Indian Cities need to have River Pollution Abatement Plans and Task Forces

Cities need to increase treatment, recycling and reuse of wastewater to reduce the amount of untreated wastewater discharged into freshwater bodies by at least 50 per cent by 2030.

Ever since the new government at centre came to power, the name of the Ministry of Water Resources was changed to give special emphasis to Ganga, considered the most sacred river of the nation.  The name of the ministry was changed to include ‘River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation’ and ministers none less than the Prime Minister took personal vows to save Ganga.  The first water resource minister of the current regime went to the extent of promising to lay her life if Ganga was not cleaned.  She is no more the minister and Ganga is far from being cleaned.

The Comptroller and Auditor General(CAG) of India, in a latest audit, has found out that under the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) programme the government has been able to spend, between April 2015 to March 2017, only about 260 million USD of the 1.05 billion USD earmarked for cleaning the Ganga in this period. The central government, in 2015, had actually committed an amount of 3 billion USD for a five-year project to clean the 2525 kilometre long river that is now one of world’s most polluted Rivers.

At least 400 million people depend on this river for their water requirement.   Water quality of 8 of the 10 cities surveyed along the river did not meet outdoor bathing standards.  If this is fate of Ganga, the river that gets maximum attention of the government of the day at centre, one could imagine the fate of other Rivers of this country.

River pollution has doubled in four years

Latest data that is available for river pollution says that a total length of 12,363 kilometres of all our Rivers are highly polluted.  The Central Pollution Control Board (CBCB), based on monitoring of data collected during the five year 2009-2012, has found out that 302 river stretches are now polluted compared to 150 river stretches that were found to be polluted based on data for period 2002-2008.  Pollution of our Rivers has doubled. And CBCB attributes most of this pollution to urban wastes.

In 2009, the CPCB had estimated that, 38,000 million litres per day (mld) of wastewater was being generated in the urban centres having population more than 50,000 in India (housing more than 70% of urban population). This had jumped to almost 57,000 mld by the year 2015.  That’s a jump of almost 50 per cent! The CPCB had in 2009 estimated that capacity developed for treating wastewater in these categories of cities was only for 11,000 mld.

It means the rest of the wastewater was simply flowing into the Rivers and other water bodies.  However, this statistics cannot be relied as we could find from our own studies.  Even government officials and ministers have admitted in public speeches that the treatment facility of 29 per cent is overestimated.  Comparing Census statistics and other statistics also makes it clear.  Several estimates put that the current treatment may be somewhere around 15 to 20 per cent of the total waste generated, or even less.

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Strategy 2030

Urban bodies of India need to invest in strategies to abate pollution of our Rivers.  While the National Sanitation Policy as well as Sanitation Strategies, for few states which have so far formed one, ask for containment of all kinds of wastes and treatment, there is no clear strategy and time plan to check pollution of Rivers and water bodies by urban areas.  By not doing this the cities are doing a great disservice to their own population as well as rural areas and ecology.

A new UN Environment report that draws on the latest data from every continent warns that freshwater bodies, on which billions of people depend for water, food and transport, are heavily affected by nutrient run-off from agriculture, chemicals and pathogens in untreated wastewater, heavy metals from mining and industrial effluents.

In fact, to facilitate meeting of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, this UN Report has made some vital suggestions to curb pollution.  Indian cities pollute the Rivers the most, and hence need to take lead in these actions.  Cities need to Increase treatment, recycling and reuse of wastewater to reduce the amount of untreated wastewater discharged into freshwater bodies by at least 50 per cent by 2030.

To do this, all the existing gaps in finance, manpower and infrastructure need to be plugged; data need to be generated in dynamic, efficient and transparent manner to be used in planning; convergence between the various departments and stakeholders need to be established; and time bound action plan for abatement of River pollution need to be prepared and implemented with active participation of all the stakeholders including urban local bodies (ULBs), governments of the state and centre, citizens and their organisations, civil society organisations, corporate and industrial houses that have a stake in the cities.

Another important aspect is to work towards obtaining and implementing decentralised wastewater technologies.  Our cities are heavily dependent on knowledge systems that promote centralised systems of waste treatment which not only take time but are not as efficient as the decentralised systems.  While we cannot do much about the already implemented (or in in implementation stage) systems, in case of the new ones that are being planned and for upcoming plans, innovations with regard to segregation of wastes and promoting decentralised systems of treatment be tried along with promotion of reuse of wastewater in agriculture and other purposes.  For this, strong monitoring standards and institutions are needed, which we lack at the moment.

ULBs need to form special Task Forces to abate pollution of Rivers with citizens taking the key charge of the same.  Such Task Forces should be having power to ensure accountability of ULBs and pollution monitoring/enforcing agencies such as Pollution Control Boards.  For this, capacity building of all stakeholders and necessary resource provisioning have to be taken care of.

As I have always been saying, urban citizens should not be made only ‘customers’ and ULBs ‘service providers’.  Citizens need to be owners of the processes of development and for that governments must create enabling provisions to ensure that their rights over resources are ensured, as well as their sense of responsibility towards conservation of these resources is facilitated.  This is very important if we want to free our Rivers and water bodies of pollution.

This article first appeared in Urban Update

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