Tuesday, 11 February 2014

A living super organism amidst us - Of course Not Yeti

People have always looked at waste water treatment plants like a part of city which should never exist in their eyesight and most importantly not in their backyard. But very few would have realized the fact that no other processing industry, not even gargantuan petroleum processing industry handles so much volume in comparison with waste water processing plants.

And the fun fact is waste water processing plants are indeed the living super organism which work day and night in processing the waste that the city generates. If city were a humongous animal then waste water treatments plants are like liver which handles the key aspect of sustaining life processes. Just like how if liver fails, the body goes through multiple organ failure , the same happens in city when a waste water treatment plant fails.

Waste water treatment systems is indeed a functional ecosystem like a forest for it supports diverse living organisms from prokaryotes to eukaryotes of varying complexities. The pollutants in the incoming waste water support the ecosystem and there arises the competition for the limited resources due to the varying life-cycles of microorganisms. Waste water treatment systems are indeed complex systems for they have microorganisms which contribute non-linearity behavior to the system coupled with the cyclic variation in influent flow and composition due to the cyclic behavior of human beings. In addition to that the systems face major disturbances during climatic events like rain and storm where they disrupt the system with massive hydraulic shocks.

In India and around the world, especially in third world countries, there is a prevailing low efficiency in biological treatment plants partly due to the above mentioned problems and due to the need for trained man power. The efficiency problem is usually attributed to plants not working in design conditions, lack of maintenance, sudden spurt or reduction of human activity in the catchment area and increases in extreme weather events. When we take an example of India, according to the report by Central Pollution Control Board only 13.5 % of the sewage generated in urban areas is treated as construction of plants is capital intensive. In addition to that treated water of nearly 39 % of the existing plants doesn't conform to the prescribed standards under the Environmental (Protection) Rules for discharge into streams.

In case of River Ganga, Ganga Action Plan was initiated to save the river from untreated effluent, with 80 % of it originating from households. Though STPs (Sewage Treatment Plants) were built along the river, they face disruption due to power shortages, wide variation in temperature with 49 degree Celsius in summer, 5 degree Celsius in winter and torrential rains during monsoon season which causes the plant to overflow.

So this shows the need for development of sustainable solutions to tackle this problem and also throws light on an important problem of whether the inefficiency of sewage treatment plants is purely an engineering problem or does it have an ecological paradigm that has gone unanswered, for sewage plant supports multitude of micro-organisms. Here, I would like to compare waste water treatment plant to a forest which supports organisms and does it with minimal human intervention. So here, I want to study on whether a waste water treatment plant can function with minimal human intervention and is there any missing links in the ecosystem of built environment which makes it fragile and reduces its robustness.

So this study would include analysis of microbial ecology of the built environment, identifying the appropriate consortium of microorganisms for specific operational conditions and study of functioning of an existing waste water plant like the Beckton Waste water treatment plant in East London which is actually the biggest plant in Europe as developing nations needs these solutions to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals to improve the livability in the emerging Mega Cities.

Understanding microbial ecology of waste water plants plays a major role in devising control strategies for the waste water treatment plants which are inherently extremely complex systems. With land and water becoming a scarce resource, there arises the need to develop modular, robust and efficient systems to treat the increasing volumes of waste water and to tackle the extreme weather events which wreak havoc in Mega cities around the world. To develop such systems, understanding the inner workings of the ecosystem in built environment like waste water plant is very important.

The significance of such systems cannot be trivialized, for the solutions that is developed here can create huge impact in two third of the world population living in developing world which has massive gaps in terms of sewage generated and sewage treated.

I would like to study waste water treatment plants and their resilience to extreme weather events through a doctoral program under Hydro Nations program ( Centre of Expertise for Waters ) in Scotland , for they have an accumulated experience in dealing with waste water infrastructure. Of course, what other place would a person want to go in order to study about Water infrastructure than United Kingdom which had been a pioneer in creating such infrastructure around the world including India.

Link: British Council