|The urban populace is often cautioned about the vegetables they eat, especially green leafy vegetables, as they are increasingly grown with untreated sewage water. With mounting water scarcity, farmers in the peripheries of urban areas are known to increasingly use sewage or wastewater to grow vegetables, food crops and fodder. The concern raised with this kind of irrigation is that it constitutes a large part of the untreated sewage discharged from the urban centres. Such usage triggers contamination risks of health and environment.
While doing an exploration of wastewater use in irrigation in Gujarat, we came across several local bodies (urban local bodies and panchayats) selling wastewater for irrigation. Amongst them villages of Kutch are noteworthy as they not only treat the water but also sell it to farmers. The charges for these waters are much higher than the charges of canal irrigation water in water abundant areas of the state. This indicates that the wastewater collection, treatment and reuse from the resource recovery perspective are well understood by the communities as well as the authorities in water-scarce Kutch. The urban local bodies (municipal corporations and municipalities) are responsible for treating the sewage and increasingly are not able to comply with discharge standards. A number of reasons are cited for this, like lack of qualified staff, poor maintenance, overloading of facilities, irregular power supply, and apathy. However, lack of funding for O&M appears to be a significant impediment. In such a scenario these villages may be potential replicable models that may work in cities too.
We also came across several cities in whose peripheries wastewater was being used for irrigation extensively. However most often it was untreated with the risks of negative environment and health impacts. Untreated sewage is mentioned as the single most important contributor to surface and groundwater pollution in the state. The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India for Gujarat (year ending March 2011) mentions, "out of 167 ULBs, 158 (93 per cent) ULBs have no facility for treatment of sewage. These ULBs discharge untreated sewage in the lakes (9 ULBs), ground water (18 ULBs), open land (46 ULBs), rivers (40 ULBs), natural drains (26 ULBs) and sea creek (9 ULBs). Just 8 ULBs diverted sewage water for irrigation, while for the rest 5 ULBs, the position is un-ascertainable."
We found that the municipal corporations of Rajkot, Gandhinagar, Ahmedabad and Bhavnagar have generated revenues out of wastewater at different points in time with varied costs. They have recognized use of wastewater for irrigation by authorizing the lift irrigation societies lifting the wastewater. Specifically, we have learnt that the class 'A' municipalities of Nadiad and Patan; class 'B' municipalities of Palitana and Visnagar; class 'C' municipality of Balasinor and class 'D' municipality Oad are selling their wastewater for irrigation. However, it was found that the wastewater being used is not of the desired quality required for irrigation. This is based on the observation that the sewage treatment plants (STPs) are most often aggregators of sewage, parts of which are treated, passed through the treatment plant and parts are bypassed into the disposal area. The sewage collection networks also are inadequate so only a small portion goes for treatment. The rest flows into nallahs and drains eventually reaching the designated disposal areas.
Municipal authorities have the responsibility of public health and environment of the cities they represent. In the current scenario of the use of untreated wastewater for irrigation with the municipal authorities' recognition poses questions for their accountability towards safety of the citizens towards environment and health risks. The answer may not lie in banning the use of wastewater for irrigation but by monitoring the minimum standards required for its use for irrigation and ensuring it. The villages of Kutch offer a way where it is highly valued by the farmers and safe for the consumers of the produce too.