A Sustainable Path: Strategies to cope with the looming wastewater crisis

Sumouleendra Ghosh, Partner and Global Infrastructure Water Sector Lead, KPMG in India
Sharmi Palit, Consultant, KPMG in India

Earlier this year, India, with an estimated population of 1.42 billion, surpassed Chi­na to become the most populated country in the world (Press Release, UN DESA, April 24, 2023). The staggering number has several im­plications for the country’s socio-econo­mic development, one of which pertains to the availability of water for varied purposes. Th­is is hardly surprising, given the looming water crisis that threatens to transform into a major hurdle in the nation’s path to success. India is one of the most water-stressed co­untries in the world – with only 4 per cent of the world’s water resour­ces serving 18 per cent of the global population (India Brief, World Bank, February 14, 2023). Other factors contributing to the water woes include indiscriminate withdrawal and contamination of groundwater, the absence of integrated water resource management, a lack of incentives for optimising wastewater reuse, the inability to impose even a basic tariff on the majority of users, huge losses in distribution systems, and inadequate capacities to treat and reuse wastewater. In the past few years, the water sector has witnessed a gradual change, taking centre stage in government priorities and focus are­as. Several new programmes have been laun­ch­ed in­cluding the Jal Jeevan Mission, the Swac­hh Bharat Mission (SBM), the Atal Mission for Re­ju­venation and Urban Transfor­mation (AMRUT), the Atal Bhujal Yojana (Atal Jal) and the Nama­mi Gange Mis­sion, among others. This has been compleme­nted by focused budgetary all­o­ca­tions, particularly for the creation of se­wa­ge and sanitation-related infrastructure.

Within the water sector, wastewater has em­erged as one of the burning issues. Broadly, wastewater can be classified into three categories based on the source of generation – domestic, industrial and agricultural runoff.

Key challenges

In 2021, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) reported a 50 per cent increase in tr­eat­ment czapacity in the country from the 2014 level. Despite this achievement, the stark reality of the wastewater landscape indicates that in urban areas, where sewage generation rea­c­hes 72,368 million litres per day (mld), there is an installed treatment capacity of 31,841 mld and an operational capacity of 26,869 mld. Of this, only 12,200 mld of treatment capacity complies with the prescribed norms of the State Pollution Control Boards and Pollution Control Commi­ttees  (National Inventory of Sewage Treatment Plants, CPCB, 2021). The widening gap further increases the wa­ter stress, with cities struggling to access adequate quantities of water to fulfil their various needs. This also contributes to a major pollution hazard with a significant portion of un­tre­ated wastewater being discharged into the environment, particularly open land and wa­ter bodies, as well as aquifers through natural re­charge (National Inventory of Sewage Treatment Plants, CPCB, 2021). Urban wastewater management in India is plagued by a lack of adequate capacity of sew­age treatment plants (STPs) and poor capacity utilisation of existing STPs. The major underlying factors that culminated in this situation include insufficient financial and institutional capacity of urban local bodies (ULBs), the lack of appropriate regulatory measures and the absence of economic water pricing.

Government initiatives

In recent years, a strong push from the centre, coupled with complementary efforts from the state, district and city-level authorities, has led to focused efforts towards water management. Consequently, the concept of integrated water management and circular economy has re­cei­ved policy impetus. In 2022, a National Frame­work for Safe Reuse of Treated Wastewater (Na­tional Miss­ion for Clean Ganga, 2022) was re­lea­sed with the vision to promote the widesp­re­ad and safe reuse of treated used water in India. This will reduce the pressure on scarce freshwater re­­so­urces, environmental pollution and public heal­th risks. The adoption of a sustainable circular eco­nomy approach will provide socio-economic benefits. With a guideline for the formulation of sta­te reuse policies, the framework promotes the de­velopment of appropriate market and econo­mic models for the reuse of treated wastewater.

Another major development in the sector is the enforcement of stringent regulations by regulators such as the CPCB and the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The NGT order of 2019 introduced more stringent norms for wastewa­ter discharge, putting a significant pressure on cities to adopt immediate measures to improve wastewater management. However, insuffici­ent capacities and resources pose major obs­tacles in ensuring a timely response to the regulatory measures. The wide gap in wastewater infrastructure, as well as the non-compliance with prescribed norms in the existing fa­ci­lities, warrants increased investment, which further complicates the problem.

Nevertheless, the government has taken se­veral initiatives to improve the situation. Un­der Namami Gange, several STPs are currently under construction, alongside interception and diversion networks, in several cities on the ba­nks of the Ganga river and its tributaries. With the introduction of the hybrid annuity model-based pu­blic-private partnership (HAM PPP) mo­del and one city one operator model, Namami Gange has created a significant impact on the wastewater sector and received a significant in­terest from private sector investors, technology providers and infrastructure developers. The key features of the measures adopted by Nama­mi Gange include the following:

  • An innovative HAM PPP model with long contract tenure (construction period plus 15 years of O&M)
  • One City One Operator model wherein one priv­ate sector player takes over existing STPs and retrofits them while constructing new STPs
  • Performance linked payment: Capex paid over 15 years along with O&M payment subject to adherence to performance standards
  • Selection based on the life cycle cost and not purely on the asset acquisition cost
  • Encouraging involvement of private sector- developers, EPC players, financiers and creating conducive environment for all the stakeholders
  • Allowing private sector innovation through a technology-neutral, output-linked bid structu­re
  • Transparent bid process through reputed transaction advisors-resulting in good participation and competitive price discovery
  • Central-state partnership throughout project lifecycle, including project planning, project structuring, transaction and bid process and implementation
  • High degree of payment securitisation throu­gh the central government in terms of adva­nce deposit of two construction milestones during the construction phase and two years of capex annuities, O&M payments and power charges during the implementation phase

Apart from Namami Gange, concerted eff­orts are being made under other schemes. For instance, one of the key components under AMRUT 2.0 has been the enhancement of se­wage infrastructure in cities. As of March 2023, 3.34 million new sewer connections and 2,795 mld STP treatment capacity are proposed under the scheme (Release ID: 1911162, Press Information Bureau, March 27, 2023). Under SBM-Urban, approximately 6.3 million household toilets have been constr­ucted with onsite treatment facilities or con­n­ec­tion to the nearest sewer network. There is a strong emphasis on ““safe sustainable sanitation for all by ensuring that no untreated wastewater is discharged in the open environment” (SBM Urban Dashboard, 2023) as embedded in the vision of this programme.

The way forward

Considering the challenges ahead and tasks at hand, stakeholders should place a stronger emphasis on the following measures:

  • The creation of institutions and a regulatory framework at the river basin level as well as at the state level for incorporating state-le­vel in­te­grated water resource planning. This would include measures to assess av­ailable water at various sources, plan quantity of water to be used from each source, and develop principles for the allocation of water resources am­ong competing sectors and users.
  • The creation of a city-level sewerage master plan and a phase-wise plan for the development of sewerage networks and STPs. This should involve the integration of the existing septage system with the proposed sewage network including the development of co-tre­a­t­ment facilities. Additionally, the plans must explore opportunities for wastewater re­use in cities and identify potential demand centres for the use of treated wastewater.
  • Enhanced private sector involvement, from project conceptualisation and development to project financing through innovative PPP models. In this regard, lessons can be learnt from the Namami Gange model as well as from initiatives of a north Indian state, which has recently rolled out tenders under the One City One Operator model in various big cities of the state for sewerage infrastructure creation, operations and maintenance.
  • Necessary steps to ensure that the detailed project reports of new STPs incorporate a re­use component. At the project planning sta­ge, all potential avenues for wastewater re­use sh­ould be explored, along with a market ass­e­s­sment to indicate the quantity of water whi­ch can be sold to end consumers (with or wi­th­out tertiary treatment), price per unit of wat­er to be sold and estimated revenue generation. Wherever possible, the concerned ULB sh­o­u­ld also identify specific consumers of tr­e­ated wastewater and sign an MoU or minimum offtake agreement before the project is finalised and tendered out to private sector bidders.
  • Promotion of the reuse of wastewater by ULBs for non-potable uses including urban fo­restry, road washing and cleaning, comm­ercial uses and mandatory uses for industrial activities, in cities with functioning STPs. Al­though these are already being implemented in many cities to some extent, this should be scaled up as soon as possible.
  • The adoption of a target-based approach wh­e­re cities set targets to institutional consu­me­rs for mandatory reuse of wastewater, co­upled with economic incentives through ap­propriate pricing of wastewater (at a discou­nt on the tariff for freshwater supply).
  • The adoption of innovative market-based cap and trade models in bigger cities through the active intervention of water regulatory authorities or ot­her appropriate government bodies.
  • Finally, the adoption of technology to monitor performance of existing and newly created se­w­age infrastructure and their impact on the environment. This should be done both at the state and city levels, resulting in the availability of accurate real-time data being captured with minimal human intervention and prese­n­ted in centralised dashboards for further ana­lysis. Also, data collated and collated at the state and city levels should be analysed us­ing modern data analytics tools, resulting in in­fo­rmed policy responses and corrective actio­ns.

These steps would require close collaboration between different tiers of governance, stro­ng political will and stakeholder involvement at every level. Capacity building, sensitisation and public consultation would be requir­ed at every stage of implementation.