Managing water, the Denmark way

N Madhavan | Updated on August 05, 2021

Precious resource A file picture of a sewage treatment plant in Chennai   -  K Pichumani

Effective policies can help India tackle not just water stress but also reduce greenhouse gas emission substantially

Denmark is not a water stressed country. It supplies copious quantity of drinking water to all of its 5.8 million citizens and the industries that operate in the country and still has a lot of more to spare.

But this abundance has not made the country complacent. It has adopted and embraced policies that have made water usage not only efficient but also environmentally friendly. Its water loss (ratio of water pumped out and sold), at 7.29 per cent, is among the lowest in the world.

As much as 95 per cent of the waste-water that the country generates is recovered and treated. Much of it is re-used as well. That’s not it. By 2030, Denmark’s water sector — both involving supply of fresh water and treatment of waste-water, will become climate neutral.

In other words, carbon-di-oxide (CO2) and other greenhouses gases that the sector emits (in 2017 it was 2.18 lakh tonnes of CO2 equivalents) will be completely neutralised by adopting efficient solutions. This will go a long way in helping Denmark meet its target of reducing CO2 emission by 70 per cent by 2030 (from 1990 levels).

India, on the other hand, is water stressed. Close to 600 million of its citizens face high to extreme water stress. Over two lakh people die every year due to inadequate access to drinking water. As per NITI Aayog’s report, by 2030 India’s water demand is projected to be twice its available supply. World Bank predicts that water shortage will cost the nation 6 per cent of its GDP by 2050.

Under the circumstances, the way it has been handling the water sector is nothing short of callousness. Water loss is in excess of 50 per cent. As much as 70 per cent of the sewage that is generated in urban India is not treated. It is either discharged partially treated or untreated in to the environment. Waste-water generated in rural India is barely captured. Only a fraction of waste-water is re-used after treatment.

Slow change

Fortunately things are changing, albeit slowly. Investments are being made in treating waste-water and baby steps have been taken to re-use treated water. There is a lot we can imbibe from what Denmark has done to make its water sector efficient.

Water loss: Even if a municipal corporation wants to arrest the water loss, the biggest challenge it faces is lack of data. In the absence of bulk meters, there is no information on where the leakage is happening. Denmark’s water loss was much higher than its present 7.29 per cent when it started installing bulk meters in early 1990s. By 1993 the country had imposed penalty tax on water companies (mostly state-owned) that had a loss in excess of 10 per cent. It used the data generated from meters to benchmark one utility against the other. Best practices were shared and overall water loss began to reduce.

India needs to look at measuring water loss in the mains as a first step by installing smart bulk meters. Bengaluru’s Water Loss Management Project recently showed some significant results. Water loss reduced from 56 per cent to 27 per cent thus saving 40 million litres per day. Such initiatives have to be done across the country.

Price of water: A consumer in Denmark pays ₹850 per cubic metre of water. An Indian user, on the other hand, pays a fraction of that as water is priced not based on consumption but on the basis of the value of the property he or she owns. Metering retail water consumption is a politically contentious issue and no political party has had the will to attempt it. Denmark introduced meters at consumer levels in 1996 and that saw a sharp reduction in water consumption as people stopped wasting water.

Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board has brought in a law in May 2020 to make it mandatory for homes of certain sizes to install a meter. This, it has clarified, is not for billing purposes but for ensuring judicious consumption. This is a good start and progressively governments should start charging everyone on consumption basis. It can subsidise economically weaker sections, if it wants to.

Treating Waste-water: Total sewage generated across urban centres in the country is 72,368 million litres per day (MLD). India has capacity to treat 31,841 MLD (44 per cent of the sewage generated). Of this, only 20,236 MLD amounting to 28 per cent of the sewage generated gets treated as per the prescribed norms. Nearly 52,133 MLD is let out into the environment.

While the Modi government has taken up waste-water treatment as a priority and has made funds available to set up effluent treatment plant (ETPs) through schemes such as Amrut, adoption has been slow. Denmark ensured almost 95 per cent of its waste-water is treated because it saw sewage as a resource and not a liability. Waste water contains gas that can be used to generate power, solid waste that is rich in phosphorus (can be used as manure) and the treated water can be sold for industrial use or irrigation. Governments should start seeing waste-water as a resource.

Every ETP should be designed so as to recover the cost of operations by selling the treated water, sludge (as manure) and supply surplus electricity to the grid. Today, there are plenty of funds available to set up an ETP but the challenge has often been in running them. By selling the output, this problem can be over come.

Re-using Treated Water: Chennai is the first city in India to re-use more than 20 per cent of its treated waste-water. It is home to India’s largest Tertiary Treatment Reverse Osmosis Plant which further refines the treated water from ETP and supplies to the auto cluster near Chennai thus saving 16,000 million litres of water annually. States like Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Haryana, Maharashtra and Karnataka have come up with a re-use policy that aims to consume 70 per cent of treated water by 2025 and 100 per cent by 2030. A good start indeed.

Once we start treating all the waste-water (not just in cities but in rural areas too) and re-use treated water, it is just not the water stress that will reduce. Letting out waste-water into the environment leads to release of Nitrous Oxide which is 298 times more harmful to the Ozone layer than CO2.

Published on August 05, 2021

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