Patna drinks its own sewage, says urban water-wastewater study done by CSE

Patna, May 25, 2012: Patna suffers from a problem of plenty – of water and sewage. It depends on the Ganga and groundwater for drinking.

Less than 10 per cent of the city’s population is connected to a sewage network; which means 90 per cent of the city’s excreta is discharged into open drains and eventually into the same river! From the drains, it also percolates into the groundwater which is pumped up by the Patna Municipal Corporation (PMC) and supplied to houses.

This is the finding of Excreta Matters, a comprehensive report based on a survey of 71 Indian cities – including Patna – that was released here today. The report, put together by the New Delhi-based research and advocacy organization, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), was unveiled by Prem Kumar, minister for urban development, government of Bihar.

How Patna fares
The city-based Public Health Institute has tested water samples and found more than half to be full of bacterial contamination and unfit for human consumption. Against the permissible level of 100 per mililitre of faecal coliform, tests have indicated an average of 5,056; the permissible level for total coliforms is also 100 per ML but tests have shown this to be an average of 13,533! Patna is, therefore, drinking its own sewage.

The city needs about 215 million litres per day (MLD) of water, and gets 202 MLD. Just 60 per cent of the population is covered by the water supply system. There are no water treatment plants, assuming that ‘Ganga Jal’ is safe for drinking. About 20 per cent depend on standposts while the rest have their own tube wells. In the PMC area, water supply is for six hours a day totaling 107 litres per person per day, while outside, this it is a mere 43. The PMC’s cost recovery on water supply is just 12 per cent of its expenditure – which means it does not have the money to upgrade the water supply infrastructure.

The PMC estimates the city generates around 290 MLD of sewage, of which half flows into the Ganga directly; the rest seeps underground polluting the groundwater. It has three sewage treatment plants with a combined capacity of 105 MLD, but just about 50 MLD of sewage reaches these plants since the sewage system is completely dilapidated. The plants also perform poorly on account of power failures, poor maintenance and non-functional treatment zones.

Excreta Matters paints a national picture of concern
Fashioned as CSE’s seventh State of India’s Environment report, Excreta Matters is a two-volume publication that provides a detailed examination of the problems urban India faces on water and sewage management. Says Nitya Jacob, programme director of CSE’s water team: “The report maps where Indian cities get their water from and where their waste goes, and seeks to find a sustainable and affordable paradigm of urban growth with regard to water and sewage.”

Everything, says the CSE report. To begin with, our sources of water are depleting -- what little remains, is increasingly getting more polluted and unclean. Unclean water means death and illness – in India, diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases are some of the most common causes of death among children under age five. This also means we spend more on treating and cleaning the water.

India is urbanising, as is the rest of the world. Bigger cities mean more people, more demand for water, and concurrent hike in water use which adds to the pressure on the scarce resource.

Says Jacob: “What it also does is lead to more generation of wastewater. About 80 per cent of the water we consume ends up discharged as wastewater. A fairly large proportion of it enters our water sources, polluting them. Patna is a typical case in point where both the river and ground water, used for drinking, are heavily polluted by sewage.”

With lesser water to share but growing demand, conflict and tensions between urban-industrial and rural sectors have been rising. The CSE report points out that agitations by farmers against the ‘re-allocation’ of water (to industry or cities) -- water which they desperately need for irrigation – has led to tragic deaths in police firing in some cases.

The scenario gets murkier with the way India plans for its water and sewage. Policy planning is happening today without any real data on the use of water. The last estimation of water use had happened in 1999: it predicted that by 2025, cities and industries would account for 15 per cent of the total water used in the country. Writes CSE director general Sunita Narain in the ‘Preface’ to the second volume of Excreta Matters: “There is no information… (on water-wastewater management systems in India’s cities). Nothing is known. Worse, nobody is asking.”

The system of estimating demand and supply is rudimentary, and leads to poor assessment and poorer planning, points out Jacob. In all this, finds the CSE report, sewage gets the raw deal – most cities do not care, and hence forget to plan effectively, for the sewage that they generate.

Says Jacob: “Take the case of Patna. To meet its future demand, the city is making grand plans to refurbish its sewage treatment system by adding more sewage treatment plants, even though existing ones remain under-utilized. However, what Patna needs is better a sewage network and alternatives to sewage treatment other than large centralized plants that it cannot operate.”