The Yamuna River continues to attract bad press for being a sewage canal.
Its plight draws people from near and far, the latest being a sizeable population from the villages around Mathura led by a local priest. This is the outpouring of people frustrated by a long-running low-level agitation that has failed to make a dent in the river’s condition. Downstream of Delhi, they get sewage as water that has infiltrated every aspect of their existence, from agriculture to drinking water.
The river has little water once it exits the Himalayas. Two canals at Hathnikund, about 180 km upstream of Delhi draw its water into Uttar Pradesh and Haryana for irrigation and cities. It recovers somewhat between that and Delhi but industries around Panipat and Sonipat in Haryana unload untreated effluents along with the sewage of these two cities into the river. In Delhi, the river is sucked dry of water and injected with a lethal dose of waste water from several drains. These drains carry mostly domestic sewage and a small volume of a deadly cocktail of heavy metals and industrial waste. This is the water that eventually reached Mathura and Agra, which has prompted the people there to march to Delhi.
Over the past few decades, two Yamuna Action Plans have collectively spent over Rs 4,500 crore to ‘clean the river’. But it remains are polluted as ever, just the volume of polluted water in the river has increased. Delhi has built or overhauled sewers and built more treatment plants. It has the capacity to treat about 2,800 million litres of sewage a day, out of an estimated generation of 4,500 MLD. The plants treat around 1,800 – 2,000 MLD; half the sewage flows into the river untreated. Worse, treated sewage also mixes with untreated sewage, increasing the latter’s volume.
There are a few remedies of increasing complexity for this. The simplest is hardest to implement – leave more water in the river. For this, the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi need to rework their water-sharing agreements which is a political and economic challenge. Delhi and other cities need to reduce water demand to a more rational level of say 110 – 120 litres per capita per day instead of over 200 now. This will change the basis of water planning; the problem is convincing the water supply engineers and bureaucracy of the imperative.
The more complicated one is treating the sewage of everybody in the cities along the river. This does not mean more sewers and plants alone. It means using a menu comprising conventional and non-conventional treatment systems to treat sewage. There are conventional treatment plants, but these are typically capital and energy intensive to build and run. There are non-conventional methods that are land-intensive but take less energy to run. Planners need to creatively use a mix from this menu rather than sticking to a monoculture of conventional sewage treatment plants linked to sewers. There are cost implications for setting up and running these plants, as well as the challenge of providing electricity. Most municipalities are bankrupt and need economic restructuring to find the money to run these plants, assuming the state or central government pays to set them up. Another option is in situ treatment of the river, using a combination of non-conventional treatment methods. The vast flood plains can become a treatment zone where sunlight and air are used optimally to reduce the pollution load, combined with other natural processes. The river can be cleaned with a little bit of lateral thinking.
Institutionally, what needs to change is the attitude of the river as a carrier of sins. In modern India, these are domestic sewage and industrial effluents. The river is a giver of life, a role we have forgotten in our headlong rush to source water from anywhere at any cost. The Yamuna is the single biggest source of water for Delhi, and towns upstream and downstream even as Delhi extends is arms into the Himalayas for more water. The city’s water policy recognizes the futility of this approach and, you may call it making a virtue out of necessity, calls for water self-sufficiency. The two planks of this are maximizing local water availability and reducing remand. The former is through rainwater harvesting, restoring and reviving local ponds in Delhi and sewage reuse. The latter is through reducing wastage and promoting water-efficient fixtures.
A mighty river will need many interventions from all riparian states to come back to life. It means bold steps under an integrated plan for the river’s revival and a significant departure from the pipes, pumps and plants approach of the past. The government’s assurance to build interceptor sewers or canals is only to repeat the mistakes of the past. This has been tried and failed in many cities, and will not work in Delhi either. The city’s existing infrastructure must work, and work better, before building anew. The river needs water, and if it means leaving more in it or reusing waste water or rainwater harvesting, then that must be done.
Currently, India is far off-track in achieving its sanitation targets. Apart from open defecation and lack of sanitation facilities in urban and rural areas; the management of septage has been largely neglected and is not a priority due to the lack of awareness of its heavy contribution to environmental degradation, poor sanitation and ill-effects to health. “Septage” is the waste that accumulates in onsite sanitation systems (OSS e.g.