Agra: Just where the Yamuna is supposed to flow into the water treatment plant in Agra, the riverbed is so silted up with muck that a dredger is being used to clear the channel. The water itself is black and reeks of the refuse it contains.
This is the “freshwater” supply for 1.5 million residents of Agra. Barely a river by the time it reaches the city that’s home to the Taj Mahal, the Yamuna is laden with sewage from the national capital Delhi and other towns upstream. Not surprisingly, the former capital of the Mughals is grappling with a water crisis that’s mostly not of its making.
Dire consequences: Dredging operations at a water treatment plant in Agra
Over the past two weeks, citizens have been complaining about the water being coloured a dirty brown—a supply that’s restricted in any case. Of Agra’s demand of 350 million litres per day (mld) of water, it gets 260 mld.
“If I had to speak out as a citizen and not an official, I would say at the current level of pollution, we should stop trying to purify it because of how heavily polluted it is, but the government will never order it because they have no choice,” said B.M. Bindal, assistant engineer, Jal Kal Vibhag, Agra.
Agra is in a difficult situation. The groundwater is saline and not potable. The water works department dug borewells a few years back but had to shut them down. So, the city waits by the taps for the 2-hourly supply daily.
The dredging machine in the river sputters as it tries to dig a deeper channel to get whatever water trickles through into the treatment plant. A few kilometres upstream, at Gokul Barrage near Mathura, villagers sit around a burning pyre as the dark, opaque water froths and gurgles at the edge of a reservoir, a clear indication of the intensity of pollution. A few hundred kilometres further upstream, Delhi spews approximately 2,200 mld of untreated sewage into the paltry water of the Yamuna. Delhi draws most of its drinking water from the river, then dumps the used water downstream. But the downstream effects plague the Capital as well.
“The Haryana factory belt dumps all its effluent in the river,” said R.S. Tyagi, chief project director for the interceptors project at the Delhi Jal Board. “And when the river water is sparse, there is no dilution and it chokes our water treatment plants as well. It is the same story, up or down.”
While industrial waste constitutes most of Haryana’s contribution, Delhi’s problem is sewage, which is surging with increasing population pressure. Delhi has 18 sewage treatment plants (STPs), and three more are in the pipeline. The problem is not of capacity but of efficiency. According to a Comptroller and Auditor General report on pollution of the Yamuna, Delhi generates around 3,800 mld waste water but only 1,575 mld is treated, whereas installed capacity is for 2,330 mld.
Tyagi explains that most of the untreated water comes from unauthorized and unsewered areas.
“There are 1,600 unsewered colonies and 189 rural villages, of which 34 are connected to the sewage main. From the rest, the sewage is poured untreated into the river,” said Tyagi.
All of it flows to Agra.
Jawahar Ram, general manager, Jal Sansthan, Agra, is suitably frustrated. Returning from a public meeting of irate citizens on the town’s water supply, Ram says there is only so much he can do.
“The city has requested all upstream towns to release more water so that at least it can be a little diluted. Irrigation water is also lifted from the canals, but drinking water is more critical, no?” Ram said.
Purification involves two chlorinations, sedimentation and filtration. Bindal says at the first chlorination, on an average about 50-80 parts per million (ppm) of chlorine is required to turn the water clear.
“But now we are using up to 100 ppm of chlorine. And when the water temperature dips below 14 degrees Celsius, the absorption of chlorine is slower, therefore the discoloured water,” he added. The more polluted the water, the more chlorine it will absorb.
Agra in turn gives back what it gets. With four sewage treatment plants, Agra manages to clean 102 mld of the 220 mld waste it generates. The rest of it flows back to its source, the river. Three more sewage plants are being planned.
Haryana, Delhi, Agra and the Yamuna—the scenario is much the same all over the country. A sanitation report by the urban development ministry last year estimated that out of 423 cities across India, as many as 380 collect and treat less than 40% of their sewage.
“The main problem for the STP is power. We need to run them 24 hours, but where do we get 24-hours power? We have lots of plans but money is scarce,” said N.K. Tyagi, project manager, Yamuna Pollution Control Unit, Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam (UPJN). “We hope to get some funding via the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA).”
The Yamuna is included in the NGRBA as it is a tributary of the Ganga.
Agra is also upgrading its sewage system and connecting unsewered areas. But connecting any city to the main sewer is a nightmare for an engineer. A long array of sewage pipes waits to be laid outside the Jal Nigam’s office.
An exasperated Tyagi said: “If you have to lay sewer pipes after the city is built, we have to dig. And if we dig, there will be dust. But then citizens complain about that and the state of the roads. What can we do,” asked Tyagi.
He explained that the master plan did not estimate the population increase and, therefore, the need for laying more pipelines now. “It is practically impossible to predict the pressure. The public tells us we are not doing our job. But the thing is if we didn’t do anything, then 100% of the sewage would flow to the river. Now, at least we are treating 50% of it. It is not a battle we can win. When we are close to 100%, the pressure will increase,” he said.
Agra plans to have full STP capacity by 2015.
Delhi is going a different way. It has planned its solution in the interceptor sewerage system at a cost of Rs2,400 crore. The tenders for the project are due on 8 February.
“The interceptors will trap and divert the untreated sewage to the STPs. There will be six contracts, small and big. We estimate the small package will take 18 months and the larger one 36 months. We will build 59km of additional sewer lines via micro-tunnelling,” said Delhi Jal Board’s Tyagi.
Once the mammoth interceptor plan is in place, the Delhi government projects that no more sewage will be dumped.
Agra, in the meanwhile, is looking at an alternate plan of getting Ganga canal water. The Rs1,000 crore-plus project entails a 100km-long canal that would bring Ganga water to Agra from Bulandshahr.
Officials concur that this will go a long way to easing Agra’s water woes.
“Maybe then we can use water more efficiently by having two systems,” N.K. Tyagi said. “Ganga water for drinking and Yamuna treated water for other uses. But it is just an idea.”