What can we do about India’s water crisis – Part 5/5

Solution#2 for cities: Decentralized Sewage Treatment

What to do and when to do it:

Managing water in Indian cities is hard. Our water philosophy has thus far largely rested on grabbing a higher share from reservoirs or desalination – i.e., we’ve pinned our hopes on centralized provision rather than decentralized management. However, in the land of ‘Jugaad’, in cities with labyrinthine piping and informal settlements, centralized measures lose effectiveness because what is provided at source often does not reach the end – lost to leaks and wrong turns in pipes. Moreover, climate change, which will decrease the amount of water available in some water basins and exploding demand will soon reveal the limited depths of provisioning. ‘Day Zero’, thus, catalyses the shift to water management.

Communal Water Collection Point, Madurai, Picture courtesy: Sundaram Climate Institute

Given the ignorance surrounding sewage treatment and possible psychological as well as financial hurdles, the “when” to implement is important. As summer rolls around, voters will begin to cherish water – especially in dry regions. This is the time to propose/require decentralized sewage treatment and reuse, at the household or apartment level, or, at most, at a neighbourhood level. To extend the chemistry analogy, we can lower the activation energy for this change, by coupling this “medicine” with a sugar of better FSI, or preferential access to capital.

The key is decentralized sewage treatment. Some cities already claim to have enough centralized sewage treatment capacity. But this requires sewage to be pumped to a central plant using power, through potentially broken or misdirected pipes. The power requirement makes this centralized scheme expensive and broken pipes reduces the scheme’s effectiveness. Moreover, by going decentralized, the treated water helps satisfy some part of the water demand of generators of the sewage, increasing the economic attractiveness of treating one’s sewage.

Dewats Sewage Treatment Plant, Dattatreya Textiles, Madurai, Picture by Mridula Ramesh

Where will this work: Rather than dictate from above that everyone adopt sewage treatment, governments can initiate the scheme in areas that are cut off from municipal water supply, and where groundwater is expensive or unavailable. While this may seem like a “small” solution, note that Indian urban populations are exploding and the millions that pour into cities will settle into accommodation that is yet to be built, and in the periphery where municipal water supply does not exist. Also, by placing the onus on implementation primarily on companies building affordable housing at the periphery of cities, the stress on government capacity is reduced.

Why will it work: Simple economics. For households using expensive tanker-water, sewage treatment acts as a low-cost substitute for some part of their water use, and a cheap way to recharge their groundwater. The issue may be one of awareness and of lack of capital, which can be overcome by education campaigns and by loosening FSI or by granting access to cheaper capital for the purpose.

The crisis as catalyst

Let us ask the first question again: Can India’s water crisis be conquered? Yes, it can. Israel, that receives far less rain than we do, grows mangoes in its desert, showing water supply is clearly not the problem. Lack of water management is. To get India to manage its water, we need to frame our solutions in terms of paybacks, both political and commercial, rather than relying only on a rights-based discussion. Another shift in approach is from a centrally designed, top-down water management infrastructure to decentralized need-driven infrastructure. We’ve looked at just two of an entire gamut of solutions that can help solve India’s water crisis. The key is politicians become enablers while the impetus is provided by the voter.

This makes the current elections extremely pertinent. Will voters show politicians that vote-bloc appeasements (such as quotas), or short-term sweeteners (such as free electricity or farm loan waivers) are surer roads to victory than resilience-building measures such as agricultural electricity pricing, or universal installation of water meters in cities?

Cognoscenti often remark, “Never waste a crisis.” Will India’s “worse ever water crisis” catalyse the shift from water provision to water management. We will need to parse election results closely for the answer.


(Afterword: Shortly after this article was written, the incumbent government of Telangana, who opted for populist measures, won resoundingly, while the incumbent government of Madhya Pradesh, who opted for resilience-building measures, lost the election, but won the popular vote)

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