Chennai offers a drinking water model for coastal India

By Chitra Narayanan, originally posted on November 9, 2016


Twenty per cent of Chennai’s population drinks treated sea water today. Going forward Chennai could be the desalination capital of not just India but the world. Rajiv Mittal, MD & CEO of V A Tech Wabag, a leader in waste water management and the firm behind India’s largest seawater desalination plant, feels the coastal city is doing many things right in water.

Aren’t desalination plants an expensive solution to provide drinking water?

Expensive is a relative term. In a place like Chennai, which does not have adequate fresh water resources, has limited reservoirs and is in a rain shadow, how does a city sustain? Either a conscious decision is made to curb the growth of the city. Or you find solutions.

Chennai adopted the recycle model so that industries could sustain. I also give full marks to the State government for rainwater harvesting policies. The third step was desalination. Actually, re-used water can be good for drinking water.. Singapore uses it.. but it is mentally not acceptable to citizens here. The government recognised that mental block and brought in sea water. Costs are nothing compared to bottled water. It costs 6 paise a litre, Rs. 60 for 1000 litres against Rs. 15 for a litre of bottled water. Even a tanker, you pay 15 paise and you don’t know how safe that water is. Whereas desalinated water is safe, clean and potable.

Chennai is a great example of bold initiatives. It has shown the intent and been bold enough in the face of criticism that sea water is expensive to go ahead. Currently, 20 per cent of Chennai’s population is living on it. There will be a time soon when 60 per cent of the city will live on it. It’s a model that at least coastal India can adopt.

What about other parts of India? What model can they adopt?

Awareness is needed on water management. Water has been taken as granted for very long, it’s free, available and abused, so you don’t bother to care or maintain it. The good news is that most states are today talking about not only managing their water bodies, but also the need to treat and manage the dirty water, whether from industries or houses, before going into sewage. That’s a big mind shift. It means less strain on freshwater resources. There is also a revenue model to this approach as water instead of being seen as a liability becomes a resource.

If you look at Chennai, they have been selling treated sewage. Companies like CPCL, Madras Fertilizer have all been using this to run their establishments, thereby converting a liability into a resource.

When setting up new buildings or plants you can put in waste management solutions. How easy is it to retrofit?

It’s absolutely possible, we have done some multi-storeys, where there was no space. We went into the basement and made some small tanks and sent the treated water up for air conditioning. Old buildings are difficult because they have single pipes whereas new ones have two pipes, and so need to invest in new plumbing. But forget about social obligation, it’s a commercial need now.

In your reckoning, how many outfits in India recycle water?

Less than 4 per cent.

Isn’t there a mandate?

There is a water policy. How strictly they will implement remains to be seen. But the government has to incentivise, either use carrot or stick approach. The same way they do with power. For instance, on power plants, if you use air cooled condensers rather than water cooled condensers, you get more benefits. It’s costlier to put up air cooled condensers but then you are saving water. These are things that need to be done on a broad scale.

Also a lot of vested interests go into which technology to use, rather than looking into which is most appropriate. As long as this is not stopped, we will continue to get technologies that are not sustainable.

Don’t you think the biggest mindset change will come only if we see an example like Ganga being actually cleaned. You are involved in the project now. Can it ever be cleaned?

100 per cent it can be cleaned. The question to be asked is why it has not been cleaned despite 40 years of effort. Is it the capital cost, was it the technology, what was the reason the scheme did not work for the investment that was done.

In my view, the main reason was the administration and management of the plants. If you build a plant costing Rs. 1000 crore and give it to local urban body, what is the chance they will operate it well? They don’t have the money to pay the power bill, they don’t have money for the chemicals.

If you look most of the plants built for the project are defunct. Before we build anything new, what can we do to renovate, refurbish these and give it to a private party where you can have a performance contract. Even if I shut down the plant for one hour, a penalty can be charged – but if they are themselves operating, what penalty can they give?

Second, they have built certain technologies that are not suitable. They guzzle so much power that the State government is unable to provide. Today, you have technologies where all the power is generated from the waste water itself. In all our plants in Chennai, we produce power from waste water. Sixty per cent cost of operating a plant is power bills, if that bill we make zero, and also earn revenue from treated sewage, the plant becomes viable.

We, as a technology company have an obligation to bring technologies that are sustainable. That part is available today. They just have to select the right technologies that are sustainable for the long term.

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