opportunities, the process of developing a business case and reaching agreements between various parties is far from easy. It is time for governments, industries, and communities to come together and embrace the challenge, learning from successful policies and initiatives adopted by different cities. By focusing on factors such as reuse potential, quality of treated water, distance from treatment plant, incentivising mechanisms, and business models for reuse, we can forge a path toward sustainable and equitable wastewater management for all. The future of our planet and its water resources depends on our ability to adapt, innovate, and collaborate in the face of this pressing challenge.


Frequently Asked Questions


Why is the quality of treated wastewater important for wastewater reuse policies?

Industries often require either tertiary or secondary treated water for their specific purposes. Ensuring that the quality of treated water meets the needs of these industries is vital to encourage wastewater reuse.


What are the potential uses for treated water?

Treated water can be employed in various settings, such as airports, internal purposes in building complexes, building construction, agriculture, horticulture, industrial cooling and many more uses. The potential uses depend on the quality of treated water and needs of the specific users.


What are the key considerations for wastewater management and reuse?

The key considerations for wastewater management include reaching agreement between stakeholders, understanding specific requirements for each case of reuse, and considering the cost and revenue model for wastewater treatment. These factors need to be considered when developing wastewater reuse policies.


What are some examples of successful wastewater reuse policies?

There are many successful examples of waste water reuse in India. Cities like Surat and Chennai have already implemented wastewater reuse practices for industrial use. Some other examples include the groundwater storage credits in Noida and the wastewater reuse for agriculture (Purple revolution) in Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar.


What are the specific challenges faced by cities in implementing wastewater management and reuse policies?

Cities face multiple challenges, such as a lack of public awareness and understanding of wastewater treatment, lack of political will and coordination between different government agencies, resistance from industries or stakeholders due to added costs, and difficulties in securing financing and funding for wastewater treatment projects.


What factors should be considered while mandating specific users to use treated wastewater?

When mandating specific users to use treated wastewater, policymakers should consider factors such as the feasibility of transporting wastewater within a certain radius, the quality of treated wastewater needed for specific uses, and the overall impact on the environment and local water resources.


How can the development of cost-effective tertiary treatment models help wastewater reuse in industries?

Cost-effective tertiary treatment models can produce treated wastewater that meets the specific quality requirements of different industries. This encourages industries to adopt wastewater reuse practices and reduces the demand for freshwater resources, contributing to sustainable water management.


How can public investment, subsidies, and incentives support wastewater treatment and reuse projects?

Public investment, subsidies, and incentives can help promote wastewater treatment and reuse by lowering the costs for industries and other stakeholders, encouraging them to take part in wastewater management initiatives. These measures can also help create profitable business cases for cities and municipal corporations, making it more feasible to implement wastewater treatment projects. Policies should consider providing subsidies and incentives, similar to those given to the electric vehicle sector, to promote the use of treated wastewater for ecological purposes. This approach can encourage wider adoption of wastewater reuse and help create a more sustainable urban water management system.


How do feasibility studies contribute to effective wastewater management policy?

Feasibility studies assess the practicality of wastewater reuse plans, including the implementation of guidelines, short-term and long-term costs, potential users, and the impact on the environment. These studies help policymakers design policies that are suitable for their specific contexts and address the challenges faced in implementing wastewater treatment and reuse initiatives.


What is the importance of ecological reuse in wastewater management, and how can it be incorporated into policies?

Ecological reuse, such as river rejuvenation and water body conservation, has significant environmental benefits, including improved river health, biodiversity, air quality, and groundwater recharge in adjacent areas. Incorporating ecological reuse into wastewater management policies involves creating provisions for the conservation and rejuvenation of water bodies within cities, interlinking programs for water bodies, and promoting the regeneration of these spaces.

 


Acknowledgement


This article is co-authored by Nikita Madan, Senior Environment Specialist in the Water and Environment Vertical at the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), and Ram Khandelwal, Founder & CEO of Urban Innovation Lab. Please note that views are personal and belong solely to the individuals and do not represent the stance of any organization or entity.


The article presents observations from discussions held between Nikita Madan and Ram Khandelwal on the topic of used water management in Indian cities. The discussions took place during a series of stakeholder interviews conducted by Urban Innovation Lab as part of an advisory and research assignment for the Centre for Water and Sanitation at CEPT University. The project aimed to review the landscape and develop a strategic roadmap for used water management in the state of Maharashtra. The complete researcnstudy can be found on C-WAS website. To know more about the study, please get in touch at contact@innovateurban.com


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