Wastewater Reuse: Addressing Social Stigma with Nitin Bassi

Social stigma surrounding treated wastewater is an important aspect that needs to be addressed responsibly, says Nitin Bassi, Senior Programme Lead, think-tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). 

States should develop effective public outreach plans to build public confidence and nudge behaviour to successfully implement wastewater reuse projects, Bassi told businessline in an interaction coinciding with World Water Day (March 22). 

“In fact, this was one of the recommendations from our study Reuse of Treated Wastewater in India: Market Potential and Recommendations for Strengthening Governance.’Some of the initial efforts from the Government of India are that ‘wastewater’ now is referred to as ‘used water’ and ‘sewage treatment plants’ as ‘Nirmal Jal Kendra’. 


Do you think freshwater needs to be imaginatively priced to make treated wastewater a winnable proposition?

Yes, it has to be. Subsidised freshwater provision can continue for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. The pricing will also drive behaviour towards judicious use of freshwater and create demand for treated used water, at least for non-potable purposes. However, the price of used water needs to be lower than that of fresh water.

How can agriculture, profligate users of freshwater, be brought around to embrace treated wastewater?

Establishing a pricing mechanism for freshwater used for irrigation, especially for large and medium farmers, is necessary to drive a behavioural shift towards using its judicious use and generate demand for treated used water that can serve as a cheaper alternative. Further, treated used water has inherent nutrient value. Hence, its use for irrigation can reduce the dependence on chemical fertilisers, generating savings for farmers and the carbon footprint linked to their production.

What is preventing authorities from declaring quality standards for reusing treated wastewater?

Developing reuse plans is crucial to establishing quality standards for treated used water. An analysis by CEEW indicates that Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) need to identify mandatory applications for this water. This can be done if, along with the policy, reuse plans are framed by ULBs. These uses are not identified in many of the existing 10 state-specific policies. Therefore, identifying potential reuse areas is the first step before setting reuse-specific quality standards.

Can the reuse of wastewater be incentivised for productive purposes?

In peri-urban areas, farmers are already mixing freshwater with partially treated or untreated sewage that they receive for irrigation. However, this adversely impacts the soil health, their operating environment, produce quality, and public health. Farmers need to be made aware of the positive health, economic, and environmental impacts of using treated water, as such water will not contaminate soil and will increase the social acceptability of crops grown using such water. CEEW estimates show that using treated water for irrigation in 2021 could have generated revenue of about ₹96,600 crore from agricultural produce.

What do you think needs to be done to bridge the gap between treatment capacity and utilisation?

The only way to do this is by strengthening the existing sewerage network that can take sewage to STPs, regular maintenance of the STPs, employing sufficient human resources to run the plant, and ensuring no mixing of sewage and industrial effluents takes place before the former reaches the STP. The Municipal Used Water Management Index that we have developed and computed for more than 500 ULBs from 10 states in India that have reuse policies provides a ready baseline where each ULB is assessed on the parameters mentioned above. 

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