COVID-19: The need is to decentralise how we manage wastewater

The water crisis in India is dire: By 2030, the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply

By Mahreen Matto, Sumita Singhal
Published: Friday 08 May 2020

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has reinstated the need of guaranteed access to safe water and sanitation for all, a far-fetched goal without integrating decentralised wastewater management approach in a country like India.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, access to clean water to maintain basic hygiene has emerged the biggest challenge in different parts of the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends hand hygiene (washing hands with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitisers) is extremely important to prevent the transmission of the virus (SARS-CoV-2).

WHO and the United Nations Children's Fund estimate 40 per cent of people across the world, that is, approximately three billion live without soap and water and are the most vulnerable and highest at risk of being left behind in the battle against COVID-19.

According to a recent analysis by Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), around 20-40 litres of water in this new normal is used every day, with the assumption that every person cleans their hands at least 10 times a day, instead of a usual average of five times a day.

These extra litres of water used for handwashing in a nation that is already struggling with water scarcity, may worsen the situation, fear a section of people and experts.

Over 2 billion people live in countries with high water stress and about four billion experience severe water scarcity at least one month of the year, according to the World Water Development Report 2019. Chennai in India, Cape Town in South Africa and Mexico City in Mexico are just a few examples of cities at risk of running out of water.

COVID-19 has reinstated the need of guaranteed access to safe water and sanitation for all, a far-fetched goal without integrating decentralised wastewater management approach in a country like India, according to the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) released by the NITI Aayog in 2018.

This implies severe water scarcity for millions and an eventual loss of around six per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product by 2050. The growing demand for water comes at a time when the potential for augmenting supply is limited, water tables are falling and water quality issues have increasingly come to the forefront.

The current water paradigm practiced in Indian cities — and in many developing countries — focuses on supply side management and hardware solutions. This approach is unsustainable and is not feasible, given that more water supply leads to more wastewater generation that in turn increases cost of treatment.

The lack of efficient sewage-management infrastructure can worsen the impact of disease outbreaks such as COVID-19.

Untreated sewage wastewater finds its way into polluted water bodies that are breeding grounds for all kinds of pathogens that may possibly contribute to the rise of a water borne pandemic.

Around 19,827 millions of litres (MLD) out of 53,998 MLD sewage generated per day was treated in metropolitan, class one and class two cities, according to a 2013 report by the Centre Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

it further indicated in 2017 that out of 18.6 per cent of total treatment capacity, only 13.5 per cent of sewage is effectively treated, clearly indicating that the current sewage treatment capacity is sub-optimal.

As stated by CSE, the current pandemic teaches us to redesign demand by reducing water usage to  reduce water wastage. We need to redesign sewage management to treat wastewater to return manure to the land and clean water to our rivers.

It is the time when wastewater is increasingly considered a largely untapped resource to augment water supply that can ultimately reduce water stress.

At present, 80 per cent of wastewater, globally, flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused and in India’s case, only 22 per cent of sewage generated is treated.

This calls for a paradigm shift from the current centralised water management approach to one that is sustainable in nature and emphasises on reuse and recycle of treated wastewater.

One such sustainable approach is decentralised wastewater management as it addresses the problem of water scarcity and pollution.

Decentralised wastewater management approach can play a vital role in delivering this new reality, as it is more economically affordable and is an ecologically sustainable option that required low maintenance, according to the latest review article on Wastewater Discharge Standards in the Evolving Context of Urban Sustainability–The Case of India.

It has the potential to alleviate urban water scarcity and reduce pollution in water bodies. Full and appropriate exploitation of this approach, however, requires regulatory institutions to address conventional barriers and establish an enabling environment to open windows of opportunity.

Depending on level of treatment, treated wastewater can be reused for agricultural, industrial, aquaculture and other non-potable purposes such as irrigation which — at 78 per cent of the total water reserve — is by far the largest user of India’s water reserve, contributing to the major portion of water demand which is currently met by abstraction of fresh water but can be replaced with reuse of treated water.

This is followed by the domestic sector with six per cent and the industrial sector at five per cent.

A total of 723 of India’s cities and towns with populations of 50,000 and above generate about 38,000 million liters per day of wastewater. It is estimated that if 80 per cent of urban wastewater is treated by 2030, there would be a total volume of around 17 billion cubic metres (BCM) per year; an increase of around 400 per cent in the volume of available treated wastewater.

This 17 BCM of treated wastewater resource — if captured, treated safely and recycled — is equivalent to almost 75 per cent of the projected industrial demand in 2025 and almost a quarter of the total projected drinking water requirements in the country.

Enabling environment

There is a need to hone institutional and structural changes to improve governance and management of India’s water resources at central, state and local levels by finding sustainable solutions to guide the use, allocation and distribution of water while balancing competition between sectors using principles of equity, inclusion, social justice and environmental sustainability.

In the past few years, the Union Government has taken concrete steps to reform India’s water management institutions and practices. The creation of a new integrated water ministry — the Jal Shakti ministry — was a first step towards sustainable water management.

Going forward, a series of national initiatives were also announced to promote water conservation, stressing on wastewater recycle and local reuse, including the Jal Shakti Abhiyan and Jal Jeevan Mission.

The initiatives of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), National Mission for Clean Ganga, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, the Smart City Mission, Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana, National Water Mission under the National Action Plan on Climate Change and the National Mission on Sustainable Habitat emphasise a decentralised reuse of wastewater and the need to incorporate the same in all water supply and wastewater management programmes.

The Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation (CPHEEO), which is the technical wing of the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MOHUA), describes decentralised wastewater treatment systems as a solution of local management of wastewater and its reuse.

Decentralised wastewater treatment and reuse is an opportunity as model building by-laws indicate that under no circumstances, effluents from septic tanks be allowed to enter into an open channel or drain or body of water without adequate treatment.

In addition, criterion for the Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment for green buildings applicable nationally, mentions and encourages reuse of the treated wastewater and rainwater for meeting the building water and irrigation demand.

To support this, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for any building demonstrates how an on-site non-potable water supply source is used to reduce the burden on municipal supply or wastewater treatment.

Decentralised wastewater treatment system (DWWTs) at CSE Building, Tughlakabad Institutional Area

CSE’s manuals on reinvent, recycle, reuse: Toolkit on decentralised wastewater management and water-sensitive urban design and planning emphasise alternative approaches of water management, as part of Centre of Excellence for MOHUA. It establishes how decentralised wastewater treatment and reuse fits well into managing  water efficiently at various scales keeping in view the existing challenges and opportunities into consideration.

Over the years, successfully implemented decentralised wastewater treatment projects helped provide the overarching framework of sustainable and affordable wastewater treatment at different scales: The neighbourhood, institutional and individual household building and potential of local reuse within context.

For understanding various decentralised wastewater best management practices implemented in India, one should visit Menu on Un-Networked Technologies (MOUNT), a web-based platform. The portal is a repository for sustainable technologies, encouraging and disseminating knowledge that helps understand and select appropriate technological options.

For wide acceptance and implementation on ground for this alternative approach, need is to shift focus from infrastructure to regulatory governance which requires:

  • Comprehensive legal regulations and policy level intervention
  • Efficient law enforcement
  • Target-orientated local and municipal planning along with monitoring of the implementation process
  • Comprehensive assessment of local and community needs
  • Socio-cultural acceptance
  • Multi-stakeholder involvement
  • Sustainable financing schemes
  • Capacity building and awareness at all levels (from user to implementer)

Factors for effective decentralised wastewater management


Source: Mahreen Matto, Sumita Singhal

 Way forward

Safely managed water, sanitation, and hygiene services are essential to prevent disease and protecting human health during infectious disease outbreaks. In these times of crisis, it becomes increasingly important to consider long-term measures and cost-effective strategies along with the short-term measures. Like COVID-19, water scarcity is a global concern that needs collective action and sustainable solution.

There is no more urgent a time to address and tackle the world’s water crisis than now, when people are constantly being reminded of using water to fight the spread of the virus

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