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From Devanahalli to Leh, India: BORDA brings faecal sludge management (FSM) to a high and dry Himalayan town

At an altitude of 12,000 feet, the city of Leh in the Indian region of Ladakh is one of the highest in the world and has one of the harshest climates—temperatures reaching -30°C, low air pressure and very little precipitation. Roads to Ladakh remain closed for 6 months of the year, making access difficult. Increasingly erratic weather patterns caused by global warming are affecting water supply and agricultural production, in turn threatening the safety and self-sufficiency of the entire region.

Due to its geographic isolation, Ladakh’s traditional way of life is highly sustainable and self-sufficient. But modern habits and an influx of tourists over the past 10 years (270,000 expected in 2017) are wreaking havoc on the region’s ecology. Plastic waste, traffic jams, flush toilets, massive amounts of construction—all are threatening the fragile ecosystem and polluting natural resources.

About 60% of Ladakh’s water supply is drawn from pure underground sources and often drunk without filtering. But as flush toilets become increasingly popular, more sewage is discharged into underground septic tanks and pits, releasing toxic overflow into the soil which can easy leach into and contaminate groundwater. The city of Leh (pop. 45,000) is constructing a sewerage system that may eventually cover 40-50% of the city. This could be too little, too late, as groundwater contamination would have disastrous effects on public health and tourism. Many other Indian cities, including Shimla, have seen cholera and jaundice outbreaks that are traced back to similar pollution of water sources.

In Leh, one of the world’s first high-altitude FSTPs

With these concerns in mind, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) visited Devanahalli (near Bangalore) in early 2017 to learn about the faecal sludge management (FSM) system put into operation there by BORDA and its partner CDD Society. In Devanahalli, LAHDC representatives were able to witness first-hand the transformative effects of town-scale FSM and envision its contribution to protecting the environment and water supply in Leh. BORDA followed up with a visit to Leh to conceptualize an FSM system for the city that complements the sewerage system currently under development. Leh’s new FSM system, implemented in three months, was inaugurated in August.

The BORDA concept for Leh includes the full set of operations involved in FSM:

  1. Scheduling and planning the cleaning of septic tanks in an efficient manner
  2. Using suction trucks to empty septic tanks and soak pits
  3. Safely transporting the faecal sludge to a treatment plant
  4. Operating a faecal sludge treatment plant (FSTP) to meet effluent standards
  5. Selling and reusing the byproducts of treatment

India's first PPP for FSM

To support the Municipal Committee of Leh (MCL) in managing and paying for the FSM system, BORDA invited the Blue Water Company (BWC) to set up India’s first FSM public-private partnership (PPP) in order to finance, design, build, operate and transfer the entire FSM system.

Next steps

BORDA estimates that by next year, the city will have in place a reliable and regular schedule for cleaning septic tanks. According to Dr. Zahida Bano, CEO, Leh Development Authority, the MCL has directed every hotel to install permanent and proper septic tanks, with mandatory annual cleanings. Failure to comply would lead to hotel permits not being renewed. This is an essential measure to prevent contamination of the water table. “We will not let septic tanks be filled up and will clear them of faecal sludge before they become full," said Dr. Zahida Bano. “We also plan to incorporate residential households under the faecal sludge management programme soon.”

The MCL has also provided extra land to double the FSTP’s capacity in future, should the need arise. “We wanted to figure out how well the treatment plant functions in such climatic conditions," said Manas Rath, Senior Advisor, BORDA. “After a year, we will take a call whether the FSTP’s capacity is to be increased.”

The Leh FSTP serves as an example of a treatment plant successfully built and operated despite extreme geographic and climatic challenges. It is also an example of what can be accomplished through innovative public-private partnerships, with the contributions of multiple stakeholders such as BORDA, CDD Society, and the Blue Water Company, and the support of municipal actors such as the Leh Development Authority.

The Bremen-based international company HANSA-FLEX selected the Leh FSM project for their 2017 Christmas donor initiative. The new system, implemented at 12,000 feet via an innovative public-private partnership, shows that successful FSM is possible even in very challenging conditions.

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