COMMENTARY: Urban India is drowning in its own waste

Posted: 13 March 2012

Author: Sunita Narain

For the modern Indian city, the principle behind management of water and waste is a simple one: flush and forget. Not surprisingly, most cities are drowning in their excreta, says Sunita Narain, Director of the Centre for Science and the Environment (CSE) in Delhi. Her outspoken Commentary is one with global resonance.

Our cities face a two-fold problem – shortage of water and the crippling health consequences of dirty water. On one hand, water scarcity is growing; on the other, water is getting more and more polluted, escalating the cost of treatment or leading, increasingly, to more illnesses and deaths. Diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases remain some of the most common causes of death among children under age five.

This is decidedly not the way to the future.

Our cities must re-invent and re-work the methods and technologies of conveying water and disposing waste. The current method has problems - it is capital-intensive, creates and maintains a divide between the rich and the poor (evident from the fact that much of urban India does not have access to water or sewage facilities) and is natural-resource intensive (uses water first to flush, then to convey the waste). This system of water-waste management, first invented in the water-and-money rich industrialised world and imitated mindlessly here, can work well only for some. It is not built to work for all.

Polluted river, Delhi, India Photo: WHO/P. Virot
Polluted river, Delhi, India.
© WHO/P. Virot

The current obsession is to bring more and more water to cities. But this has a cost. This is because the longer the pipeline, ironically the less water there is for supply. Today, municipalities officially report 30-50 per cent of the water they procure for supply as ‘lost’ in leakages. So there is less to supply and more to pay. The end result: cost of water increases, the city is not able to subsidise the supply of water to all and – ironically – the government ends up subsidising the rich and not the poor. Also, as the city municipal water system collapses under the weight of under-recoveries, the rich move to private water sources like bottled water. It is left to the poor to also suffer the cost of poor health.

Blinding oversight

All we worry about is water. It is a blinding oversight, for where there is water there will be waste: roughly 80 per cent of the water that reaches households leaves as sewage. And sewage, once generated, has to go somewhere. It invariably does go – into the streams, ponds, lakes and rivers of the city, polluting the waterworks. Or it goes into the ground, contaminating the same water people use for drinking. Surveys of groundwater quality today are finding higher levels of nitrate contamination – a sure sign that untreated sewage has found its way into the aquifer.

Our planners want a sewage system, which will connect toilets – the flush variety, the wc – to laid-out, concrete underground sewers. This system, it is believed, will magically connect the waste to the treatment plant, which will then treat the sewage and dispose it in the river or the neighbouring water body.

But we are not learning lessons from cases where sewage systems are failing to keep up with the excreta challenge. The problem is the current sewage collection and conveyance paradigm is based on centralised systems. These rely on using a large quantity of clean surface water to transport a small amount of human excreta through expensive sewer lines to an expensive sewage treatment facility, which cannot cope with the amount of waste generated and releases it untreated into the environment. In this way, this system has become part of the environmental problem and not the solution.

The 22 km stretch of the Yamuna in Delhi contributes 70 per cent of the total pollution load of the river. © CSE

The capital intensity of the waste system results in an arrangement whereby cities can only provide for a few and not for all. Most cities cannot afford a sewage drainage system, let alone a sewage treatment system.

The end result is pollution. The end result is India, drowning in its excreta.

Sewage canals

The fact is that each one of us lives downstream. We flush but cannot forget. Each city that discharges its waste into the river does so thinking that this will make the problem go away. But we forget the city upstream will do the same. And as settlements grow, the discharge increases and if not treated it overloads the waterbody. The river turns into a sewage canal.

In a situation, where cities, industries and farmers are all competing to take from water from the river, it has less to dilute the waste. In this real life tale, we extract more and more fresh water for irrigation and other uses but only return effluent to the river. This then means that our rivers do not have the assimilative capacity – their self-cleansing ability is clean the muck that flows into the water between the two settlements.

Rivers are not rivers, but modern sewers. This is what needs to be changed.

The revenge of the downstream is we will drink the sewage of the upstream. The revenge is that it will hurt our bodies – waterborne diseases remain the biggest killers of modern times.

Changing ways

We will have to think differently.

The challenge is two-fold. Rich cities of the poor world will have to invest in efficiency so that they do not, first, become water-wasteful and then learn the science and art of efficiency. On the other hand, they will also have to invest in managing and treating their wastewater. The question, then, is: how will the modern cities of India grow without creating waste and pollution? How will these cities innovate so that they can practice the technologies of recycling and reuse?

Safe water, west Delhi, India. Photo: WHO
Safe water, west Delhi, India.© WHO

The challenge is to re-invent the most modern waste management system that reuses every drop of water discharged, at costs that can be afforded by all.

Firstly, we will have to spend less in bringing water to our houses. In other words, cut the length of the pipeline to reduce electricity and pumping costs and the ubiquitous ‘leakage’ loss. This means we will have to revive local water bodies and recharge groundwater, so that we can source water from as close as possible.

Secondly, we must use less, not more water, in our homes, so that we have less to treat and less to dispose off.

Thirdly, we must again cut the costs and transportation of sewage – use existing drain networks and a variety of technologies to treat sewage as locally as possible.

Finally, we will have to reuse every drop of sewage – turn it into drinking water with expensive technology or re-use and recycle it in our gardens, industries or use it (after treatment) to recharge groundwater. Life is about re-inventing the cycle of water to water.

Neglected technology

It would not be wrong to say the technology of toilets – an equipment to handle human excreta in a safe and hygienic manner – has been the least researched in the world. Toilets need to be re-engineered, so that they are affordable and can function to reuse and recycle the excreta generated. This is a technology challenge we have to work on, using the most advanced science and the most traditional knowledge. We know frontier technologies for toilets exist in space programmes. We also know traditional water systems were engineered in our villages for vulnerability and to optimise on scarce resources. We need the ingenuity and the humility of science to take us to the next generation of sanitation technologies.

But all this requires a major change in mindset so that the rich cities of poor India find innovative answers in their water and excreta management. Modern technologies for cleaning waste are out of the financial reach of the waste-accumulating societies of the poorer world. They are too expensive to install and even more expensive to run.

It is here the challenge lies: to reinvent the paradigm of waste treatment by reinventing the paradigm of waste generation itself.

The answer will lie in doing things differently. Cities must look at their waste economy and invest in reuse. For instance, Singapore uses expensive membrane technology that completely cleans up wastewater, making it potable new water. This is at the expensive end. The other alternative is our cities leapfrog to minimise on generating waste or ensure the waste is segregated – household waste from industrial waste – so that what is relatively less toxic can be cleaned up and then used to recharge groundwater or irrigate fields. This is the win-win for the future.

This Commentary is based on the 7th State of India’s Environment Report, Excreta Matters: How Urban India is soaking up water, polluting rivers and drowning in its own waste, recently published by CSE. It is available at