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The Challenges of Using Wastewater to Grow Crops in India

Bus stop sign in Ahmedabad that reads “Sewage Farm” in Gujarati

 

Alka Palrecha Rawal is currently a SPURS Fellow at MIT and an SAI Research Affiliate. She is Director of People in Centre, which provides consulting services for developmental programs. She holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. With more than 20 years in community development with a focus on water resource management under her belt, she is currently interested in policies and institutional processes for the safe reuse of urban wastewater for agriculture in the outskirts of towns and cities in India. 

 

How did you first become interested in studying water?

I first became interested in water while I was in school to be a landscape architect.  After I graduated, I found the practice of landscape architecture in India to be quite narrow, too often catering to the interests of a private and elite sector.  This practice conflicted with my desire to serve the interests of a larger public.  My first foray into public water rights and usage was with ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan’, an anti-dam movement in India.

Then some years back, during my visits to neglected service areas of my home city, Ahmedabad, I found a bus stop surrounded by vast lush green agricultural fields, unlike anywhere else in the city. To my surprise, the bus stop sign read ‘Sewage Farm.’  As I continued to explore, I found a ‘Sewage Farmers’ Cooperative’ signpost and office. My curiosity grew, and I contacted the farmers to learn more about ‘sewage farming’ in India. The farmers and others across Gujarat taught me about wastewater use for irrigation in India as well as the challenges to realizing the resource potential of wastewater use.

 

What is a common misconception about safe reuse of wastewater and what strategies are you using to address public health concerns?

The public, many experts, and the government see the reuse of wastewater for irrigation as unacceptable. The first step in making wastewater ‘safe,’ is education through scientifically-sound studies from reputable sources that prove that wastewater irrigation is not a health hazard. In fact, municipal wastewater is replete with nutrients.

Farmers who grow with wastewater also consume their own produce. I have found no difference in incidence and occurrence of diseases of the farmers consuming food grown using wastewater versus farmers who consume freshwater-irrigated produce. However, further studies are required to understand the health impact of wastewater used for irrigation in India’s tropical climate. During our field visits, some incidences were found in which farmers who work with wastewater had contracted diseases.

Legalization and de-stigmatization will help establish safe practices for farmers. The stigma of re-using wastewater results in farmers not disclosing their practice of wastewater irrigation. If disclosed, they fear consequences from the government as well as consumers. Despite the stigma, however, farms are increasingly using wastewater.

The ‘safe’ use of wastewater is dependent on two variables – the contaminants in the wastewater and the crop that is irrigated. Continuous monitoring and reasonable constraints of these variables are required for safe use. City managers, farmers and pollution control authorities should work in tandem to ensure standards of safe practice.

 

What is the benefit of safe wastewater reuse?

City populations in India are growing, thus the wastewater generated is increasing. Municipalities already find it challenging to dispose of this excess wastewater.

Furthermore, increasing freshwater scarcity has led to a proliferation of unregulated wastewater reuse.

The solution is to design an affordable wastewater treatment with a simple compliance mechanism for farmers. This will turn wastewater into a valuable resource for city governments, farmers, and pollution control authorities.

Overall, wastewater can annually irrigate around 1.5 million hectares of land area and has the potential to contribute about one million tons of nutrients and 130 million days of employment.

 

What excites you most about coming to MIT and Harvard?

MIT is a hub of technological innovation and social venture! My mission is to change perceptions and practices of wastewater irrigation.  MIT is helping me acquire the necessary technological, institutional and managerial skills to actualize this mission. My goal is to learn about low-cost treatment technology for farm irrigation and make scientifically-sound comparisons with different kinds of wastewater usage.

The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute has provided me with opportunities to connect with other fellows and faculty at Harvard. Here, I am able to connect with like-minded fellows who are interested in collaborating on the project after my fellowship is over. The T.H. Chan School of Public Health is a valuable resource for scientific studies on the health impact of wastewater reuse. Dr. Richard Cash, who has a vast knowledge of sanitation and related diseases, has kindly agreed to mentor me.

 

How might you implement your research when you return?

There are immense opportunities to network in Cambridge. In India, I am trying to form partnerships with local governments, farmers, and authorities to promote wastewater irrigation. When I return to India, I will be able to bring technical knowledge, scientific guidelines on safety with a public health perspective, and a simple compliance mechanism.

 

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.