Rapid urban growth makes it almost impossible to deliver centralized sewage and treatment solutions in most Asian cities. In India, only three cities have capacity to treat more than 70% of their sewage. In Bangalore, the government has the capacity to transport only 40% of the sewage and only 40% of that is treated. Tests by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board show that this treatment is not effective.

Sustainable urban solutions must include smaller, decentralized Sewage Treatment Plants (STP) that are owned and operated by communities and apartment complexes themselves. However, today policy-makers, agencies, and urban groups are not ready to deal with a proliferation of diverse STPs to ensure compliance so that public health issues do not surface. With a combination of policy, technology, and citizen engagement, it is possible to ensure that citizen-led decentralized STP solutions meet urban needs without any negative health consequences.

Rapid urban growth has far outpaced the infrastructure and capacity that (water, sewage, and electricity) normally should precede it. Explosive growth makes it almost impossible for slower moving government institutions to deliver solutions in most Asian cities.

In India, a real-estate boom has occurred without corresponding infrastructure and people are living in completely unsustainable means. Lack of government capacity and poor institutional coordination ensures inability to keep up with the exponential pace of development and per capita usage of water and energy. Government agencies find it almost impossible to deliver services such as centralized sewage and treatment. For water, people are using millions of private borewells that are rapidly depleting groundwater aquifers. Others have to rely on daily supply by tankers with poor quality water from unknown sources. Electricity comes from generators and backup power systems as much as from the grid.

Without a major intervention and a shift in direction, the boom is going to bust very soon.

Sewage as India's number 1 problem

The sewage problem is particularly severe. The Center for Science and Environment in a landmark report in 2012 (http://www.cseindia.org/content/excreta-matters-0) revealed that not a single Indian city processes 100% of its sewage. In fact, only three cities have capacity to treat more than 70% of their sewage. In Bangalore, the government has the capacity to transport only 40% of the sewage and of this only 40% is treated and tests by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board show that this treatment is not effective.

The title of a major news report: ‘India's No 1 Problem is No 2’ says it best (http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?288143). An analysis by Dean Spears (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-long-and-short-of-open-defecation/article4505664.ece) of increases in height in the population of developing countries indicates that Indians remain short due to exposure to sewage – fighting pathogens uses up energy vital for growth.

It is clear to all that the place to start is tacking our sewage.

Bangalore's issues reveal how difficult the problem is to address. In Asia's Silicon Valley, several government agencies are involved in the creation of the sewage crisis.

The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), largely an engineering organization, is responsible for laying pipes for transporting fresh water in and sewage out. But it is severely downsized while the city is expanding rapidly and is far behind in delivering water and running the underground drains (UGD) to recover sewage to new developments. Its existing pipes leak tremendously. Its sewage treatment plants (STPs) (many outsourced) have low capacity and often do not work due to energy issues. Short of manpower and expertise, BWSSB is plodding along unable to even recover its expenses from water tariffs. BWSSB specializes in big centralized systems, and lacks the capacity to build and operate STPs or even oversee private STPs.

The Bangalore Development Authority, one of the two planning and development agencies, approves new development without coordinating infrastructure development with the BWSSB. Real-estate permissions can be easily obtained without proof of existing or planned infrastructure. While new developments are required to have an STP, any design of a STP will do to gain the required building permit.

The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (PCB) is supposed to identify and inspect pollution sources, and ensure pollution control systems are in place, but is reluctant to block economic development and unable to enforce rules. Further, policies for STPs are outdated and there are flimsy requirements on reporting by private STPs. The PCB has the ability to slap fines for non-compliant discharge of sewage by both residential and industrial water users, but the fines are not significant and the legal support for enforcement is lacking. Also, short-staffed, it focuses on monitoring a few industries and ignores human settlements. Its guidelines also allow many to get off the hook. For example, apartments with less than 50 dwellings need not treat their sewage. Nor do apartments that are near a UGD, whether or not that UGD works. PCB's requirement for reporting on STP operations every 6 months has not found cooperation from even a single STP operator.

Groundwater and borewells come under the Department of Mines and Geology that can only monitor the falling groundwater levels and also the plummeting quality as untreated sewage finds easy paths down into the aquifer. No ban on new borewells or overuse of existing ones is even proposed; a ban can never be effective in India in any case!

Other agencies include the Lake Development Authority (LDA), which is responsible for the restoration and conservation of lakes, but is constantly challenged by agencies allowing untreated sewage to flow in lakes. The result is that lakes are severely polluted or encroached upon. The LDA can only watch as the number of lakes dwindle down (from 160 in 1960 to less than 50 now) and become toxic polluted bodies.

The sewage generated is discharged into lakes, storm-water drains, septic tanks, and transported out using honeysuckers. Leaky underground drainage pipes and outdated systems continue to contaminate groundwater and, sometimes, the incoming fresh water supply. Incoming water quality from borewells and water tankers is seriously compromised by sewage being discharged openly, and urban citizens are being directly exposed to it.

Finally, the population continues to increase its consumption of water in a completely unsustainable fashion through deeper borewells and tankers, and is alive only because of point-of-use household water filters.

The burden falls on the poor

While Bangalore's development story reflects that of all Indian cities, we need to acknowledge that the impact of this happens most on the poor. The Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) suffer the most as, not only do they fail to receive basic needs such as water (they pay 20 times for tankers to deliver water than do the middle class and affluent households) and sanitation, but they also bear the brunt of the environmental hazards created by the rich.

Tackling the sewage crisis in Bangalore is now taking on a set of related challenges:

  1. How to fix all the STPs that are not working?

  2. How to build STPs where none exist?

  3. How to monitor the plants so that we can verify no health hazards exist?

  4. How to move the citizens to reuse treated water, following the example of Singapore and Windhoek, Namibia, and ease the burden on new water supply?

Can any agency solve this problem

Let us analyze challenge #3: ‘Monitor pollution’, to see if it is possible for any agency to solve this problem.

With over 100,000 sources of discharge to monitor on a monthly basis, we need to collect approximately 5,000 samples daily. Can any one agency have field staff that will sample all these points monthly? Can all these test results be collated and analyzed?

While water testing labs can be created and data reporting automated, the collection problem remains the big hurdle. In a country like India, it is trivial to ensure that a field staffer does not report on the real operating status. So even, outsourcing to a private operator or to a non-profit will not work.

Other societal issues make dealing with the sewage challenges hard. People are more ready to pay fines than fix. The legal process and backlog will ensure that polluters get away free (except for legal fees).

Our vision is to conquer all the sewage challenges by bringing together urban residential communities and government to collaborate, deliver, and track sustainable decentralized systems to treat sewage and harvest the treated water. To monitor thousands of systems requires a new process. Peer Water Exchange (PWX) will leverage its award-winning innovation in the rural space to solve urban issues.

Our program will create a network of Resident Welfare Associations (RWA) that will be monitored for compliance and simultaneously provide sanitation and sewage treatment to the poor. It will improve the capacity of government agencies and provide them ways to collaborate. Ultimately, the program will analyze and monitor the effluent providing every one with current and accurate data to manage resources, plan infrastructure, improve behavior, recycle precious water, and create a safe environment.

Our approach

Our approach is a combination of technology, process, and human network. We are leveraging our award-winning innovation that has worked for 8 years in the rural space in 27 countries for urban challenges. Our plan is:

  1. Create a network of RWAs. Our first community outreach activity will be to enlist RWAs into the network and to create urban SHGs (self help groups). For this, we will develop education materials detailing the issue and how our network will help provide a solution and resolve the crisis. We will start with our local ward and two additional wards in Bangalore that have already been identified. We will set a target of monthly growth in membership. Based on resources, constantly revisiting our materials based on results of our outreach. Using the collective knowledge base of PWX, the RWA network, and subject matter experts, we will share and solve problems.

  2. Establish a water-sampling process. Our innovation is to give every RWA the task of sampling three randomly chosen nearby RWAs in addition to their own STP. This way every month, each point will be sampled four times. Our team will also collect a few water samples, to provide independent auditing data. Specific data will include incoming water quality, pre-treatment, and post-treatment quality. We will work with the RWAs to create a detailed map of all STPs (including specifications such as technology used, year put in operation, builder and design consultant, and operator and capacity), and obtain information on developments lacking STPs in the area.

  3. Build on our technology base. Today, the PWX platforms provide services for rural water monitoring – easy-to-use mobile-ready tools for data entry and reporting. Our technology team will enhance the same for sewage monitoring and reporting with business intelligence and analytic tools to view individual STPs, area results, and trends.

  4. Monitor results. We will begin by establishing a baseline of the current situation and monitor change over time. We will work with RWAs and SHGs to monitor the results of our data collection on our open platform and identify functioning and malfunctioning STPs and associated effluent flows. This information will be collected, analyzed, and presented end of each month bringing up red flags. The system will make dashboards available anytime to view the same. In addition, we will collect ward level data while adding new members. This will help in new signees to (a) identify where their ward stands, and (b) how are other communities doing, which we believe will encourage them to sign-up.

  5. Community outreach. Our team will establish a feedback loop with the RWAs. Using easy-to-digest reports, the team will discuss with the RWAs on their operating status. We intend to then identify model communities who will become our outreach champions and share their experiences when communicating with RWAs.

  6. Citizen education. We will establish a continuous education cycle to build awareness on water consumption and sewage treatment issues. This will be a critical element of engaging citizens, which will complete the circle of citizens asking for clean water and sewage and government agencies working toward delivering the same. We will also track the impact of improved sewage treatment on public health (e.g., diarrhea). A baseline would be identified based on the number of cases in a ward and how clean water and better sanitation has shown a drop in the same.

  7. Create a vendor/expert database. In parallel, we will create a comprehensive list of consultants and implementers who (a) are water treatment experts, and (b) fix and manage STPs and even showcase all their work on our platform (both successful and not successful). We will bring our own expertise and engage other field level experts to provide comprehensive solutions.

  8. Improve government policies and operations. We will work with government to improve and implement policy and processes. We will build relations with government staff in wards we work to share with them collected data and on-field experiences. We will engage them through site visits, and help them play their role more effectively. We will also work with them to identify policy gaps and needs regarding appropriate sewage treatment, and help them draft guidelines for discussion with other relevant agencies to influence policy change. We anticipate that accurate data will help the officials enforce policies in their localities.

  9. Establish a revenue stream. Our revenues will depend on monthly payments from RWAs as well as our revenue-generating service through vendor management – this will include consulting and listing fees. Since Bangalore hosts many large private companies that have corporate social responsibility goals, we will also engage the private sector to help provide sanitation facilities and treatment plants for the poor (including migrant laborers) who are unable to build their own STPs and are unlikely to get government facilities in the near future.


We have managed to get a database of about 70 communities and interest from about 10 in our project. In fact, a few want help immediately!

We have collected data from several treatment plans (all in paper format) and are converting them to digital. The graph below shows data from five STPs, three of which are based on anaerobic digestion and the water is being reused for irrigation and groundwater recharge. Two use ASP treatment technology which puts treated water through further processing and is used as a water source for all uses. In addition, we plan to collect data on the input level so we can judge how well the STPs are working (Figures 123).
Figure 1

Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) data from five STPs.

Figure 1

Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) data from five STPs.

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Figure 2

Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) data from three STPs.

Figure 2

Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) data from three STPs.

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Figure 3

Total Suspended Solids (TSS) data from three STPs.

Figure 3

Total Suspended Solids (TSS) data from three STPs.

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This data will help us gain momentum in getting more data, identifying where help is needed, and getting an overall picture of the state of sewage treatment in Bangalore.

The Peer Water Exchange is using its innovative and award-winning platform to tackle urban issues, starting with sewage treatment. With a combination of policy, technology, and citizen engagement, it is possible to deal with the proliferation of diverse STPs to ensure compliance so that:

  • Bangalore's environment improves,

  • public health issues do not surface, and

  • water crisis is mitigated through reuse of treated water.