India's Vice President Hamid Ansari warned this week that the country has created a ticking bomb in public health, since it is able to treat only one-fifth of its wastewater.
This lack of foresight in urban wastewater management in India has resulted in high water prices and rising conflicts, Ansari said.
The country’s current water crisis can only be handled with a combination of water supply and wastewater management, he told at a multi-stakeholder dialogue on water and wastewater management, organized by Delhi-based think tank the Center for Science & Environment (CSE) earlier this week.
Other experts at the event pressed for widespread recycling of wastewater as one of the main solutions to meet India's urban water supply challenge, and called for a government framework on wastewater.
Increased use of wastewater will not only help stop depletion of water in rivers and lakes, but also bring down billing charges for freshwater supply, which increase due to the costs of transporting water over long distances and high energy costs, they added.
Indian cities produce nearly 40,000 million liters of wastewater per day, enough to irrigate 9 million hectares, but barely 20 percent of this is treated. Almost 40 percent of the total wastewater treatment capacity in India exists in just two cities – New Delhi and Mumbai.
The case is worse for Class I and Class II towns (those with populations of 100,000 or more, and 50,000-99,999, respectively), which are expected to grow and absorb most of the country’s internal migration in the coming years.
Untreated wastewater flowing into water bodies has reached 24,000 million liters per day in these towns.
"This is an enormous waste of a critical resource. Our cities have still not understood that wherever there is water, there will be waste," the vice president said..
"We also have to change our approach to handling wastewater, which is a valuable resource. This can happen when we start to use a menu of sewage treatment options that go beyond the current limited list of conventional sewage treatment. There are proven technologies for sewage treatment using natural processes that have been developed and used in India. The treated water can be a valuable resource for agriculture or horticulture and replace groundwater use to some extent," he added.
Government officials acknowledge that the country’s wastewater issue is a major challenge, but they note that efforts are being made to tackle it.
India’s National Water Policy 2012 says that “recycling and reuse of water, including return flows, should be the general norm” and that “recycling and reuse of water, after treatment to specified standards, should also be incentivized through a properly planned tariff system.”
The Ministry of Urban Development has also formulated service level benchmarks that call for 100 percent treatment of wastewater.