Drain brain: a Canadian firm's adventures in Mumbai's sewers

A Canadian firm's adventures in Mumbai's sewers

Visitors to the Gateway of India should expect an unruly scene. Built by the British in the 1920s as a monument to imperial glory, the imposing basalt-and-concrete arch is both a gathering spot for Mumbai locals and a tourism magnet. Boats leave from here to the ancient rock-cut temples on Elephanta Island. An assortment of trinket vendors, balloon salesmen, snake charmers and monkey handlers accost passersby. Enterprising young shoe shiners offer their services to foreigners at the no-haggle cost of two rupees (just over 5¢), even if the visitors are wearing cloth sandals. Playful boys take turns jumping from the stone seawall into Mumbai Harbour.

The waters offer relief from the sweltering heat. But if the divers were to consult a travel guide, they might think twice about taking the plunge. “Don't be tempted by the lure of Back Bay,” warns the Lonely Planet, “or even the open sea at Juhu; the water is filthy.” No wonder: Mumbai delivers an estimated 2.2 billion litres of largely untreated sewage into its harbour and the neighbouring Arabian Sea every day. Some of it is expelled through an aging pipe called the Colaba outfall, located not far from the Gateway.

Mumbai (known until 1996 as Bombay) does not have a monopoly on urban pollution; most people wouldn't swim in the Toronto or Halifax harbours, either. But in the most crowded city in the world's second-most-populous country, sanitation is particularly challenging. Estimates vary, but anywhere between 10 million and 20 million people call Mumbai home. At least six million live in sprawling, squalid slums, and more arrive each day in search of opportunity–causing politicians to periodically bicker about whether they should be discouraged from doing so. India's financial, trade and commercial hub is a victim of its own success.

According to a recent Goldman Sachs report, India's transportation and energy infrastructure is inferior to those of other emerging economies, such as Brazil, China and Russia. Like the roads they run beneath and the electrical systems that power their pumps, Mumbai's sewers are also taxed beyond their limits. That not only creates daily inconveniences for citizens; it also presents opportunities for foreign businesses.

RV Anderson Associates Ltd., an Ottawa-based environmental engineering consulting firm with 175 employees, is one such company. It helped draft the blueprint for the development of Mumbai's waste-water systems for the next quarter century. “It's the biggest problem in Asia–water and sanitation services for rapidly growing megacities,” says Alan Perks, manager of RVA's Ottawa office and a principal of the firm. But whether RVA's plans for Mumbai will result in genuine change–or sit on a shelf collecting dust–is something no one can predict.

No visitor can ignore India's poverty. But Robert Neuwirth immersed himself in it. While researching his recently released book about international squatter communities, Shadow Cities, the New York-based journalist moved into a 10-by-14-foot room in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar for three months in 2003. He describes this Mumbai neighbourhood, in which perhaps 1,500 people reside, as an “upper-class squatter community.” His rent was US$22 a month, a fortune for many of Mumbai's poor.

One morning, Neuwirth took an early bus on an access road alongside a major expressway. “There's a drainage ditch alongside it,” he recalls, “and there must have been 30 or 40 guys, one every couple of feet, squatting there. At first, I wondered, 'What are these guys doing, waiting for the bus or something?' And then it dawned on me, when I saw one guy with his pants around his ankles, that they don't have access to toilets.”

Poverty only partly explains why Neuwirth also witnessed women washing clothes in open sewers, or why Mumbai's slums smell so foul in some spots. Since the British laid the city's first water and sewer pipes in the mid-19th century, the story has always been the same: it is a system struggling–and generally failing–to keep up with an exploding population.

Bombay tapped its first water supply, Vihar Lake, in 1860. About the same time, engineers began to develop its sewers. By the early 20th century, all waste water was pumped into the Arabian Sea through a short undersea pipe called the Worli outfall. More outfalls and treatment facilities followed as the city expanded northward.

When India gained independence from Britain in 1947, more than 1.7 million people lived in Bombay. The existing water and sewage system served them poorly, and improved little over subsequent decades. By the 1970s, when the population had swelled to nearly eight million, only central Bombay and a few suburbs had sewer service. Septic tanks and privies were the rule elsewhere. Industrial discharge, night soil and overflowing sewage emptied directly into local waterways and drains.

The World Bank got involved in the mid-1970s, and has funded virtually all sewage improvements in Mumbai since. In 1979, American consulting engineering firm Metcalf and Eddy Inc. and an Indian firm, Environmental Engineering Consultants, prepared a master plan that was to govern the sewer's development to 2005. It divided Bombay into seven drainage zones, each with its own treatment facilities and outfall pipes. The World Bank loaned hundreds of millions of dollars to the Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay, the custodian of the sewer system, to execute the plan.

It's hard to imagine what Mumbai would smell like today had that work never happened. But despite some progress, the World Bank was ultimately disappointed with the outcome. A 1995 audit of its Bombay Sewage Disposal Project found that the plan's implementation was “little short of disaster.” Huge cost overruns, insufficient expertise and shoddy workmanship all contributed.

Nowhere are the inadequacies more glaring today than in Mumbai's slums, where as much as 60% of the population is believed to reside. The better off live in dilapidated apartment blocks called chawls; the less fortunate live in tents, under tarpaulins or below overpasses. The ultra-destitute live on the street.

Few in this grim hierarchy enjoy anything resembling western plumbing. In Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, for example, Neuwirth saw many homes with toilets already installed. However, they weren't used because the area's sewer is a small ditch covered by paving stones, suitable only to drain runoff and waste water from laundry and bathing. To deal with human waste, the neighbourhood pooled its resources and bought two shared toilet blocks, each containing five stalls for men and five for women. “Each one had what we would call a Turkish toilet, just a hole in the ground,” Neuwirth says. “There was a water tap, but because the water was only on between 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., there was no water when you were using the toilet.” A typical latrine in the slums can be shared by up to 150 people; on busy mornings you can expect to wait 15 minutes.

Other options exist. In poor areas, the World Bank estimates more than half of all children engage in “open field defecation.” During the monsoons, it can be dangerous–Neuwirth tells of young boys being swept away by strong, sudden runoff.

Wealthier neighbourhoods are generally connected to the sewer system. It includes more than 1,300 kilometres of lead, ceramic and PVC pipes and tunnels. But Chandrashekar Prabhu, a former Mumbai civil servant and urban issues adviser who is now a magazine editor, says it's in rough shape. “In the drainage line, you have to keep 25% to 30% for air for ventilation,” he adds. “But that doesn't happen because they are chock-a-block full. When water levels rise, there's no space for gases, so they find a way to come out.” In other words, pipes rupture.

Breakages can compromise local water sources. Compounding matters, the British tended to lay water and sewage lines in close proximity. “They're surrounded by earth and mud,” says Prabhu. “When one cracks, it contaminates the earth around it. And the water pipes, because they are neglected as well, also have joints where contaminants like E. coli and other bacteria seep in.” Hepatitis, cholera, typhoid and other water-borne diseases are common. India's health-care system is able to prevent epidemics, Prabhu says, “but running bellies happen all the time.” In effect, Mumbai is violating a cardinal rule: don't excrete where you eat.

Servicing the pipes is a chore. “Especially in congested areas, you have to disturb the entire area to get at them,” Prabhu says. “And if you cut some of the crucial roads, the city would come to a grinding halt, and hence repairs are never undertaken.” Creeks and streams also form part of the system. In Mumbai's largest slum, Dharavi, Neuwirth says many homes and businesses dump untreated sewage directly into nearby Mahim Creek. Its waters emit a nasty odour which the wind carries into nearby areas.

Mumbai's more than 50 pumping stations and treatment facilities face their own issues. India's beleaguered electrical systems fail frequently, and when Mumbai's power goes down, pumps often stop working. Most sewage receives virtually no treatment, other than a degridding process that removes large items, such as sticks and stones.

Mumbai's climate is hard on equipment. During the hot season (from March to May), extreme humidity wreaks havoc with electrical components and promotes corrosion. And while Mumbai gets little or no rain most of the year, it pelts down in June, July and August. It may come in sudden cloudbursts lasting less than an hour, but sometimes the torrents can last days. “It's tremendously challenging to build a system that will handle those monsoon flows,” says RVA's Perks.

Finally, consider geography. Back in the second century BC, when the area was home to Koli fishermen, Mumbai was a collection of seven islands. Land reclamation projects commenced by the British in the 18th century united the islands to form a peninsula of more than 400 square kilometres. Of that, 100 square kilometres are taken up by a national park. More is consumed by airports and port lands, so just 200 square kilometres remain for living and industrial space. It is not only a recipe for population density; it also leaves little land for new treatment facilities.

Mumbai has three underwater outfalls that it uses to pump its sewage into the sea. Unfortunately, though, they were built too short for current needs; the Worli and Bandra outfalls, for instance, extended less than half a kilometre offshore. The result was that the city's once famed beaches were lain waste. All coastal waters now suffer from low dissolved oxygen levels, an indication of serious organic pollution.

Mumbai's last 25-year sewer system plan recommended that several outfalls be extended. “The further out you put the outfalls, the more dilution and dispersion happens by waves and wind action,” Perks says. Despite considerable delays, the outfalls were eventually extended as recommended. But the system couldn't keep up with the burgeoning population, which has increased by as much as 4.3% a year.

By the turn of the millennium, a new plan was much-needed–and Canada's RV Anderson had something to offer.

In decades past, expatriates often completed Indian projects almost entirely by themselves. As Perks puts it: “It used to be a patronizing relationship: 'We're the foreign experts, we know what we're doing, we'll tell you what to do.'” But times have changed; now most of the work is done locally. If an environmental project requires 200 person months to complete, according to Perks, only about 50 of them would be foreign. Many Indian engineers are well-educated and highly skilled, he adds–and in any case, locals tend to have a better grasp of their own problems than foreigners.

What Indian firms often lack, however, are management and supervision skills for big projects, which may also require highly specialized expertise found only in foreign firms. When the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai went looking for help in 1998, RVA saw an opportunity to contribute.

Founded in 1948, RVA performs environmental services, from site assessment to training employees and conducting operational audits. The firm works mostly in Canada; it had only dabbled in South Asia before the early 1990s. But it wanted to diversify its business, and some employees wanted to work overseas. And so, RVA participated in Focus India, a federal trade initiative that brings together companies interested in working in the country.

RVA's management recognized India's advantages among developing markets–its English-speaking people, familiar legal system, and common business culture–and soon decided the country would become a target market. So RVA partnered with an Indian company, PHE Consultants, and began bidding on contracts.

Sanjay Devnani became RVA's man on the ground in India. Born and raised in Mumbai, he worked as an engineer in the United States before returning to the city in 1995 and joining RVA. He became intimately involved in bidding and executing the contract. Having a limited presence in India is a critical part of RVA's strategy. “Our main challenge has been figuring out how not to venture more than we could lose,” Perks explains. “We don't establish an office before we have work, so we keep our costs down.”

It took several years before the joint venture signed its first contract, which involved recommending best practices for operating and maintaining Mumbai's sewer system. Perks didn't expect quick results in India, and warns against accepting help from people who promise them. “I get a dozen e-mails a week from people saying they have strong connections here, there and everywhere,” he says. The pitches are straightforward: pay consultants a fee for a few months, and they'll drum up work. RVA preferred a different approach: find a partner that has genuine project skills and can actually help execute the work once a contract is signed. No partnership will prosper, Perks says, unless both parties contribute and benefit equally.

RVA and PHE, along with two other partners (the U.K.'s Mott MacDonald and India's Mahindra Acres Consulting Engineers Ltd.), successfully bid on another project to improve Mumbai's sewer system, for a total of US$5 million. One key objective was to ensure that all waste water would be collected by 2025. (In some neighbourhoods just 20% is now.) Another was to dramatically reduce pollution in the waters surrounding Mumbai. Those tasks occupied about two dozen western employees and four times that many from the Indian partners.

The joint venture studied the existing system's pipes, trunks and pumping stations, attempting to understand its hydraulic capacity. Employees drew on existing surveys and studies, and also on the knowledge of local civil servants aware of areas prone to flooding and other system failures. “We would go out into the field and survey them, make sure everything's still there, and get an idea of what condition things are in,” says Perks. RVA also measured flows at more than 100 locations using monitoring equipment for several weeks at a time. And it ventured onto Mumbai's beaches, assessing the quality of the water there and the sources of its defilement. Using that information, RVA produced a computer model of Mumbai's sewer system. That allowed the joint venture to see how flows were routed from pipe to pipe, and to identify problem areas.

Drawing up a long-term plan required forecasting future demands. The joint venture predicted that the Mumbai region's population will grow at just over 1.5% a year, bringing it to 26.5 million by 2025. It then drew up a plan for constructing new sewers, pumping stations and treatment facilities to meet that future growth.

Making recommendations, though, required walking India's infrastructural tightrope. For example, waste water discharged in eastern Mumbai needed more treatment, for the simple reason that the receiving waters are inland and have far less capacity to receive waste than the large Arabian Sea to the west. So the consortium considered diverting more of eastern Mumbai's sewage to the western coast, where it could be pumped through outfalls. It investigated five different schemes, but none proved worth the cost. And the outfalls needed extra capacity to meet future population growth. “In the end, we had to stick with the infrastructure that was already there,” says Devnani.

Enhanced treatment, then, became the preferred option. But that created a whole other set of problems. There's not much land available in many parts of Mumbai, and what is available is expensive. “We had to look at alternative processes to see not only whether they would fit,” says Devnani, “but they also had to be robust enough that they could be maintained.” The consortium examined the merits of more than half a dozen technologies, taking into consideration, among other things, the cost of buying the necessary land, and building, operating and maintaining plants.

The solution included sticking with activated sludge (where organisms grow in effluent-laden waste water containing dissolved oxygen) and aerated lagoons (artificial ponds in which effluent stabilizes) in areas where land was cheaper. Where land was most costly, the consortium recommended building more expensive but low-footprint chemical facilities. It also advised that the municipality immediately buy land, as prices were skyrocketing. All told, implementing the plan could cost more than US$1 billion– and take decades.

RVA finished the master plan by early 2003. Other than smaller assignments in Delhi and the states of Punjab and Karnataka, the company is not doing much else in India. “We're in between large projects,” says Perks, “so it's at a low ebb.” So far, though, RVA's Indian foray has served it well. “At times when the Canadian market has been flat, having a project overseas has helped out a lot,” says Perks. RVA and its consortium partners are eager to bid on future contracts as the Municipal Corporation begins implementing the new master plan.

When will that happen? Perks confesses that predicting timetables on Indian projects is challenging. “There's always something new: a change of government, possibly, or a new municipal council with different priorities,” he says. “And bang, you're back to Square 1.”

Devnani says that the Municipal Corporation has forwarded the necessary paperwork for a World Bank loan application to the Indian government, which must approve financing. The Municipal Corporation itself is on strong financial footing, but the state of Maharashtra (of which Mumbai is the capital) is facing a huge debt–and that could make the World Bank nervous. And other infrastructural challenges the Municipal Corporation faces may divert resources from solving sewage problems. “Unfortunately,” says Devnani, “the client may not have the momentum to keep this going.”

There are other political forces at work. Many Mumbai residents don't pay for water and sewerage services; Indians tend to regard them as free. That has discouraged investment in system improvements, which, in turn, has contributed to well-founded complaints about poor service and bolstered resistance to user fees. But Prabhu believes that more improvements would be possible if “the politicians are sent off to take a nap for a while.” So long as costs are affordable, he adds, “citizens are willing to pay for services. It's just that the politicians want to take up populist measures and get cheap popularity.”

It's unclear how much political will exists to make meaningful improvements in poorer areas. New middle-class neighbourhoods are sprouting up around Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, and Neuwirth believes that sewer pipes run nearby. “Of course, all the middle-class buildings have sewers, and the slum communities don't,” he says. “To politicians, the idea of providing sewers to these communities smacks of semi-legalization. And they have problems with that.”

The lack of progress has Devnani worried. The pressures of increasing population, mounting land costs and environmental degradation continue to escalate. “The concept of providing a higher quality of life is the most important thing the municipality should try to achieve,” he says. “I feel that's not being pursued to the extent it should be, and that's an emotional issue for me.” He adds: “The last election was fought on the basis of infrastructure. That gives me hope that we will see change. But will they be able to catch up? I don't know. It's got to be done rapidly.” It's a real possibility that, like its 1979 predecessor, RVA's plan will ultimately fail to meet its objectives.

RVA's Indian experience has left Perks with an abiding respect for Indian engineers and administrators who run the existing system. “They do a pretty good job for the infrastructure they have and the pressures they're under,” he says. Meanwhile, the realities of India may soon become more familiar to Canadians, Perks predicts. “I think we're going to have to be in a busier and productive environment in order to maintain our lifestyle,” he says, citing Canada's own population and resource pressures and increasing global competition. “There's no doubt in my mind about it. So when I look at India, I say, 'Yep, that's the future.'”