Outlet challenges: Water treated, but stagnant

People suffer to cross the road, due to sewage under ground pipe is block from last twenty days and water flowing on the road at Kumbarpet OK road, Avenue road cross in Bengaluru on Friday. DH Photo

At a Janaspandana programme organised by DH and Prajavani on October 19, the residents of Prestige Tranquility apartment on Budigere Cross near Whitefield put up a major request to Mahadevapura MLA Aravind Limbavali: Help find a decent way to let the treated sewage water out of the apartment premises.

The 2,350-unit apartment has an occupancy of more than 1,900 units. The sewage generated here is treated and used for flushing, gardening, car and floor wash. Still, there remains some amount of treated water which needs an outlet.

The area falls under the Mandur village panchayat. The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) is yet to develop its underground drainage (UGD) network here, but there is a stormwater drain (SWD) network in the area.

However, the apartment is unable to connect to the SWD, buried underneath. The apartment residents are now clueless about how to dispose of the treated water in a legal manner.

Twenty-three kms away, in East Bengaluru, many apartments in Harlur and Ambalipura near Bellandur are regularly obstructed by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) engineers from releasing treated water into SWDs. There is no BWSSB network here as well.

Problem of regulation

The government has made it compulsory to install Sewage Treatment Plants in all residential apartments with over 20 units and commercial spaces that have more than 2,000 sqm area. This is a prerequisite to get BWSSB water connection wherever it is available. There are punitive measures mandated for non-adherence. 

However, there is no clear-cut guideline on how to use this treated water. While water can be primary, secondary and tertiary-treated, almost all apartments settle for primary, or secondary treatment at the most. This water cannot be used for bathing or washing utensils.

The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) accords consent after evaluating the amount of water that will be treated, specifying the usage for secondary purposes such as flushing, gardening, car wash etc.

It does not offer a solution for the excess treated water that still remain after the secondary usage. The KSPCB bars the apartments from letting treated water into lakes and SWDs, due to concerns about the quality.

Sources in the BBMP say they are also concerned about the quality of treated water. SWDs are a part of networks in most areas in the city, which carry rainwater to lakes or rivers. What if some apartments choose to let untreated water, or treated water that does not meet the standards? The BBMP has no way to certify the quality of treated water.

The apartments, however, have a need to dispose of the excess treated water after using it for all secondary purposes. Thus, the treated sewage water is let into drains, sometimes to SWDs or the BWSSB’s underground drainage network illegally.

This makes the Herculean efforts by thousands of apartments in maintaining the STPs and treating the water go in vain, wasting the purpose for which STPs were installed.

Treated water, a burden

In the areas where the BWSSB has a UGD network, they do not want treated water from apartments to enter it. The reason: BWSSB treats the sewage in its own STPs, numbering about 25. The treated water that enters the sewage, though already treated, enters BWSSB’s treatment system again, and becomes a burden on the STP infrastructure.

BWSSB Chairman Tushar Girinath maintains that the treated water from private STPs are fit enough to flow through the SWDs and reach lakes or rivers. “The whole idea of making STPs mandatory is to bring down the dependency on drinking water or freshwater supplied by us.”

He elaborates, “We are also working on a policy to boost use of treated water in apartment complexes. They have to make a separate storage facility for the treated water and can use it for purposes other than drinking, through dual-piping systems. The surplus treated water can be let out through small drains, into SWDs and water bodies.”

BWSSB is also worried about the UGD network, which supposedly has no capacity to take in the huge amount of treated water, as it is designed to carry only human excreta and household sewage. The extra burden due to rainwater or treated water coming into the system damages the sanitary pipes and results in the overflow of BWSSB manholes. 

Point of no control

The BWSSB is mulling many steps to regulate water usage, including slapping a penalty of 50% on the water bill on apartments with non-functioning STPs, and reducing water supply to the building by an equivalent amount of water generated through the STPs. The non-functional STPs will be considered as non-existent. However, who takes responsibility of identifying non-functioning STPs is a mute question.

According to BWSSB data, there are 3,961 apartment complexes in the city equipped with STPs. Recently, they identified 236 establishments in BBMP limits that let out sewage water to the SWDs, and submitted the list to KSPCB for further action. According to the BWSSB, the ball is in the KSPCB’s court.

The KSPCB is the regulator tasked with inspecting the STPs and checking the water quality. However, it has a major problem, in performing its duty as the regulator. Sources say the KSPCB is operating at 40% of its sanctioned strength, with not enough field officers to inspect the STPs. 

As a result, inspection visits to STPs in apartments get delayed, resulting in many apartments becoming lax in adhering to quality guidelines. There is no data on such establishments with any of the parastatals that look after the city, including the KSPCB.

End of policy paralysis?

Prahallad B S, Chief Engineer, SWD, BBMP says, “There are provisions to release treated water to SWDs on certain conditions.” The conditions basically involve the quality of treated water. Even then, in reality, BBMP officials object to water being let into the drain.

However, this concern seems to be fading away in the face of the problems faced by apartment communities across the city. There is the talk of allowing apartments to let treated water into the SWDs.

“In an inter-department meeting held recently, we have discussed it. However, the order is yet to come in the matter. Since the SWD is meant for rainwater, there is nothing wrong in letting treated water to drains,” says Prahallad.

KSPCB officials also agree that there is a need to provide solutions. Sources say talks are on to ease the laws to enable apartments to let water into SWDs.

The BWSSB is also thinking about solutions, including providing a separate pipeline for the establishments near the STPs to supply the treated water, and using treated water from private STPs in construction.

But the question of treated water quality still remains. Will the politicos and policymakers of the city be able to sort the mess that the water treatment process is currently in? Only time will tell.

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