Modernising Systems: Digital initiatives in the sewage and wastewater sector

Abhinav Akhilesh, Partner, Transformation, Grant Thornton Bharat

With its status as the world’s most populous nation, India faces a formidable task of ensuring the universal provision of safe sanitation and efficient se­wage and wastewater management, capable of catering to a booming urban population. India’s household-level sewerage network coverage currently falls behind that of most developed countries, underscoring the critical nature of this challenge. In fact, according to the Central Pollution Control Board, the existing sewage treatment capacity is less than the sewage generation, resulting in a substantial capacity deficit. It accounts for only 43.9 per cent of sewage generation, with a mere 75 per cent utilisation due to the limited sewerage network coverage. Traditionally, expanding sewerage networks and constructing new sewage treatment plants (STPs) have been considered the primary solutions for bridging this gap, despite being cost-intensive and time-consuming. In spite of these challenges, India has been actively embracing innovative digital solutions that can bring about a transformative shift in sewage and wastewater treatment operations and service delivery in cities.

Digital solutions have offered a multifaceted approach to tackling India’s sewage and wastewater sector challenges. Technologies en­able real-time monitoring of sewage and wa­s­tewater parameters, facilitating swift responses to water quality issues and system failures. Predictive maintenance, driven by artificial intelligence (AI)- and internet of things (IoT)-bas­ed sensor technologies, helps prevent breakdowns, maintain treated wastewater output quality, and manage the operational costs of treatment facilities. The data collected during operations and maintenance (O&M) and service delivery outcomes can be harnessed to optimise resource allocation, enhance system performance, make informed decisions regarding infrastructure expansion and upgrades, and manage the energy requirements of the treatment facilities. Globally and domestically, the implementation of digital initiatives has sh­own the potential to accelerate outcomes, reduce O&M costs, and elevate the overall utility service delivery levels of a utility provider or an urban local body (ULB).

Government initiatives

Enabling digital transformation in wastewater management has been driven by a comprehensive suite of governmental initiatives to make Indian cities water-secure. The Atal Mission for Re­juvenation and Urban Trans­for­ma­tion (AMRUT) 2.0 scheme, launched by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) in Octo­ber 2021, aims to make Indian cities “water-secure” by providing tap water connections to all urban households, encompassing over 4,800 ULBs, and achieving 100 per cent coverage of sewage and septage management services in 500 AMRUT cities. Under the mission, monitoring elements have been integrated into project designs, including the use of smart sensors, supervisory control and data acquisition-based systems, and geographic information systems. Complemented by the Swachh Bharat Mission – Urban 2.0 for urban coverage, the Government of India has provided funding for the creation of wastewater treatment infrastructure in ULBs with a population of less than 0.1 million, increasing the provision of sewage and wastewater management services across urban areas. Similarly, innovative smart solu­ti­o­ns have been implemented in wastewater treatment projects under the Sm­art Cities Mis­sion. Furthermore, MoHUA has la­unch­ed the India Water Pitch-Pilot-Scale Start-up Challen­ge, designed to support 100 start-up companies and provide a Rs 2 million grant-based funding, while partnering them with mu­nicipal corporations or parastatal agencies like water and sewerage boards. Thus, the impetus given by the government has significantly ba­cked the digital transformation journey in In­dia’s sewage and wastewater sector, fostering the adoption of these innovative solutions across Indian cities.

In related developments, several Indian ci­ties and states have also embraced digital in­no­vations to address sewage and wastewater management challenges head-on. For instan­ce, a sensor-based monitoring system is being piloted in Gurugram, Haryana, to prevent sewer overflow, with sensors installed in frequency leaking manholes that send alerts to officials when overflow levels are detected. Similarly, the Delhi Jal Board has implemented the intelligence self-administered self-monitored automatic chemical dosing (ISASMA-CD) technology in Delhi’s STPs, utilising AI and IoT to ensure high water quality and effectively monitor eq­uipment health. These digital innovations sh­ow­case the burgeoning commitment and appetite of Indian cities to adopt digital solutions for more efficient and sustainable se­wage and wastewater management operations and service delivery.

Digital solutions have offered a multifaceted approach to tackling India’s sewage and wastewater sector challenges.

Global efforts to scale up digital transformation

Indian cities are on the cusp of service delivery transformation with the adoption of next-level digital innovations, including holistic solutions for socio-economic and environmental resili­ence in urban areas. Integrated service delivery solutions, including drone-based monitoring, are being adopted by utilities worldwide to monitor day-to-day plant operations and track overflow of raw sewage into waterbodies. Si­milarly, on the global front, digital solutions ha­ve been effective in increasing the energy efficiency of STP operations, enabling low-carbon transition and str­en­gthening the climate resilience of wastewater treatment facilities and overall water management systems in cities.

Among these global initiatives, in the Breakthrough by Dynamic Approach in Sewage High Technology initiative driven by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT) of Japan, 25 wastewater projects have adopted AI-based operation support systems for monitoring sewerage network infrastructure. MLIT is partnering with municipalities and private sector operators to reduce emissions and enhance operational efficiency in sewage treatment. Conversely, climate change has led to more frequent rainfall coverage in Copen­ha­gen, Denmark, resulting in a shortage in wastewater treatment capacity for the city centre. The local utility service provider has deployed a real-time monitoring tool to control wastewater networks and treatment plants based on weather conditions. The tool can forecast the risk of heavy rainfall several hours ahead and pinpoint zones within the city vulnerable to flooding. Simultaneously, the software switches the wastewater treatment plants to a “heavy rainfall” mode, temporarily increasing their tre­at­ment capacity to avoid blockages and overflows. Therefore, as these technologies scale up and mature, their potential impact will wi­den and create a ripple effect across all million-plus population cities in India, which can then serve as pilots for innovative solutions emerging across the globe.

Pertinent challenges

Despite the promising potential signalled by the initial uptake of these transformational initiatives in Indian cities, implementing digital solutions in the sewage and wastewater sector poses significant challenges for Indian cities. The upfront investment for deploying IoT sensors, AI systems, and other digital technologies is substantial, often being a barrier for utility providers catering to smaller municipalities. Additionally, managing sensitive data collected from sewage systems demands rigorous data privacy and security measures to prevent unauthorised access and potential breaches. Fur­ther­more, the O&M of digitally enabled infrastr­ucture necessitates a skilled workforce, which may not be readily available in some Indian cities. Lastly, achieving seamless communication and integration among various digital systems presents a technical challenge that must be addressed for optimal performance.

The way forward

It is imperative to foster further domestic re­se­arch and innovation in sewage and wastewater management, supporting research institutions and start-ups dedicated to working in the water sector to ensure success in this tra­nsformative journey. Learnings and insights can be gained from successful government platfor­ms such as Innovations for Defence Excellence. This institution has provided start-ups with digital solutions in the defence sector, demonstrating India’s ability to propel digital solutions and stimulate innovation in this critical sector. While MoHUA’s drive behind the India Water Pitch-Pilot-Scale Start-up Chall­enge has garnered the interest of start-up organisations towards se­wage and wastewater management, a more su­s­tained mode of engagement is required from the private sector to foster and encourage innovation in the water sector.

Moreover, achieving digital transformation of service delivery through the analysis of big data sets requires a comprehensive strategy that includes robust data security measures to safeguard sensitive information. A task force may be established under the Technology Sub-Mission AMRUT 2.0 involving ULBs, parastatal agencies, contractors, utility service providers, research institutions, and industry experts to brainstorm policy reforms that could propel the adoption and uptake of digital solutions in sewage and wastewater management. For instance, open data sets related to water supply and wastewater may be created by utilities and ULBs, enabling innovators to develop solutions based on real-time data from Indian cities. It will also be essential to formulate standardised protocols and guidelines for adopting digital technologies, ensuring consistent quality and interoperability.

Lastly, there is also a need for sustained capacity-building efforts to augment the existing skill sets of the workforce engaged in wa­s­te­water management. Specific training progra­mmes must be designed to train city-level engi­ne­ers engaged with the respective ULBs or parastatal agencies. Private sector engageme­nt will be necessary to leverage the experience of global firms in the implementation of pilot projects and scale up similar innovative proje­cts in various geographies. Therefore, by em­bra­cing this transformative journey, Indian ci­ties can architect a sustainable, low-carbon fu­tu­re, ensuring a more equitable and stable su­pply of the critical resource that is water.