Drinking sewage in Varanasi

Leaky old pipes and a poisoned Ganga mean Varanasi residents fall prey to stomach ailments far too often; the eternal city is now pinning its faith on a central scheme
<p>Litter in the Ganga River, India, Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi. Image source: Alamy</p>

Litter in the Ganga River, India, Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi. Image source: Alamy

Aakash wakes up to sewage water flowing out of his bathroom tap in Durgakund, Varanasi. The 18-year-old lets the smelly water run for a while in the hope that clean water will follow. His family is cautious that they never accidentally use the evidently sewage water but even the seemingly clean water that follows is not safe. The doctor informs them that the clear water probably contains small quantities of bacteria from the sewage, which might be the reason behind recurring diarrhoea that Aakash suffers from.

On the banks of the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. This city of 1.4 million as recorded in the 2011 census has always held religious importance in Hinduism. It gained political importance when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected from the city in 2014. The Indian prime minister pledged to clean the Ganga during his election campaign. His plans, however, have been focussed on establishing sewage treatment plants, leaving what experts see as the larger factor contributing to water pollution – decreasing water in the Ganga – unaddressed.

See Ganga reduced to sludge in Varanasi

A report published in October 2013 by India’s Ministry of Urban Development says the Ganga provides approximately 38% of the total water supply to the city, while the rest comes from 220 tube wells pumping up water from the ground. The report also notes that water supply connections are limited to 69% of properties, while in the slums, there are 32,900 water supply connections, indicating 42% coverage. Those left out depend on 352 public taps, 750 hand pumps, 41 tube wells, and 16 mini-tube wells.

Researchers at the Department of Geography, Banaras Hindu University, found that there was a considerable gap between the recommended norm for per capita water consumption as specified by the World Health Organisation and the actual water supply in Varanasi. In their report titled Ground water in the City of Varanasi, India: present status and prospects, they stated that the city obtains a total of 270 million litres water per day from the Ganga and from pumping up groundwater but approximately one fifth of the population is still not supplied with potable water.

Century old infrastructure plagued by weaknesses

The deficient supply of water is not the only problem. According to B.D. Tripathi, chairperson of Ganga Research Programme, funded by the National Ganga River Basin Authority, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), sewage water finds its way into treated water due to leakages in pipes.

“Water pipelines, the main source of water in the city, are broken at many places and sewer lines are built next to them. During the day, due to water pressure sewage does not enter clean water but at night when the pump is switched off, pressure goes down and sewer water enters treated water pipelines,” he explains. That is why many people find sewage infected water in the taps in the morning.

One of the key concerns with water distribution in Varanasi, as stated in the city development plan for Varanasi framed under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), is the operation and maintenance of water supply pipes built over a century ago. “Because of the system’s age and the fact that only minor restoration and renovation work have been done in the past, the water supply system suffers from fragility which results in substantial losses of clean water. In some places the water pipes are passed by sewage channels, open drains and nallas from which sewage may contaminate the clean water because of seepage,” it stated.

Insufficient water treatment plant capacity and lack of overhead reservoirs add to water supply woes of the city, said Ram Gopal Mohle, Mayor of Varanasi. “Jal Nigam, the body responsible for water supply, has not been able to use JNNURM funds to deliver results until now. Though new lines are laid but leakages exist, overhead tanks are built but not yet functional and another water treatment plant project is embroiled in a land acquisition controversy,” he added.

Currently the water treatment plant at Bhelupur, which extract and treat water drawn from the Ganga, has a capacity of 250 million litres per day. A survey conducted between December 2014 and February 2015 by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) reported that 80% of Varanasi respondents felt that the poor water quality of the Ganga had an impact on their health.

Pollution finds a way

They are right to worry. The quality of river water has consistently deteriorated over the years in Varanasi. The earliest recorded coliform bacteria count – indicator of sanitary quality – in every 100 ml of water measured downstream of Varanasi was 14,300 in January 1988. This increased to 140,000 in January 2008 and to a whopping 2.4 million in January 2014.

Untreated wastewater and sewage from the Assi river – now effectively a drain – flow into the Ganga at Varanasi
Untreated wastewater and sewage from the Assi river – now effectively a drain – flow into the Ganga at Varanasi

Another indicator of water quality is biochemical oxygen demand (BOD). This is the amount of dissolved oxygen needed by biological organisms to break down organic material. It is considered a measure to test the effectiveness of wastewater treatment plants or the amount of organic pollution like sewage in a body of water. Ideally BOD should be less than 2 mg per litre of water as a drinking water source without disinfection. When the Ganga enters Varanasi, BOD is 2.8 mg/l and when it leaves, it is 4.9 mg/l – as recorded this April – indicating that large amounts of untreated sewage are discharged from the city.

For the growing population of the city increasingly dependent on groundwater, there is pollution to be found there as well. Waste generated by households and industries is disposed of in the low lying areas of the city where the tanks and ponds which recharge the groundwater are located. The chemicals and disease bearing bacteria from this waste slowly leak into the groundwater.

Lalit Prashant Meena, assistant professor at the Institute of Medical Sciences, BHU sees a couple of patients every week, who are referred by local doctors, suffering from diarrhoea. “One thing common in these patients is that they use untreated tap water. While loose motions caused by contaminated water are cured by local doctors, severe cases are referred to the institute. Symptomatic observation or stool tests of these patients leads to one diagnoses – bacterial infection,” he said.

In order to prevent water-borne diseases, the residents are increasingly forced to rely on private water treatment. “While there were only two companies providing water treatment for households a decade ago, now there are about 30 catering to the growing demand,” said Sagar, a private water purifier manufacturer in Varanasi.

Hoping for a better future

Mayor Mohle is convinced that the change that was not brought about under JNNURM scheme by Jal Nigam (Water Department) would be brought about under a different central government scheme – Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). While the former scheme was introduced by the last government, the latter is flagship programme on water supply introduced by the current government.

Mohle has directed the Varanasi Municipal Corporation (VMC) to rope in private firms to prepare a proposal to improve the infrastructure of the city including water supply, sewerage and storm water drains. AMRUT, named after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was launched along with the Smart City project by the Indian Prime Minister in June 2015.

The central government has also recently sought help of the Japanese government in modernising Varanasi’s infrastructure. A ‘Partner City Affiliation Agreement’ was signed between Varanasi and Kyoto during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Japan during in August-September 2014. Modernisation of Varanasi, including upgradation of water management and sewage facilities, waste management and urban transportation, drawing upon the Japan’s expertise and technologies, is one of its objectives. Unfortunately it is unclear how long it will take before Varanasi’s water is as clean as that of Kyoto’s. Until then the only hope for Aakash and others suffering lik