Wastewater Management in Rural India
Wastewater is the sewage and non-potable water that flows back into the environment, and most of it is untreated. In the majority of rural areas, untreated wastewater is discharged directly into the local surroundings and water bodies. This leads to the contamination of surface as well as sub-surface water, having negative effects on the environment and human health. Since the water supply for domestic purposes in rural areas has improved considerably over the years, the quantity of wastewater that is disposed has also increased. Hence, effective wastewater management systems need to be introduced in the rural areas to mitigate the problem of contamination. Wastewater management programs in rural areas aim at treating and managing sewage and water used for non-potable purposes. The purpose is to avoid pollution and damage to the environment, and sustain the water table and water sources. This would result in a continued and clean supply of safe drinking water to the masses and lead to improved hygiene and sanitation.
History of Wastewater Management in India: An Example to Follow
The Harappan civilization was one of the earliest yet most-advanced civilizations in the world. The Harappan civilization first developed architecture with sophisticated drainage systems and wastewater management provisions. Agriculture as the primary economic activity dependent on water required preserving it and keeping it free from contamination. Harappa and Mohenjo-daro made the world’s first attempt at sanitization systems. The wastewater management systems were adaptable to the cultural and economic conditions of the society. Wastewater disposal and drainage systems were made of complex networks. Latrines, pipes and channels, cesspools, and soak-pits were key elements of sewage systems of that era. Channels covered with bricks and stones were connected to all the settlements of Mohenjo-daro. Terra-cotta pipes were used to collect the household wastewater through sedimentation into the drainage channels on the streets. To avoid clogging the drains, cesspits were placed at the junction of drains. However, over time, the historical knowledge of these systems is all but forgotten.
Present Issues in Wastewater Management
With population growth and rapid industrialization, wastewater management has become a serious issue. Rural India with old or no infrastructure has reached a tipping point. The problem is reaching serious proportions and adding to the woes of a hapless rural population who have little or no access to potable water. With much of it coming from underground sources that are contaminated due to over-exploitation or pollution, wastewater management takes immediate importance. India has the highest number of people who do not have access to clean drinking water. Even abundance of water in certain places does not guarantee access to safe, reliable, clean drinking water. People of Samastipur, until recently, were unhappy and suffering a great deal as they, like most people in rural India, did not have access to potable water. A hand pump was the common source of water, but the water was unfit for consumption as it contained biological impurities, iron and arsenic contamination, and turbidity. People had to purchase potable water, which was costly, to meet their daily cooking and eating requirements.
Innovation and cost-effective solutions: The need of the hour
United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 focuses on access to clean water and sanitation for all. Sehgal Foundation works with rural communities under the project Adarsh Panchayat Bhandari, in Sitamarhi district, Bihar. The goal of the initiative is to sensitize communities to the advantages of hygiene and sanitation. Apart from creating awareness, sanitation drives are conducted to sensitize the community, build engagement, and motivate them to adopt healthy practices.
Wastewater disposal was an issue in the area due to a lack of proper drainage. This resulted in accumulation and water-logging, leading to a host of vector-borne diseases for villagers. The Sehgal Foundation constructed soak pits that could be built with locally available materials and little assistance.
The soak pit is five feet deep with a diameter of four feet. It is connected to a silt chamber that is one foot by one foot. The silt chamber helps to sort and block other solid waste so that only water goes into the pit. The silt chamber controls the water force so that water runs smoothly into the soak pit. The size of a pit varies according to the amount of wastewater generated and the soil quality. It employs a process of filtration that segregates solid waste, treats the wastewater, and ultimately recharges the water table with groundwater that is free of contaminants. These pits do not cost much and are virtually maintenance free.
To Conclude: Why treat wastewater at all?
Wastewater treatment is interconnected with the water chain, and thus affects the environment. Water used by rural homes gets converted to sewage or gets contaminated chemicals and other pollutants. It must be treated before it is released back to the environment. While nature is able to process and cope with a small amount of wastewater, imagine the huge volume produced every day before being released back to the environment.
Health and environment are two major reasons to have an urgent focus in this oft-neglected area: health. A contaminated water chain can have disastrous effects on human health, agriculture, marine life, wildlife, and our food chain, to name a few. According to the 2015 report of the Central Pollution Control Board, India has the current capacity to treat approximately only about 30 percent of its wastewater, most of it in urban India. An urgent need for community participation along with government and private initiatives are the needs of the hour. Rural growth, prosperous existence, and development will be driven by the methods we use to manage wastewater in times to come.