Average availability of water is reducing steadily with the growing population and it is estimated that by 2020 India will become a ‘water stressed’ nation. Both drinking water supply and sanitation in the country continue to be inadequate, despite longstanding efforts by various governments and communities to control the problem.

Treated wastewater is now being looked at as a good ‘alternative source’ of water at least for utility purposes. However, the infrastructure of sewage and septage management has traditionally been a neglected area in India’s urban planning. The present capacity to treat sewage or wastewater in the country is only 37% of the total requirement, while the actual treatment is even lesser at 30%.

Challenges in Wastewater Treatment

The existing sewerage system in most cities is obsolete with faulty pipeline networks, insufficient treatment capacity and sub-optimal capacity utilization. There are major gaps across the sanitation service chain. ULBs are faced with financial and personnel constraints, including insufficient suction emptier trucks, trained human resources, safety equipment etc., in providing the recommended service levels to households. Majority of the ULBs lack up-to-date and accurate data on key sewerage parameters including generation, treatment, collection efficiency and treatment capacity.

The costs of setting up of wastewater systems and their operation and maintenance are very high. Additionally, installation of new sewage treatment plants (STPs) requires land which is a scarce and expensive commodity, especially in urban India. These problems, however, can be offset by decentralized sewage treatment systems that serve as a viable option against capex-intensive centralized systems (which come with complex operations and maintenance issues).

Apart from inadequate infrastructure, lack of awareness and general apathy act as impediments towards reusing treated wastewater.

Government regulations

Promisingly, owing to various government initiatives, India’s investment in wastewater segment is slowly and steadily picking up. The nationwide ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ launched in 2014 has been successful not only in building many onsite sanitation systems but also in creating awareness on sanitation and cleanliness at the grass root level.

The recent ‘National Urban Faecal Sludge and Septage Management’ (FSSM) policy by Ministry of Urban Development lays stress on the setting up of onsite sewage treatment plants in cities and urban local bodies, as well as restructuring of existing sewerage systems in urban India. The policy lays down the roles and responsibilities of government institutions, states, ULBs and households as stakeholders in handling wastewater management challenges.

Bangalore city is an early adopter of legislation on domestic wastewater management which mandates,

  • compulsory installation of onsite STPs for apartments/ complexes with prescribed population or built up area,
  • onsite treatment of wastewater to meet effluent discharge norms,
  • 100% onsite reuse of treated water as utility water for toilets flushing, gardening, car washing etc.

Enforcement of regulations has shown positive results with increased number of toilets and sewage treatment systems added to the STP landscape including increased awareness on sanitation, hygiene, water recycling and reuse.

However, certain practical implementation challenges coupled with lack of genuine involvement and voluntary adoption of the regulations by some stakeholders limit the policy regulations from achieving desired results.

Compliance v/s Voluntary Adoption

With Bangalore being the first city to enforce STP regulations and more cities/states joining the league, the responsibility of onsite wastewater management will now largely rest with the infrastructure developers and facility users. They are expected to bear the additional capital and life cycle management costs of installing and running the systems, which most might be reluctant to undertake. Apart from this, factors like lack of technological know-how, social (mis)conceptions towards using treated wastewater, lack of environment consciousness lead to eventually compromising on quality and performance of the entire system. Therefore, treating wastewater management as a mere compliance issue may not be adequate if it is to meet its potential.

Voluntary adoption of the technology and increased stakeholder acceptance need to be established to enhance the degree of actual treatment and reuse of water. Financial subsidies to compliant users and promoting sale of treated wastewater are some options to increase wholehearted acceptance of the regulations. Planned campaigns to increase sensitivity coupled with training sessions for enhancing stakeholder’s knowledge on STP design, construction and plant operation will help in better acceptance of the regulations in their true spirits.