Tinsukia’s poor domestic wastewater management paints situation of looming water crisis across Assam

Around 97% of the domestic wastewater is untreated, discharged to the environment

By Jyoti Parsad, Vikash Agarwal
Published: Tuesday 07 June 2022
Guwahati's Bharalu storm water drain carrying wastewater into Brahmaputra River Photo: Vikash Agarwal

Assam was once considered water-rich, but it has been using up this resource fast in the recent decades; twice as fast as its increase in population.

The reasons behind this increase in consumption of freshwater are: 

  • Increase of population
  • Diversification of human activities 
  • Improper management of used water (wastewater) 

The potential of per capita availability of water reduced with the increase in per capita consumption of water in domestic, agricultural and industrial sectors. This led to the state ranking in the bottom three of all states in the recent SDG Index released by Niti Aayog, the government think-tank.

In 2018, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) identified 44 polluted river stretches in Assam — the second-highest among all states and Union territories (UTs) in India. 

Some interventions and improvements were seen in the recent past but still, the damage to the water bodies didn’t reduce. The discharge of untreated wastewater may be a major cause of river pollution in several states, including Assam, experts pointed out. 

A March 2021 national inventory of sewage treatment plants (STP) by CPCB pointed out that there is no sewage treatment plant in Assam, which reflects a very critical situation for the state.

In view of maintaining environmental sustainability, NGT directed all states / UTs to address gaps in generation and treatment of sewage / effluents by ensuring setting up of requisite number of functional effluent treatment plants, combined effluent treatment plants and STPs at least in major cities of the state. 

In response to a National Green Tribunal order of September 2020, the Assam government in its report stated that the Assam Urban Water Supply and Sewerage Board has been designated as the nodal agency for establishing STPs in urban areas. A detailed project report will be prepared soon.

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based non-profit prepared a Shit Flow Diagram (SFD) Lite Report in September 2020 for Tinsukia urban-local body. The document highlights the poor sanitation infrastructure for one of Assam’s leading commercial hubs. 

Around 97 per cent of the domestic wastewater is untreated and discharged to the environment, with no proper arrangements of secondary and tertiary treatment facilities for treating and managing domestic wastewater, the study found.

Sanitation Value Chain

(Source: CSE)

From Tinsukia to the other ULBs in Assam, insufficient sanitation infrastructure is painting a gloomy picture for the mighty Brahmaputra and other rivers seeking attention for interventions at source to control the pollutants discharged.

Shit Flow Diagram for Tinsukia

(Source: CSE report)

The major problems are plenty for the small ULBs on the sanitation front. 

First, it lacks a proper wastewater conveyance system. 

Second, the links in the sanitation chain are missing or the ones available are insufficient to meet the population demand. The recently introduced cesspool service, for instance, is yet to pick up on periodic desludging of septic tanks. 

Additionally, the emptied sludge lacks proper treatment methodology in the absence of a municipal level sewage / faecal sludge treatment plant (FSTP).                                     

The SFD Lite Report of Tinsukia highlighted the key issues which the city is facing like:

Major dependency on on-site sanitation systems, which are either connected to storm water drains or not getting emptied frequently, as specified by Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation (CPHEEO)

The effectiveness of open drains is reduced due to indiscriminate dumping of solid waste and unwanted sewage flowing into it. 

Containment systems prevalent in the city are septic tanks connected to soak pits (around 3 per cent), septic tank connected to open drain or storm sewer (around 25 per cent), fully lined tank connected to an open drain or storm sewer (around 70 per cent) and containment failed or damaged connected to an open drain or storm sewer (around 1 per cent).

Additionally, few households which don’t have enough space for constructing their individual containment system are connected to community toilets / public toilets. 

The ULB was declared Open Defecation Free in 2018. However, during field visit, it was observed that poor toilet infrastructure or lack of adequate alternative toilet facilities in the form of community / public toilets in slum areas result in behavioural issues. These individuals have no choice other than defecating in the open. 

Also, during the rainy season, flooding is prevalent in a majority of the slum areas. This results in waterlogging, exposing the population to a high risk of contamination.

A recent series (Kaun Sunega Inki Aawaz?) run by Assam First, a local web-based portal of Tinsukia, highlighted the issues faced by citizens in the ULB owing to poor sanitation infrastructure. 

Entry of drain / sewage water into houses during rains was a very serious issue pointing to the direct implication on health and in turn, on the economic well-being of people. 

It also stressed on the challenges faced due to the absence of a conveyance system, leading to the discharge of night soil in open drains and thereby to nearby ponds or water bodies.

There is no denying that today Brahmaputra and its tributaries are getting choked due to the untreated discharge of domestic sewage. Owing to this, some experts opined that the Brahmaputra may be another Ganga in the making if steps are not taken to address the sanitation issues. 

To address the above problems, a couple of intervention models such as improving septic tanks, decentralised wastewater treatment systems, constructed wetlands, phytorid and in-situ nullah treatment can be implemented at different levels ranging from household, community and zonal level as ‘do-it-yourself initiatives in Assam. 

To know more about the specific technological option and related case studies, one can visit the web-based tool called MOUNT (Menu on Un-networked Technologies) developed by CSE

These interventions can provide the much-needed thrust to community-based wastewater management and citywide sanitation approaches set under Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 and AMRUT 2.0.

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