Rural water and sanitation needs to prioritise sustainability

Prioritising drinking water source sustainability, mix-up of nutrient cycle and reuse of treated biosolids & wastewater need attention

By Depinder Kapur
Published: Monday 28 November 2022
Operations and management of village water and wastewater infrastructure have to be local and focus on equity, inclusion and workers’ safety. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There is an urgent need to develop a common understanding of emerging rural water supply and sanitation priorities in India. It is also critical to ensure that we avoid falling into the trap of doing what comes easy and forgetting the larger purpose and core challenges.

Several priorities were identified in a national workshop August 2022 during the release of a compendium of success stories on water, greywater and faecal sludge management from rural India — Compendium of Best Practices in Rural Sanitation and Water Supply

Read more: How CSE trained professionals to address sanitation problems in India and abroad

The workshop was held under the chairmanship of Vini Mahajan, secretary of the department of drinking water and sanitation under the Union Jal Shakti ministry, along with non-profit Centre for Science and Environment Director General Sunita Narain.

Prioritising drinking water source sustainability is one of the essential priorities identified. Unfortunately, it is narrowly defined as protecting water sources in the immediate vicinity. The larger dimensions are often left out.

Source sustainability also needs to be made a convergence priority. The sustainability of our drinking water sources is a significant challenge today in light of the increasing water stress, conflict over the competing use of water for agriculture and industry and the imminent climate change crisis

The increasing intensity of water use and water stress resulting from climate change will impact source sustainability. Assessment of source sustainability and developing measures for improving source sustainability will require convergence of programmes, policy and environmental safeguards and legislation. 

We also need capacity building and learning collaterals for promoting source sustainability. The attitude and approach of many engineering para-state institutions and implementing agencies are still focused on water supply, not source sustainability. 

Capacity building of implementing agencies, developing planning and designing learning collaterals and community involvement in source sustainability is required. Advocacy and behaviour change communication at the national level is vital. At the state level, monitoring, capacity development and hand-holding support are needed. 

Making source sustainability a visible verifiable and incentivised priority is crucial. There is an urgent need to make source sustainability more visible in the web portal of Jal Jeevan Mission to display measures taken at the village level for the sustainability of the water source and the budget spent for the same. 

There is also an urgent need to address the mix-up of the nutrient cycle contaminating the water cycle. Our growing quantities of faecal sludge need to be harvested for nutrient recovery. Instead, they are being dumped in our rivers and water bodies. 

This leads to huge nutrient loss that should go to the agriculture sector and creates a problem with treating polluted water.  

Read more: More water is used by the bodies of those who live in nations with low development indices: Study

Focus on the reuse of treated biosolids and wastewater missing. There is an urgent need to move to harvest and treat faecal sludge and its reuse in agriculture beyond open defecation-free and safe containment of faecal sludge in toilets. 

All initiatives being undertaken today to set up faecal sludge treatment plants in rural areas will be undone unless the reuse of treated biosolids and wastewater is addressed. Treatment without reuse is not a solution to the problem — it adds to it.

Several priority areas of intervention are also emerging. Population density is increasing in rural areas and water use is also going up. The increased water use is on account of more toilets and flushing requirements, but also more livestock that requires additional water and generates more wastewater.

Greywater management in rural areas should be primarily at the household level through soak pits. Where secondary treatment is required, it should address the pollution of village ponds and waterbodies with simple technology solutions that can be managed at the village level by village water sanitation committees and panchayats.

Plastic waste is also an emerging issue in rural India. Source segregation at the household level and collection and disposal of plastic waste at an aggregation of panchayats at the block and district levels should be encouraged.

Enforceable standards and norms 

We need standards and regulations that can be enforced to bring these priorities into focus. 

Developing standards for both treated biosolids and treated wastewater from a reuse perspective are critical. CSE has a laboratory and long years of experience in testing wastewater. 

Wastewater and biosolids treatment standards and recommendations from the reuse perspective need to guide the future of all faecal sludge management, greywater and biosolids technology and treatment solutions in India. 

This is an urgent need to ensure that recovery and reuse benefit our depleted soils and rejuvenates our agricultural productivity without an additional burden imposed by copying western standards for treatment and disposal. 

The aspect of infrastructure sustainability is also neglected. Operations and management of village water and wastewater infrastructure have to be local and focus on equity, inclusion and workers’ safety. 

Village infrastructure of water supply and wastewater treatment systems needs to be managed at the village level. It cannot be contracted out to service providers for operations and management. 

Read more: Does government really want sustainable sanitation for rural areas?

Odisha has shown the way for urban sanitation. The state is promoting non-networked septage treatment solutions in place of large centralised, networked sanitation systems

Women or transgender self-help groups manage FSTPs in towns, ensuring livelihoods and gender equality. Ensuring the safety of sanitation workers and eliminating manual scavenging must be a priority. 

Traditional knowledge and wisdom are essential in water and sanitation. Reviving the appeal and practice of traditional water and waste management systems is possible by making them attractive and desirable.

The traditional wisdom of our rich history, the techniques of rainwater harvesting, and the more recently developed twin pit toilet system for managing household faecal sludge are effective in terms of our climate and use. They are also environmentally sustainable. 

These should not be seen as low-cost solutions for the poor. More research is needed to develop and contextualise these systems in rural areas, update them with modern innovations like the “magic soak pit” and promote them through behaviour change communication. 

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