Sunday, June 29, 2008

putrid rivers of sludge

Delhi's bureaucrats bicker over cholera and the role of city drains and state sewers.

By Jason Overdorf
Jun 28, 2008

India scores 120 on the green index and especially poorly in sanitation.

If anybody needed a reminder of how crippling bureaucracy can be, consider the campaign to clean up the sacred Yamuna River in Delhi. The river oozes through town like a putrid ribbon of black sludge. Its level of fecal bacteria is 10,000 times higher than what's deemed safe for bathing. After a half-billion-dollar, 15-year program to build 17 sewage treatment plants, raw sewage still spills into the river at the rate of 3.6 billion liters a day.

Lack of sanitation is one of India's many environmental problems. On Yale and Columbia's Environmental Performance Index, it scores a miserable 21 on sanitation, compared with 67 for the region and 48 for its income group. That helps push the country's overall ranking to 120th, below all its income peers except Angola and Cambodia. Like China, India tends to suffer the ills of over- and underdevelopment. On the one hand, its power-starved, industrializing economy has prevented it from making substantial progress in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and has put further pressure on its ability to protect the biodiversity of its disappearing wilderness (in the EPI, the country fares poorly on both counts). On the other hand, desperate poverty leaves most of its population vulnerable to environment-related illnesses caused by water and air pollution, which together account for an estimated 20 percent of the disease burden. Illnesses related to air pollution alone cost India as much as $20 billion a year, according to The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a Delhi think tank headed by climate scientist and Nobel laureate R. K. Pachauri.

India's messy democracy is particularly ill equipped to handle the conflicting pressures of rapid growth and poverty. Although the national water policy was revised in 2002 to encourage community participation and decentralize water management, the country's byzantine bureaucracy ensures that it remains a "mere statement of intent," according to TERI. Responsibility for managing the country's water resources is fragmented among a dozen different ministries and departments without any coordination. "You have multiple agencies with no synergy between them and no interaction between them," says Chandra Bhushan, associate director of the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi NGO. Thus, in states like Rajasthan and Karnataka, public water schemes launched by the Ministry of Rural Development didn't meet their targets because they weren't coordinated with the Ministry of Power's program for rural electrification.

These problems have come to a head in the Yamuna River. The state-government-controlled water board built the new wastewater treatment plants, but the municipal government has failed to clear garbage from the drains. As a result, so little wastewater reaches the plants that they can operate at about only 30 percent capacity. After a cholera epidemic in May, the state and municipal governments bickered over whether the state's leaky sewer pipes or the city's clogged sewer drains were to blame. "Having democracy at the top but not having good democratic institutions and institutional structures at the bottom is a fundamental problem," says Bhushan.

Whereas China's totalitarian government has an easier time enforcing its rules, corruption and lack of accountability plague India's efforts to enforce regulations and set priorities. Agricultural states like Punjab, where the water table is dropping dangerously fast, still offer farmers free or subsidized electricity to pump water for irrigation, encouraging them to grow water-intensive crops like rice and use inefficient irrigation techniques. Small businesses operating in old facilities and lacking the capital to invest in modern technologies are ill equipped to deal with the contaminants they produce and too numerous to be regulated by the central and state pollution-control boards. "The pollution-control boards that we have are poorly staffed; their technological capacity is inadequate. Combine that with poor salaries and some level of corruption, and you have a real problem," says Leena Srivastava, executive director of TERI.

Considering these fundamental shortcomings, it's easy to see why the Western obsession with carbon emissions rankles Indians. Even the EPI raps India's knuckles with a poor score on emissions per megawatt of electricity. Try telling that to the 500 million or so Indians who burn dung in their homes because they're not even connected to the grid.