[Commentary] The invisible bond: Wastewater management and water for all

A wastewater drain leads into the Yamuna river in Delhi. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi.

  • In the past five years, India has achieved success with the Swachh Bharat Mission in building toilets and declaring hundreds of thousands of villages as open-defecation free. India celebrated this success during the World Toilet Day on November 19.
  • This success has to be followed up with concerted action to maximise reuse, recycle and recover resources from wastewater.
  • In this commentary, Nutan Zarapkar writes on the importance of completing the waste management cycle by designing urban and rural systems that help recover and reuse wastewater for non-potable use.

In 2014, India launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) – one of the world’s largest drives for sanitation – which aimed to make the country open defecation free by 2019. Five years down the line, according to Government of India figures, 95 million toilets have been constructed, with access to household toilets shooting up from 37 percent in 2014 to 71 percent in 2018, and 520,000 villages being declared open-defecation free.

By any metric, and despite reservations about some of the numbers, the Mission has been an unparalleled success. For urban planners, policymakers and practitioners in the sanitation sector, this is a moment of great opportunity; the successes of SBM have paved the way for the next step in the sanitation value chain – wastewater management.

This could not come at a better time. India is currently grappling with an acute water crisis – one that has been decades in the making, but is now raising alarm across the nation. According to a Niti Aayog 2019 report, major cities such as Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad are predicted to reach zero groundwater levels by 2020, leaving over 100 million people without access to water and putting a severe strain on food security, economic activity and quality of life.

Metropolises like Bangalore and Chennai saw communities forced to drink and bathe in contaminated water, stock bottled water, or struggle with tanker suppliers. The crisis wasn’t restricted to households; commercial complexes and business parks were forced to shut their facilities due to acute water shortage.

Recognising the urgent need for a response, the union government recently formed the Jal Shakti (Water) Ministry. Integrating two legacy ministries – the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation – under one umbrella, the Jal Shakti Ministry aims to tackle water issues holistically and sustainably.

Read more: Will one single water ministry solve India’s water woes?

The Ministry has announced that every household in India will have piped water supply by 2024 – a promise that will require the government to address not just the problem of increasing demand, but also the challenges of erratic rainfall, distribution, and perhaps most critically, the deteriorating quality of water in existing water bodies.

As part of the commitment to piped water, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) recently articulated guidelines for urban water conservation under Jal Shakti Abhiyan, key to which are four intervention areas – rainwater harvesting, reuse of treated wastewater, rejuvenation of water bodies, and plantation (planting of trees near or around water bodies). It is the reuse of treated wastewater that will be key in bridging the gap in cities, particularly for non-potable needs like landscaping, flushing, car washing, industrial and commercial reuse, etc.

A toilet constructed under Swachh Bharat Mission in Delhi. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi.

An alternative to freshwater

Wastewater is gaining momentum as a reliable alternative source of water, shifting the paradigm of wastewater management from ‘treatment and disposal’ to ‘reuse, recycle and resource recovery’. No longer is a ‘problem’ that needs a solution, wastewater recycling is the solution to growing water scarcity.

The reuse of treated wastewater provides a compelling alternative to freshwater, specifically where water is required for non-potable use. Globally, countries such as Israel, Spain, and Singapore recycle up to 90 percent of their wastewater, using this recycled water for a range of activities from agriculture to laundry. In urban India, flushing and landscaping — which together accounts for a third to half of all water demand — can be served quite easily with recycled wastewater.

However, barring a few instances, wastewater recycling in India has been a lost opportunity.  Two-thirds of all sewage generated in urban India is released into local water bodies untreated, because of a lack of both treatment capacity and efficiency, leaving water bodies severely polluted. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, India currently generates approximately 61,754 million litres of wastewater per day but has the capacity to treat only about one-third. What’s worse, cities like Delhi report that sewers have lost 80 percent of their carrying capacity due to age and poor maintenance.

Faecal sludge management is not a pipe dream

For a country on the verge of running out of water, this is the time to take the cue from the National Policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management 2017 and turn our attention to decentralised, non-sewered sanitation systems. Such systems allow for the treatment of wastewater at source and reduce the pressure on centralized sewerage systems, at costs a fraction of that required to expand centralised systems. As a bonus, boosting India’s ability to recycle and reuse wastewater treatment has a positive effect on the quality of our water bodies by preventing contamination due to the dumping of septage, another focus area of the Jal Shakti Abhiyan.

Functional sewage and faecal sludge management, and consequently the reuse of wastewater, is not just a pipe dream. Examples, although far and few in between, are available from within India. The Rajkot Municipal Corporation (RMC) successfully identified the potential for developing decentralised wastewater management and recycling systems. This reduced the demand on scarce freshwater resources for household use and eliminated the harmful health impact of wastewater being released into nearby surface and groundwater. Similarly, the Nagpur Municipal Corporation is looking to recover the cost of treating all sewage by selling recycled water to National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and Mahagenco, Maharashtra’s power generation company.

Read more: Water access and sanitation shape birth outcomes and earning potential.

While Rajkot and Nagpur demonstrate the role that government bodies and centralised sewerage systems play in wastewater management, such initiatives need not be dependent on government action and infrastructure entirely. For instance, in Patna, an association of private tank operators was formed in order to streamline collection from decentralised sanitation system, and to advocate at local government level to open up access to the city’s sewage treatment facilities. In combination with stricter licencing and quality monitoring of decentralised septic systems, an estimated 89 percent of extracted sludge was diverted away from being dumped in natural water bodies in and around Patna.

Desludging of household pits and tanks in a decentralized sanitation system of an Indian city. Photo by Nutan Zarapkar / RTI International.

Similarly, the Delhi Jal Board has successfully piloted the process of recycling wastewater through decentralized sewage treatment to meet the needs of communities that live around small water bodies in South Delhi, including the prominent Neela Hauz Lake, while simultaneously improving the water quality. This demonstrates the role that decentralization and private players can play in the process of wastewater recycling. This comes as welcome news for rivers like the Yamuna and Ganga, and lakes like the Bellandur in Bangalore, whose waters are critically polluted from years of untreated sewage and septage being directly dumped.

Blend with the government’s campaign

The advent of the Jal Shakti Abhiyan and its focus on wastewater reuse and rejuvenation of water bodies highlights the critical need for the recycling and reuse of black water from sewered and unsewered systems. Unarguably, centralised sewerage systems need to see improvements in both reach and capacity, but given that a vast majority of India’s population is still dependant on decentralised, non-sewered sanitation, it would be prudent to direct attention and resources to decentralised, non-sewered sanitation and on-site wastewater management and treatment.

In a nation where the need for freshwater is ever-increasing and limited water resources are increasingly stressed by overextraction, pollution and climate change, neglecting the opportunities arising from improved wastewater management would be an oversight.  India has shown early success when it comes to black water recycling. It is time we get to work with treated sewage and fecal sludge wastewater recycling and reuse. Not only will this help boost India’s development trajectory and close the gap between water supply and demand; it will also position India as a role model for the world.


Nutan Zarapkar leads the Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WaSH) practice at Research Triangle Institute Global India Private Limited, a fully owned subsidiary of RTI International, an independent, non-profit research institute dedicated to improving the human condition. RTI India is member of the National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (NFSSM) Alliance.


Banner image: A wastewater drain leads into the Yamuna river in Delhi. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi.

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