Policy actions for clean water post COVID

An unexpected COVID storm in the midst of the redrafting of the National Water Policy is an opportunity to recognize clean water as being integral to public health

A welcome step taken by the Ministry of Jal Shakti in November 2019 was to undertake the revision of the National Water Policy of 2012. The committee formed under the chairmanship of Dr. Mihir Shah now has to deal with new challenges to make the policy effective in a post-COVID scenario.

Water is primarily a state subject,and a state-level governance structure is indeed required given the local nature of water issues. However, in dealing with issues of increasing national concern, the revised National Water Policy and the National Water Framework Bill, 2016(referred to as ‘framework bill’)have a vital role to play. The framework bill giveslegal teeth to the water policy and can act as a model guiding document on which various state laws can be based.

The statement of objects and reasons of the framework bill comprehensively outlines eight contextual areas, ranging from water being a fundamental right to concerns emanating from climate change. The areas are broad-based and forward looking but need to imbibe an additional principle in the current context of COVID – that clean water is integral to public health.

I believe there are three compelling reasons for this:

  1. It is a no-brainer that clean water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases. Our next pandemic could be water-borne, and at present these are no control mechanisms for water quality checks for more than half of India’s population.
  2. Our river and ground water sources are increasingly gettingcontaminated due to unregulated sewage and effluent discharges. With a large population reliant on non-state unregulated sources, there is higher risk of diseases caused by inorganic pollutants like heavy metals and other carcinogens.
  3. Finally, the pandemic has taught us that clean water is indispensable to personal hygiene and cannot be just limited in scope for consumption.

This leads us to three areas in the framework bill that can be strengthened with the new National Water Policy. I have consciously left out other many other commendable aspects of the framework bill concerning other areas of water management, and focussed on public health aspects.

  1. Ensuring clean drinking water: Piped water connections reach only 34% of Indian dwellings/plots, and the rest rely on unregulated sources such as hand pumps, wells and tankers.The Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM)of the central government that promises to provide 146 million households with access to clean tap water by 2024, was announced post the drafting of the framework bill. Section 3 of the bill on ‘Right to Water for life’ clearly outlines the need for safe drinking water for all in compliance with Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) regulations. Even as the JJM gains momentum, the next few years will have millions of citizens exposed to poor quality of drinking water sourced from tankers, polluted streams or from the ground. Even many upscale urban housing societies supplement their water needs with private or ‘non-state’ sources such as tankers. The current bill limits compliance requirements to water supply agencies but in a practical scenario, non-agency sources will continue to persist;and the state needs to devise methods to regulate them and ensure thatquality of water supplied conforms to BIS standards.
  2. Monitoring wastewater discharge: Section 19 of the bill on ‘Preservation of Water Quality’ recommends application of the polluter-pays principle and that the payment made by the polluter include the cost of health impact. The last decade has seen a proliferation of decentralized sewage treatment plants in residential complexes, hotels, hospitals and campuses. This is in addition to the thousands of already existing industrial effluent treatment plants. The state arms of the Central Pollution Control Board have an onerous task of ensuring compliance. The governance of such dispersed wastewater discharge points can only happen through online monitoring, self-certification and severe penal provisions in case of non-complianceresulting in health hazards. It is practically impossible for the government agencies to visit all discharge sites and monitor their working. Rather, it needs to mandate periodic online reporting and resort to random testing of discharge sources.
  3. Wastewater discharge standards: There needs to much stronger emphasis on wastewater treatment and discharge standards than the current mention of ‘appropriate treatment’ in section 9 of the framework bill. India’s wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure is woefully inadequate (2015 CPCB statistics here, but we haven’t progressed much further). The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had recognized these shortcomings and had directed the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC) in April 2019 to repeal its regressive sewage discharge regulation of 2017 and replace it with more stringent discharge regulations. The standards proposed by NGT were not only applicable to new plants but also to existing ones, within a stipulated timeframe. Unfortunately, MoEFCC has not notified these standards yet leading to much confusion amongst planners on which standards to follow and resulting in frustrating project delays as seen in the Mumbai Sewage Disposal Project (MSDP). The risks of poor sewage treatment are immense and most of the ensuing public health costs are unaccounted for. The additional investment in improving treatment standards will far outweigh the costs of poor-quality wastewater discharged into a river or lake.

The next pandemiccould be more severe than the current one, but universal access of clean water and sound wastewater management can go a long way in preparing forour fight against it.

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