Editorial: Rivers are sewers
Water binds South Asia together. We share rivers and seas but have collectively done little or nothing to manage them well. Instead, water is a resource to be exploited and a receptacle to be abused. Last year’s publication, the 7th State of India’s Environment Report, Excreta Matters, amply demonstrated how Indian cities are abusing the country’s water resources and drowning in their own excrement. This is not an Indian prerogative, but nothing we can be collectively proud of.
South Asia revels in doing the same thing. Colombo, Dhaka, Thimphu and Kathmandu have the same malaise that Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kolkata or Mumbai have. Rivers are sewers. Only the degree varies. The Yamuna stinks because there is no fresh water to dilute Delhi’s sewage. At the other end of the spectrum is the Thimphu Chuu (river), fast flowing river that carries away much of the city’s sewage. In between are the Bagmati River of Kathmandu, the Kelani River in Colombo and the Buriganga River in Dhaka, all polluted to varying degrees.
As we demonstrated in India, river pollution is the result of the failure of urban planning and governance. Urban growth has been fueled by rural-urban migration and natural population growth. Unable to provide sewage treatment plants and sewage networks, urban local bodies have been complicit in letting rivers become sewers. Looking at the Thimphu Chuu or the Kelani River, one may not immediately get the sense of a sewer, but as I said it is a difference of degrees; the attitude is the same.
There are simple and affordable solutions to this problem but planning in all cities is dictated by foreign consultants and agencies. Therefore, Thimphu has an ambitious plan to sewer all its new development areas, covering about 19 square km in hilly terrain and make sewage treatment plants (STPs). This, in a city that already has aeration lagoons that treat 2 million litres a day of sewage, and has space to make plenty more. Kathmandu has experimented with decentralized water treatment systems with some success.
We have tried a resource-intensive STP-centric approach all over India with abysmal results. The first Ganga Action Plan and Yamuna Action Plan are testimony to this. But nobody seems to have learnt. STPs don’t work as advertised because there is a shortage of power, manpower and sewerage networks.
What cities need is a mix of options, both conventional and non-conventional. These should be as decentralized as possible without compromising on quality and monitoring. Treated sewage needs to be reused and all our cities still have ample scope to do so for watering lawns, horticulture or industry. Instead of letting rivers become sewers that sicken and kill people downstream, cities need to clean up their act, and soon.