Scouring for sustainability solutions for India's water and waste crises

India's water and waste crises are severe but all may not be lost yet, as India's sustainability changemakers discussed and showed the way for actionable solutions at Forbes India Sustainability Changemakers Summit 2019

Published: Dec 20, 2019 01:20:43 PM IST
Updated: Jan 8, 2020 06:48:17 PM IST

g_125353_bg_dsc_7485_280x210.jpg(L to R) Nikhilesh Kumar, Co-founder, Vassar Labs; Shyam J Bhan, CEO, SUEZ India & SAARC Countries; Manu Balachnadran, Special Correspondant, Forbes India; Bimlendra Jha, MD & CEO, Ambuja Cement; Amrit Om Nayak, Co-Founder & CEO, INDRA Water

India is on the brink of a sustainability crisis on many fronts. With 70% of the water in the country being contaminated, India is placed at 120 of 122 countries in terms of the Water Quality Index, released by WaterAid, an international non-governmental organization, focused on water, sanitation and hygiene.  Further, a 2017 report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), which extrapolated data from 60 major cities in India, revealed that the country generates around 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste a day. These are only some symptoms of the mounting environmental predicament that India is facing.

Against this solemn backdrop, a host of luminaries met under the banner of Forbes India’s Sustainability Changemakers – Championed by BNP Paribas – to discuss this crisis and seek sustainable solutions to the water and waste management.frbes India special correspondent Manu Balachandran. The participants comprised Shyam J Bhan, CEO, SUEZ - India and SAARC Countries, Bimlendra Jha, MD and CEO, Ambuja Cement, Amrit Om Nayak, co-founder and CEO, Indra Water and Nikhilesh Kumar, co-founder, Vassar Labs.

Bimlendra Jha commenced the discussion with a rather unusual perspective, suggesting, “We should not be facing a problem of availability of potable water. More heat, due to global warming, should translate into more evaporation from oceans and thereby, we should be having even more water. Our problem seems to be the inability to manage, harness and store water.”

Nikhilesh Kumar concurred, saying, “Roughly 4000 BCM of fresh water is available due to the rains every year. All put together, we need 700 BCM of fresh water. So, where is the crisis?” He then clarified saying, “The crisis arises from specific uses of this water. Irrigation alone requires roughly 700 BCM and that’s expected to double but the supply will be the same. There is, however, room to manage it properly. If we measure it, monitor it regularly and plan it scientifically, I think the crisis can be avoided.”

g_126207_20191122franciskadecuypere001_280x210.jpg
Franciska Decuypere, Head of Teritory, BNP Paribas

Amrit Om Nayak pointed out, “It’s more a problem of waste water management. All activities do not require portable grade water. We also have to consider how are we actually dealing with the waste water generated. Lastly, we have to redistribute this resource more efficiently.” He went on to add that the private sector was definitely holding one piece of the puzzle but government was the enabler. “Favorable regulations and policies and better enforcement of waste water norms have resulted in a good start. We're seeing better compliance. But at the same time, there should be an incentive, in the form of lower costs, for people who are using recycled water versus those who are only dependent on fresh water. The government has to come in with regulations to this effect.”
Highlighting some challenges, Shyam J Bhan expressed the need for sustainable models for recycling to be bankable. He also pointed out the futility of inadequate attention being paid to other aspects, like solid waste recycling in cities, by citizens. Another issue he raised was, “The problem is that our water networks are poor, due to the intermittent supply. In the worst conditions, they develop metal fatigue; this leads to contamination. There is also infiltration of undesirable things into the network and that affects the quality.”

While wrapping up the discussion, the participants offered suggestions on the way forward. These included using suitable technologies for better demand side management and recycling, coupled with regulation for quicker application of solutions, rather than wait for awareness and self-initiative to prevail, more involvement of younger people, civil projects that help fix the distribution issues and plug leakages, etc. Most importantly, they concurred that there is the need to sensitize people to the entire issue of waste water management, as water is not a topic for the future but the present.

g_125359_bg_sustainabilitychangemakers031_280x210.jpg(L to R) Brian Carvalho, Forbes India; Bharati Chaturvedi, Founder & Director, Chintan Foundation; Yogesh Bedi, Chief, Steel Recycling Business, Tata Steel

The panel discussion was followed by an engaging Fireside chat, hosted by Brian Carvalho, Editor for Forbes India. Sharing their insights and experiences were Yogesh Bedi, Chief Tata Steel Recycling Unit and Bharti Chaturvedi, Founder Chairman of Chintan Foundation. They discussed various issues including the levels of awareness about waste management, the ongoing ecological crisis and the far-reaching implication of generating waste on society, amongst others.

To put in perspective the quantum of waste management that would be required, Yogesh Bedi explained how the world population was set to reach 10 billion by 2050. Of this, 50% is expected to be middle class, with aspirational consumption and considerable waste. This will lead to the need for reverse logistics – a system for ensuring waste reaches its recycling unit, with suitable transportation and storage along the way. He explained the possibilities for minimizing waste by sharing an example of a village in Japan, which categorizes recyclables into 34 categories and recycles 80 to 90% of their waste with the target recycle 100% by 2020.

Bharti Chaturvedi pointed out that India should be grateful for the huge army of waste pickers that provide a free recycling service to the nation. “Hundreds of men and women waste-pickers recycle up to well over 60% of our waste,” she said. She also explained how most waste-picker children are girls who work at the cost of missing school; they are then married by the age of 15 years. “If we don’t reduce our consumption, and change our mindsets and social norms regarding consumption, there will be no solution in sight,” she warned.

The event concluded with a Key Note address from the Waterman of India - Rajendra Singh, founder of Tarun Bharatson – whose community-based efforts in water harvesting and water management have led to the revival of rivers and brought water back to thousand plus villages in Rajasthan.

g_125357_bg-rajendrasingh_av08copy_280x210.jpgRajendra Singh, Water Man of India, award-winning environmentalist, Tarun Bharat Sangh

Leaving his audience with some piquant food for thought, he concluded, “Sustainability is shallow compared to the concept of ‘Sanatan’, advocated in indigenous wisdom and knowledge. Sanatan means that which is never destroyed, which is new, evolving and sparks creation. At present, our earth is getting sick and the change in climate is becoming worse. It is an illness that only we can cure because we are the reason it has fallen sick in the first place.” He explained that the starting point was to develop a genuine love and respect for nature. Suggesting that technology and engineering would not provide a solution, he urged humans to cure the earth with happiness, peacefulness and love.

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