Solving Bangalore’s water dilemma

By Clementine Robert & Loic Kraehenbuehl, Academic Relations & Projects, June 2018

The water situation in Bangalore has become critical: the city is dangerously marching towards Day Zero, which means that the taps are going to run dry soon. On the 8th of May, swissnex India hosted an event on water management to explore the topic and discuss potential solutions to avoid such a case. In the recent past, Switzerland faced serious water-related issues, but succeeded in resolving them. Why not India?

People from the academic, civil society, private and governmental sectors united to discuss water management challenges through the lens of small sewage treatment plants (STPs). They were brought together by Swiss Federal institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (EAWAG) and swissnex India.

Lukas Ulrich, environmental engineer at EAWAG, presented findings of the ‘Small-Scale Sanitation Scaling-Up’ (4S) project he has been managing since January 2016 alongside Ligy Philip from IIT Madras and Manas Rathi from Borda. IIT Madras and Borda partnered up with the Swiss Aquatic center for data collection carried out between 2016 and 2017. The main purpose of the 4S project is firstly to evaluate existing small-scale STPs in South Asia and secondly to issue evidenced-based policy recommendation. The three presentations were followed by a panel discussion with different experts within the field of wastewater management.

Water and Switzerland

Switzerland, a small landlocked country, counts an impressive 1500 lakes. It holds 6 % of Europe water reserve and 40% of its water originates from snow melt. However, the situation has not always been positive. After the European industrial revolution in the mid-nineteenth century, water pollution in Switzerland was steadily increasing until it reached its climax during the 1950’s. When the situation was judged to be serious enough to take actions, policy makers, civil society, local authorities and industries decided to gather together in order to tackle the skyrocketing issue. The results turned out to be very positive.

The Bangalore context

The rapid urbanization of Bangalore resulting in encroachment and discharge of sewage and industrial effluents explains the heavily polluted water bodies of India’s ‘Silicon Valley’ today.

The solution EAWAG has been studying is the use of small-scale sanitation systems (SSS). It consists of a decentralized system dealing with waste water in order to reuse it after being treated in a STP. A wide range of technologies exist within the field. Among other things, the 4S aims to assess which one is preferable to use according to each specific context. Another goal of the project is to scale up SSS systems while promoting the best management practices for their installation, operation and maintenance in order to reach maximal efficiency.

Different layers of inefficiencies

On a technical level, 80% of STPs are dysfunctional in Bangalore. Discontent and awareness of the issue is growing among the population. Many apartments constructed in the past do not have any sanitation systems. For those who do, poor operation and maintenance often lead to an inefficient use of the systems. Being rather technical, their adequate management require qualified human resources which are not sufficiently present so far. On a larger scale, systems evaluated in the country have proven to be inefficient and not meeting the required standards.

On a regulatory level, the existing SSS Policy and Institutional framework that exists nation-, state- and citywide should be improved in order to incentivize the private sector to become more proactive. It can indeed bring valuable inputs in the design of systems, in their operation and management. It can also play a consulting role. In addition, a centralized online SSS database is lacking in clarity in the responsibilities taken by the different water-related institutions in Bangalore.

Potential solutions

The final recommendations of the study suggest financial incentives for the private sector to jump in and take responsibility from the concerned institutions, decentralized systems on neighborhood scales to be favored for construction efficiency and market-driven initiatives.

Raising awareness among the population to boost investments in STPs is also key: the systems allow water security, save money and are environment friendly. Communicating the  matter should be considered with great care.

Overall, the most important element needed to trigger durable change and face the issue of water scarcity with greater confidence is a change of mindset: “what comes in must come out and must come back in again”. Water needs to be efficiently treated and reused. Some apartments complexes with such systems exist in Bangalore: their approach needs to be followed on a more global scale.

A shift of paradigm towards a more circular economy is necessary. Technological and operational solutions will follow if the different stakeholders are ready to assume responsibility and work together. The Swiss case is encouraging and demonstrates the benefits coordinated joint efforts can lead to.