Bengaluru’s treated water foaming in Kolar: Plan to use in irrigation on hold

FINDING WAYS TO USE BENGALURU'S TREATED WATER

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Karnataka government’s ambitious project of supplying treated water from Bengaluru to the arid districts surrounding Bengaluru ran into problem, when the Karnataka High Court directed the government to stop the pumping of treated water until further instructions.

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However experts say the idea of reusing treated water is a good one by itself, if proper processes can be put in place. But with protests by residents of the districts supported by their elected representatives growing louder by the day, will this project get killed even before the government attempts to make it work right?

The idea of using treated water to support agriculture

The government decided in 2016 to send the treated sewage water from Koramangala and Challaghatta valley in Bengaluru to the surrounding districts – Chikkaballapur, Kolara and Bengaluru Rural.  The project that aims to carry 8 tmcft of treated sewage from KC Valley in Bengaluru to the 126 irrigation tanks of Kolar district was estimated to cost Rs 1,280 crore.

People from the districts were apprehensive of the quality of the treated water, from the beginning. The fear was that the secondary level treatment wasn’t enough for the water to be usable in agriculture. Also they felt the treatment plants will not be able to eliminate heavy metals like lead from the sewage of Bengaluru. The frequent news on froth and fire from the Bellandur and Varthur lakes also had terrified the villagers.

The people’s representatives from the area had raised the issue in the Assembly and brought the apprehensions of people into the notice of the House. Finally the treated water reached Kolar’s Lakshmisagar tank in the first week of June. “The project is completed almost 3 months ahead of schedule,” tweeted Krishna Byregowda, who in the last cabinet actively promoted the project as agriculture minister.

This project, if executed right, would help simultaneously tackle the sewage problem of Bengaluru and water shortage problem for the agriculture belt surrounding Bengaluru. However, the project hit the hurdle sooner than expected.

The fears of residents in the affected districts were not assuaged and a public interest litigation was filed. R Anjaneya Reddy, a resident of Chikkaballapur, in the petition asked that the entire project be reviewed. He asked that the polluted industrial effluents not be supplied to the minor irrigation tanks of Kolar, Chikkaballapur and Bengaluru Rural districts.

Following this, on June 18, the Karnataka High Court issued notices to Central Ground Water Board, the state government, Karnataka State Pollution Control Board and Energy and Wetlands Research Group.

Froth, fury, failure and fault-finding

Meanwhile, the torrential rains that pounded the region in mid-July brought back the foam and froth even to the treated water. Villagers near Lakshmisagar tank in Kolar panicked. The villagers even threatened to send tankers filled with the frothy water to the homes of MLAs in the region. Residents also complained of stench in the water. The government finally closed the inlets that let treated water into the tank.

Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) and Karnataka Minor Irrigation Department blamed each other for the catastrophe. The Minor Irrigation Department said an additional supply of 108 MLD treated water by BWSSB caused the problem. However, BWSSB pointed fingers at the demolition of an earthen bund built between Bellandur Lake and Chlorine Contact Tank – which was the last stage of secondary treatment before water was released, says a report from The New Indian Express.

Expert says he cautioned the government

T V Ramachandra, a scientist from Indian Institute of Science, claims to have alerted the government in advance. He said: “The government says they are treating the water and there is no contamination, but when we ourselves checked we found nitrate and heavy metal in the water from the lakes. That’s when I alerted the government,” he said, adding that the ministers don’t understand the problem and the level of contamination.

Ramachandra warns of serious repercussions for health because of groundwater contamination through nitrates and heavy metals, along with already existing fluoride contamination problem. He says the government needs to learn how to plan such systems properly in an integrated manner where they don’t damage water bodies.

“Even though the government knows that the sewage water shouldn’t simply be let into the lake, there is a colonial mindset, they are not interested in anything that costs less. They are happy with new projects,” he adds.

‘Good scheme if protocols are placed and followed’

Vishwanath S, a Bengaluru-based rainwater expert and consultant thinks that with de facto proper investment, supplying treated water for agriculture is a good move. He says this project would be the largest transfer of wastewater for agricultural purposes anywhere in India. “It is the first time that a city recognises an inter-land, protracted transfer of water for agricultural areas. Usually, Bengaluru wants to consume all the rainwater, lake water, ground water and wastewater – consume it all for itself! So at least, if the waste water treatment is done properly, nutrient-rich water can be transferred for irrigation, he says.

But then, what about the frothing fiasco? “It is our inability to create the right institutions. Right now there is a huge conflict between the BWSSB and the Minor Irrigation Department as to who is responsible,” he says.

The solution is to resolve the tussle and fix accountability. “There should be a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) that is one institution that should be responsible for the entire stream – from the waste water at the BWSSB plant all the way to the farmers’ fields,” he says. The SPV should have groundwater experts, chemists who understand the ground water quality, experts from the fisheries department and public health experts. This can ensure the integration of all factors and players, he says,

Vishwanath says that what exactly the farmers should cultivate with treated water also needs to be regulated. “Ideally, it should be cash crops. There should also be a check on the way the farmer uses the waste water. If all this is in place then it will work well,” he explains.

‘Real-time monitoring of water quality a must’

Regular monitoring of the water quality is also a must. “You must have an online monitoring system at the source and also at the end of the pipe, which would be real time and switch off the minute any one of the parameters exceeds the limits,” he says.

“There should be wetlands constructed in each of the lakes, designed to clean the lakes further, removing any heavy metals. Then, there should be a constant monitoring of all the drinking water sources close to these tanks to ensure that all these parameters are safe. It should be done in an open, transparent manner, so that you build the trust of the people and the community. If you follow these, it would be a good, workable model,” says Vishwanath.

But unfortunately they are not being followed, so therefore all the problems arise.  Accountability, responsibility, monitoring and data transfer – none of these has been taken care of.

One stream has now reached Bagalur tank from Chikkaballapur stream, another Kolar stream has reached Lakshmisagar and two tanks. Vishwanath suggests experimenting with one or two lakes, putting in place a protocol that ensures health and environmental risk mitigation. Once the requirements of the citizens and everyone else are satisfied and the results are satisfactory, then it can slowly scale up to cover all the lakes once the results are satisfied, he says.

Given the dire water shortage the Bengaluru and surrounding region is going to face in the future due to growth and expansion, Vishwanath has a word of caution about stopping the project completely, advising against knee-jerk reaction to such issues. He says it is a good scheme if implemented properly, adding, “we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Also read: Is Bengaluru ready to drink treated sewage?

Note: Revathi Sivakumar and Sahitya Poonacha contributed to this article.