The environmental impact of untreated waste (or why do we have to swim to work during the rains)

In most parts of India we can finally officially say welcome to the monsoon. That time of the year when everybody perks up and starts frying everything in sight to eat at home while sipping hot tea or hot chocolate maybe. That time of the year when everyone becomes a poet. That time of the year when every house where someone speaks Hindi starts playing Rimjhim ghire saawan on the radio. That time of the year when hope rests on every branch of every tree and nature herself comes fully alive.

Also that time of the year our farmers keep waiting for all year long. That time of the year that determines whether our farmers will be able to sustain themselves and their families next year. And that time of the year when infrastructure across Indian cities begins to crumble. That time of the year when roads turn into swimming pools and traffic gets blocked and walking anywhere involves swimming or wading.

Also that time of the year when we realise how blocked and clogged our drains and sewers are as all the trash and plastic waste we’ve been dumping all year long comes swimming back out. And that time of the year when we expect sanitation workers to jump into these clogged sewers and unclog them with their bare hands while standing in waist-deep or chest-deep or even head-deep sewage.

We’ve previously written about the fatal risks sanitation workers in India take to clean sewers and septic tanks and how they can be avoided. We’ve also written about the importance of treating waste at source and also about the urgent and immediate issues Indian cities are facing because of our lackadaisical historical approach to garbage management.

And while we do need vastly improved civic sense from each and every one of us to ensure our waste is managed better and while do we need our civic bodies and governments to do better with our infrastructure, what we also need, desperately, is to ensure that all sewage is scientifically treated. Because untreated sewage is playing havoc with our environment and health. In fact, sewage accounts for more than 75 per cent of the surface water contamination in India. And with untreated waste leaching into groundwater, even those reserves aren’t free from pollution.

Less than half of India’s urban households are connected to a sewerage system, meaning their waste gets discharged directly into water bodies without any treatment whatsoever. Building new sewage lines is not the solution because the logistical issues involved with that are nearly impossible to resolve, especially in Indian cities where the infrastructure is always struggling to even meet existing needs. We need better waste management, especially for domestic wastewater.

Presently all our garbage ends up either in our waterbodies or by the roadside or, in some cases, choking up landfills. In every instance, this waste then ends up in our lakes and rivers and get washed up into our seas. In some instances, untreated wastewater gets released into drains adjoining rivers or lakes and then get used during irrigation. Pathogens, toxic chemicals and other undesirable entities end up getting transferred to our soil and our plants and to marine life and end up in our food chain, affecting not just our health but also becoming a generational health challenge.

In India, nearly 60% of urban deaths are due to lack of access to safe drinking water. In fact, 19% of the global population that doesn’t have access to safe water is in India. The number of people without access to clean water close to home in India is in excess of 160 million, more than the next 3 countries put together. Add in the deaths due to water-borne illnesses, especially during the rains because of choked drains and overflowing sewage, and the numbers are simply untenable. Another issue with no access to safe water is that people then store water in containers for later use, providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes and enabling the spread of dengue and malaria. And in our densely packed cities, an outbreak of dengue in one house has the potential to affect the entire city.

Untreated sewage is responsible for most of the polluted water in India, directly leading to the spread of several diseases, including diarrhoea, an illness that kills more than half a million children globally every year with India alone accounting for 20% of that number.

Apart from the clear and present dangers that untreated sewage poses to public health though is the ongoing threat it poses to our environment. Untreated or even partially treated wastewater ends up in our rivers, lakes, streams, ground water and other water bodies contaminating the water and rendering it unsafe and unfit for consumption. This same water, when used for agriculture, ensures that pathogens and toxic chemicals are transferred to the soil and the plants, thus contaminating our food even before our food starts to grow. And our oceans aren’t free from the effects of sewage either with a large volume of untreated sewage eventually ending up there and tainting aquatic life and marine ecosystems.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan has been focussed on building toilets and minimising open defecation, both noble and lofty ambitions. However, building toilets alone won’t solve anything unless the underlying infrastructure can ensure that all waste is treated and disposed of scientifically without causing harm to the environment. And in these times where most of the world’s cities – and certainly Indian cities – are reeling under a water crisis, it is doubly imperative that we not only preserve our water but also save it from contamination, especially in scenarios where it can easily be avoided.

And the solution is not unidimensional. But it begins with ensuring that all waste is processed on-site. Waste segregation, while mandated by most civic bodies, isn’t part of our individual DNAs yet. This needs to change. Recyclable waste needs to be recycled so our landfills don’t get choked. Everybody needs to start composting at home so organic waste doesn’t get flushed down our drains. Homes, housing societies, business parks, public sanitation facilities, any place that has a septic tank needs to ensure they use biological remediation to treat these septic tanks. Not only will this prevent sludge buildup and help break down waste into simpler – even usable – components and prevent toxic chemicals from leaching into our environment, it will also ensure no more lives are lost in cleaning our waste.

Going green is not only about ditching that plastic straw and swapping plastic bags with cloth ones. Going green is about active, conscious choices to make the necessary lifestyle changes so we can ensure our planet stays green and clean and can sustain life well into the future.

Post by Ankita Goyal