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Water pollution in India – Need of a new approach

The government should give subsidies and promote research to build cheaper water treatment plants, instead of spending funds on pollution control schemes, in order to effectively control water pollution.

By Ambrish Srivastava

Febuary 16, 2009

Water pollution has emerged as one of the gravest environmental threats in India. Its biggest sources are city sewage and industrial waste that are discharged untreated into the rivers. Despite the best efforts of the government, only about 10 per cent of the waste water that is generated in the cities is treated and the rest is discharged into the rivers.

The entry of toxic substances into water bodies like lakes, streams and rivers leads to deterioration in the quality of water and severely affects the aquatic ecosystems. Due to this, even the ground water gets contaminated. All these have a devastating effect on all living creatures that exist near the polluted water bodies. Urgent steps are needed to be taken by the Indian government on the water pollution management front and the flawed policies need to be amended in order to obtain concrete results.

Water pollution is a reality of human existence. Activities like agriculture and industrial production generate water pollution apart from the biological waste. In India, every year, approximately 50,000 million litres of wastewater, both industrial and domestic, is generated in urban areas. If the data of rural areas is also taken into account, the overall figure will be much higher. The materials that constitute industrial waste include highly harmful substances like salts, chemicals, grease, oils, paints, iron, cadmium, lead, arsenic, zinc, tin, etc. In some cases even radio-active materials are discharged into the rivers bodies by some companies, who for the sake of saving money on water treatment, throw all the norms to the winds.

All efforts by the government to put a check on wastewater management have failed as the treatment systems require high capital investment for installation and also high cost is incurred on operational maintenance. This is a sore point not only for the farmers but also for the factory owners as the high cost of treating industrial wastewater affects their bottom-line. The cost of establishing and running a wastewater treatment plant in a factory can be as high as 20 percent of the total expenditure. Hence we see a situation where, despite the presence of government norms, effluents continue to flow into the river bodies untreated.

On the other hand, the government of India is spending millions of rupees every year on water pollution control. According to rough estimates, Indian government has spent nearly 20,000 crore rupees till now on various schemes in India, like the Ganga Action Plan and Yamuna Action Plan, to control water pollution in rivers. But no positive results have been achieved as yet. The government should realise that all efforts to get the river-bodies free from water pollution will fail unless the process of untreated industrial and other wastewater getting into the water bodies is not stopped.

Hence the government should, instead of spending money on pollution control schemes, divert its resources to encourage wastewater treatment in agriculture and industrial sector. The money spent on pollution control should be spent on giving subsidies to the industries which generate wastewater and on strict monitoring of their adherence to the norms. Research should be promoted in areas like nanotechnology to find out ways and means to build cheaper wastewater management plants. Here also, the approach should be to re-use the treated water for agriculture instead of letting it go into the rivers and streams.

It should not be forgotten that only 0.3 per cent of total water available on this planet is fit for consumption for human beings, animals & plants. The remaining 99.7 per cent is present either as sea water or as glaciers on the mountains. Hence ignoring the issue of water pollution any longer would mean inviting a Third World War which would be fought for the control of water resources.

The author is a senior Civil Engineer with a specialization in Environmental Engineering.

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