Why excreta matters

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

water  pollutionWater is life and sewage tells its life story. This is the subject of the Citizens’ Seventh Report on the State of India’s Environment, Excreta Matters: How urban India is soaking up water, polluting rivers and drowning in its own excreta. It has a seemingly simple plot: it only asks where Indian cities get their water from and where does their waste go. But this is not just a question or answer about water, pollution and waste. It is about the way Indian cities (and perhaps other parts of the world that are similarly placed) will develop. It is about the paradigm of growth that’s sustainable and affordable.

Urbanisation in India, relentless as it is, will only grow. How should the country manage its water needs so that it does not drown in its own excreta? This is what the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has asked and tried to answer in the book. What has amazed us is the lack of data, research and understanding of this issue in the country. This is when water concerns all. People in cities get water in their houses; they discharge waste; and they see their rivers die. But they don’t make the connection, between flushing toilet and dying rivers. It is as if they do not want to know. But they should.

Is this a reflection of the caste system of Indian society, where removing waste is somebody else’s business? Or is it a reflection of current governance systems, where water and waste are government’s business, and within that the business of a lowly water and sanitation bureaucracy? Or is it simply a reflection of Indian society’s extreme arrogance—it believes it can fix it all as and when it gets rich; that water scarcity and waste are only a temporary problem; that once it gets rich, infrastructure will be built, water will flow and the embarrassing stink of excreta in cities will just disappear.

It is clear Indians know little about the water they use and the waste they discharge. We at CSE had to collect data the hard way—city by city, ferreting out the material from government offices, which are rarely visited by researchers. The second volume—71 cities: water-excreta survey—of the seventh citizens’ report puts together individual city profiles. Each city is mapped to know more about its past, current and future water footprint. Each city is mapped to know more about where the waste generated from such use of water goes. It is a geography lesson that’s essential to learn.

It was way back in the late 1990s that environmentalist Anil Agarwal, who conceived and crafted the State of India’s Environment reports, had said one needs to understand the political economy of defecation, where the rich are subsidised to excrete in convenience.

Now when we researched for this report, which explains the political economy of defecation, we were struck by one fact that should make us all angry, really angry. We found countless instances where a city’s drain, called nullah today, was actually a river. Delhi residents are familiar with Najafgarh drain, which discharges the city’s waste into the Yamuna. But most of them do not know that this “drain” has its source in the lake Sahibi. Now Sahibi is gone, and what has replaced it in living memory is a drain carrying only filth, not water. Worse, New Gurgaon is now dumping its sewage into the same Najafgarh jheel (lake).

Buddha Nullah in Ludhiana is referred to as a drain because it is that—full of stench and filth. But not so long ago Buddha was called darya (river). It was a clean freshwater stream. One generation has changed its form and name.

The Mithi is Maximum City’s shame. When floods drowned Mumbai in 2005, it learnt it had a clogged drain called Mithi, marred by encroachments. It did not realise that the Mithi had not shamed the city, the city had shamed the Mithi. This “drain”, which originates near the city, is really a river. It was recognised as a river. It flowed like one. But today even official environmental status report calls this living river a storm water drain. One more city has lost its river. These lost rivers are our collective shame.

But should Indians be surprised? Today they take water from their rivers—for irrigation, drinking and hydro-electric plants—and give back waste. Water no more flows in its rivers. It is the load of excreta and industrial effluent.

Indians should be angry over the loss of rivers. More worryingly, if they do not change their ways they will lose the remaining rivers, lakes and other water bodies. This generation will then not just be pitied for losing rivers, but accused of committed deliberate “hydrocide”. Coming generations will forget that the Yamuna, Cauvery and the Damodar were rivers. They will know them as drains, only drains.

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  • It is rightly predicted that

    It is rightly predicted that the next war will not be over oil but water.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Work to desilt the Mithi and

    Work to desilt the Mithi and make it greener and better are going on. Check out:

    As a frequent local train commuter in Mumbai (the Mumbai local goes above the Mithi just before Bandra) I can say that the stink from the Mithi has reduced and is almost negligible now. I hope we see the metamorphosis of the Mithi into a river again soon :-)

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • There is an urgent need to

    There is an urgent need to develop a Blue Print for Indian Rivers .
    I have developed one which is my own agenda :
    Read more about it on link : http://blogs.rediff.com/wordscape/2011/06/27/a-blue-print-for-rivers/

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • By the turn of the century

    By the turn of the century academic curricula and GrannyÔÇÖs fiction stories may include ÔÇ£once upon a time water used to be available for free in open wells, tanks, ponds and rivers flowing near each and every village and city with no private ownership, no control by the governments or their appointed private agents, no water bottling plants and no price to be paid for its use in whatever mannerÔÇØ. Pl. read the detailed story in the link

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • It is true that water and

    It is true that water and sewer management is the Government's responsibility. Urbanisation if it is treated as an industry then it is the most rapidly developing one. Since pre-history days the humans have preferred to settle on the river banks. Initially they treated the rivers sacred, but over a period of time they began using them as refuge carriers. Towns are getting choked with human excreta because of lack of proper disposal system. Plenty of this finds way to the river/rivulet. Whether it is Mithi or Gomti the story is the same. The rivers of he Indo-Gangetic plains have a peculiar character-they take water from the aquifers and at places give water to the aquifer. Thus they continuously flow round the year on this relationship with groundwater. A polluted river is a hazard for groundwater too. A fact which our water managers seem to ignore!
    We have converted our towns to aquariums. Like fish perish in their own poop-we might face the same consequences if stringent measures are not taken soon.
    DTE deserves all praise to bring out this sensitive issue.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The article tells us the

    The article tells us the stunning report, also reflects our future, which is very difficult and uncomfortable to even imagine.We are so mean and unjust to the mother nature that we are taking clean water from our resources and returning back as sewage. this is really shameful. the need of the hour is to find out the alternatives for it.But this is not in the hands of common people. we have to change our attitude ofcourse.At the same time Govt. has to plan very wisely the sewage disposal
    because planning is the responsibility of Govt.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I'm sure your research would

    I'm sure your research would have also come across the decline of yet another important river -Vrishabhavati, that flows to the South of the Global IT hub and now imploding Bangalore city. Wikpedia description of the river already says "The Vrishabhavathi River is a minor river that flows north of the Indian city of Bangalore. The Vrishabhavathi is a tributary of the Arkavathy River. Most of the sewage emanating from Bangalore is carried by these two rivers. The Arkavati (Kannada Ó▓åÓ▓░Ó│ìÓ▓òÓ▓¥Ó▓ÁÓ▓ñÓ▓┐ ), (also written Arkavathi, Arkavathy) is a large mountain river in Karnataka, India, originating at Nandi Hills of Chikkaballapura district. It is a tributary of the Kaveri, which it joins at Kanakapura, called Sangama in Kannada, after flowing through Kolar District and Bangalore Rural district. The river drains into the Chikkarayappanahalli Lake near Kanivenarayanapura. Kumudavathi and Vrishabhavathi rivers are tributaries to this river.
    The river is used by the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board to provide 135 million liters of drinking water per day to the city of Bangalore, or about 20% of all the city's water. As it is filtered in the nearby mountain aquifer, the water is fresh and crystal clear.[1] The water is taken from two reservoirs built on the river, the Hesaraghatta (or Hesseraggatta), which was built in 1894, and the Tippagondanahalli Reservoir (or T G Halli), which was built in 1933"
    Is'nt it ironic that the more modern we become, the greater apathy we develop towards sustenance infrastructure building . The reserviors from which Bangalore draws its water today were built nearly 100 years ago, and in the subequent 100 years we have only exploited them.
    The water supply boards need to provide breathing space for these rivers, reduce the dumping of untreated sewage, and underatke radical steps to introduce non "flush water" toilets . The present system where every urabn dweller needs 200 liters of water a day is just not sustainable.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • This editorial draws the

    This editorial draws the battle lines for water treatment reform, asking the right questions but not suggesting how to go about finding the answers: Proper technology, effective and relevant education and strong motivation are all necessary. When responsibility for the issue is so diffuse and the general public so powerless, how can the problem do anything but continue to languish in inaction while developers and real estate agents continue to cash in and ultimately, KILL ANIMALS AND people. This is not a threat.It is a reality of what is happening. People, especially infants, are dying every day due to waterborne illnesses and diarrhea from bad water.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Hyderabad grew on the banks

    Hyderabad grew on the banks of Musi river over 500 years ago. Today Musi is reduced to serve as a drain. Many projects and external aids have been implemented but Musi remains a drain.
    Also in 1850 Ibrahim Quli Qutub Shah ÔÇô Nizam of Hyderabad excavated a large irrigation tank called Ibrahimpatnam Cheruvu with a water spread of 1300 acres or app.526 ha. This tank also served as an indicator of drought event in the region. It dried up only once in 1993 but since 2002 it started drying and now it is a flat rutted surface. Reason: systematic encroachment in its catchment with new check-dams when the lake was turning bone dry. Poultry farm and colleges have sprung up and agriculture (paddy field till 2001)have withered. A fine case of failure of monitoring, wrong implementation of projects and unnecessary projects.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • dear editor, it is a great

    dear editor,

    it is a great story brought to light with painstaking details by you. hats off to your efforts and patience. But then don't you think that there is need to adopt a parallel campaign for direct action on all the suggestions put forward by you. You know well that the present attitude and approach in our system is of words and words for others and doing nothing in that direction by the powers that matter.

    hence i suggest that something drastic is to be done on these lines so as to be able to goad this system towards results-oriented approach in contrast to the present one of verbal attack etc.


    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • This editorial is

    This editorial is inconvinient to read and accept , but its indeed true.Very true. In the country where traditional water harvesting systems are studied, researched and documented for years immemorial, today is in a state of sheer dismay. For a country with a history of civilizations settled and diminished along the rivers, are in a state of shame.

    The rivers, rather the LOST RIVERS need attention and dignity in the way they are looked into. Also, our municipal authorities not just need to make plans for clean ups, but need to better monitor the process as well as pace up the work.

    Better policy designs, stringent acts against the polluters, pollution tax and many more need to peep out of the paper and need to actually do what they are meant for. Other wise, truely our generation and the one to follow will identify them just by their names and their identities as DRAINS..!!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • We need more river revivals

    We need more river revivals like that of the Kali Bein in Punjab. This river used to be the one that Guru Nanak bathed in, but over time it had become nothing but a stinking drain. The voluntary work of a Sant has restored the river to its formal glory. http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Kali_Bein,_Kar_Sewa_Restores_the_Historic_River

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Very good article about water

    Very good article about water & disposal of sewage. But the author needs to suggest the alternatives to the present system of disposal of sewage. How an individual can take care of his excreta without polluting water.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The management of water and

    The management of water and waste is an outrageous problem India faces,that too at a time when she is known for her rapid growth and development in the field of science and technology. The article'Why excreta matters' portrays a true picture of our dying rivers, which are as mentioned transforming into beds of untreated sewage. We cannot just blame the government for not bringing up plans that would conserve water and at the mean time, that would solve the national problem- waste management. As a matter of fact, the government has tried to come up with effective plans and strategies but these have eventually failed witout the support of us,the people, who as a whole are murdering these priceless natural assets. So you and I must ensure that we, together bring out a change that would conserve water and at the same time that would revolutionize the management of waste in India. Believe me, it is possible.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply