Pollution 'time bomb' ticking for Ganga despite ODF

India is on the verge of being declared open-defecation free but the next big challenge is to safely dispose millions of tonnes of shit in our toilet tanks

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Tuesday 02 April 2019
Representational Photo: Getty Images

Ganga is again in focus as India celebrates its spectacular success in becoming open-defecation free (ODF). Making villages and towns along the Ganga river ODF is a critical part of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). Untreated sewage, including faecal sludge and flow of shit in the open, are major pollutants in India's national river.

As the deadline for cleaning Ganga nears and Namami Gange being a major electoral promise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, experts and activists — at the conclave on sanitation organised by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) to discuss sustainable development goals and what India achieved under SBM — say that the river can't be rid of pollution unless cities and villages along the river fix the glitches in faecal sludge management.

Currently, most of these villages and towns don't have sewage systems. Untreated faecal waste is just dumped around, once taken out of tanks. It then continues to flow into the river defeating the very mission of making the river basin ODF.

"Making toilets is the first step. But the challenge is to contain pollution from faecal waste. This would only be possible if we treat and reuse our waste safely, and avoid dumping in the river in any form," says Suresh Rohilla, a senior director with CSE.

CSE has been working on ways to make the Ganga pollution-free from these sources. The urgency of addressing this issue can be gàuged from the fact that towns and villages close to the river generate 180 million litres of faecal sludge every day.

Under SBM, 4,465 villages have been declared ODF while two million households in the Ganga Basin now have toilets.

“Without proper management of faecal sludge, becoming ODF is meaningless. As now, instead of the open, we have waste contained in tanks in our households. And if people begin to dump it in the open due to absence of proper sewage system — we will be back with the same old problem and our shit will continue to pollute Ganga," said a researcher working on the issue.

He added that the pollution time bomb is ticking for Ganga despite ODF.

In Uttar Pradesh, a major focus state for cleaning Ganga, 80 per cent of the septic tanks are connected to open drains, which ultimately open into rivers. The UP Action Plan for 2017-2020 says that the state's cities have 80 per cent toilet coverage. But most of them don't have sewage system, including many towns and cities along Ganga.

CSE estimates that in cities like Allahabad, Varanasi and Kanpur, hardly 25 per cent of faecal sludge generated is collected for safe disposal. For example, in Varanasi, 246 kilolitres of faecal sludge is generated every day, but only 30 kilolitres is collected for safe disposal.

Along the main stem of Ganga river there are 30 million toilets with tanks. This doesn't necessarily mean that all of them are under safe faecal sludge disposal and management. "It is a reality that most are dependent on on-site containment of our faecal sludge. The need is to make this reality safe by ensuring proper sewage management," says Rohilla.

In 2017, India had declared a national policy on faecal sludge and septage management. Under this policy, every state is supposed to adopt a faecal sludge septage management action plan.

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