In the times of unprecedented challenges of climate change, it becomes important to manage rivers sustainably unless the waste management system is fixed.
India’s Water Crisis:
About 75% of Indian households do not have drinking water at their premise. As a result, 200,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to safe drinking water, 84% of rural households do not have piped water access and that 70% of our water is contaminated.
India is currently ranked 120 among 122 countries in the water quality index.
By 2030, demand will be double of the current supply and 40% of the population will not have access to drinking water.
As per NITI Aayog’s Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) report, a persistent water crisis will lead to an eventual 6% loss in the country’s GDP.
While more than 90% of the urban population has access to basic water, by 2020, 21 major cities are expected to run out of groundwater affecting 100 million people, including all the metro cities.
67% of Indian households do not treat their drinking water, even though it could be chemically or bacterially contaminated
Two recent studies—“Capturing Synergies Between Water Conservation and Carbon Dioxide Emissions in the Power Sector” and “A Clash of Competing Necessities” point out that India, along with China, France and the US, will have be no drinking water by 2040 if consumption of water continues at the current pace.
A recent UN report on water conservation reports that due to its unique geographical position, India will face the brunt of the crisis by 2025 and would be at the centre of this global conflict.
How waste and water are connected?
India has been working, without much success, to ensure that our rivers are not polluted; that the sewage of our cities is treated before it is discharged; and that industries do not pollute.
Also, India soon will be water scarcer as rainfall becomes more variable and erratic.
It need to manage this stress, not only by capturing the rain in millions of waterbodies, but also by making sure that not a single drop of water gets polluted.
Our cities do not treat or safely dispose of the bulk of the human excreta. This is because we often confuse toilets with sanitation.
The fact is, toilets are mere receptacles to receive waste; when we flush or pour water, the waste flows into a piped drain, which could be either connected — or more likely not — to a sewage treatment plant (STP). This STP could be working, or not.
This means, human excreta (and our household waste) is mostly not disposed of safely.
It is just discharged untreated into the nearest river, lake or a drain.
This dirty water is responsible for the growing load of pollution, which in turn is leading to increased disease burden.
How waste can be handled?
The bulk of India’s households that have access to sanitation are connected to septic tanks.
These septic tanks, if well-constructed, will retain the sludge and discharge the liquid through a soak pit.
The faecal sludge can be emptied and conveyed for treatment.
The system would work if the septic tank is built to specification; if the system for collection of human excreta (faecal sludge) is regulated; and if the sludge, so collected, is taken to treatment points so that it can be made safe for reuse.
This sludge is rich in nutrients.
The global nitrogen cycle is being disrupted because we dispose of the nutrient-rich human excreta into waterbodies.
We can return the human excreta back to land, use it as a fertiliser and reverse the nitrogen cycle.
The faecal sludge, after treatment, can be given to farmers and be used as organic compost.
It can be treated and mixed with other organic waste, like kitchen waste, and used for biogas, or for manufacturing fuel pellets or ethanol.
The bottom line is that we cannot manage our rivers sustainably unless we fix our system of waste management. Our water future depends not only on our water wisdom, but also on our waste wisdom.