Take me to the river

Brenda Parker applied for an International Capacity Building fund for a research visit and workshop at the Noyyal Basin in Tamil Nadu. Here she explains how it went.

‘Knowledge transfer on the sustainability of innovative wastewater treatment technologies to India’

Untreated industrial wastewater pollution, primarily from textile production, threatens water resources in central Tamil Nadu, India, where the Noyyal River flows through several densely populated urban centres.

The workshop consequently aimed at knowledge transfer on innovative wastewater treatments between UK and Indian collaborators to potentially address these pollution problems within the river basin, with wider applications to wastewater remediation.

A key objective of the workshop was developing recommendations for scaling up these technologies to support future wastewater remediation strategies both in Tamil Nadu and other regions in India. Workshop discussions therefore focused on the viability, accessibility and cost efficiency of technological options, including algal bioremediation, anaerobic digestion and nanoparticles.


Tamil Nadu river

Water pollution

India has 16% of the world’s population and has only 4% of its water resources. Multiple interlinked problems have emerged in India involving the security of these scarce resources. In particular, water pollution poses a particular threat and is occurring through urbanization, industrial discharges, improper agricultural practices and poor sewerage and wastewater management.

As a result, many major river basins in India suffer chronic levels of contamination, which presents a constraint on socio-­‐economic development since the majority of citizens rely on such surface and ground waters for domestic and agricultural consumption.

According to UN reports, India’s water quality ranks at 120th out of 122 nations, which results in over one million people dying through water-­‐borne diseases and 37.7 million subjects to associated illness annually.

Water pollution also seriously constrains India’s progress towards meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 6 which sets targets for clean water and sanitation. Addressing this Goal also has implications for inter alia the realisation of SDG 12 (for responsible production), SDG 3 (good health and well-­‐being) and SDG 9 (industry, innovation, infrastructure).

India-UK workshop 2

Knitwear nightmares

Untreated industrial wastewater pollution is a particular threat to river water resources in Tamil Nadu, India, home to some 70 million people and a growing economy. One nationally significant example is the Noyyal River, which flows through the densely populated urban centres of Coimbatore, Erode, Karur and Tiruppur, in western Tamil Nadu.

The river’s basin is 110 miles long and 16 miles wide, covering a total area of 1,400 sq miles. Located in the centre of this basin, Tiruppur is a major knitwear centre, containing 9000 small-­‐scale factory units producing one-­‐third of the total apparel exports from India.

This sector is also a significant contributor to the local economy, directly employing 40,000 people. They are employed in more than 700 dyeing and bleaching industries that discharge around 100 million litres/day of mostly untreated effluents into the Noyyal River.

The textile industry uses bleaching liquids, soda ash, caustic soda, sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, sodium peroxide, and chemicals for its dyeing and bleaching processes. Other harmful substances include dyes, many based on benzidine structures or heavy metals, both known to be toxic.

Most chemicals are discharged in wastewater. The wastewater is acidic, noxious and contains dissolved solids, which increase the biological and chemical oxygen demand in water. Open wells and bore wells in and around Tiruppur and the downstream stretch of the Noyyal exhibit high levels of total dissolved solids (TDS) (most areas > 3000 mg/l and some places even up to 11,000 mg/l) and chloride (generally > 2000 mg/land certain areas up to 5000 mg/l) due to industrial pollution.

Polluted sea.jpg

Significant obstacles

With no freshwater available for dilution, the ground water from Coimbatore and Tiruppur is now unsuitable for irrigation, washing or drinking. After a 2011 ruling from the Indian courts making zero liquid discharge (ZLD) a prerequisite for industries, Tiruppur became the first industrial hub to install systems to reclaim water and salts from wastewater with the objective of achieving ZLD.

However, energy requirements, costs and residual sludge disposal present significant obstacles to meeting this objective at present. Contamination of water sources therefore significantly constrains regional development, while limits India’s progress towards the SDGs.

These pollution challenges, however, provide significant opportunities for developing innovative wastewater treatment technologies. The workshop organisers, from the University of Exeter and University College London, are experienced in conducting novel pollution remediation research in both India and the UK, using integrated anaerobic digestion, hydrothermal carbonization and algal bioremediation, which have particular relevance to treatment of dye effluent within this context.

India-UK workshop 4

Remediating pollutants

Development of such techniques could therefore help support surface and ground water pollution reduction within the river basin, thereby promoting its sustainable development.

In addition, scaling up of such innovations has evident strategic-­‐level implications for resolving chronic industrial wastewater pollution across India, since these techniques can be applied to remediating other biological, toxic, organic and inorganic pollutants.

The research could also inform policy and legal frameworks for pollution reduction at local, regional (state) and national levels, while supporting India’s SDG strategy. Opportunities also exist for knowledge transfer to other developing countries suffering similar environmental risks, in addition to commercializing the research to further extend UK-­‐India business collaborations. The environmental technology sector in India is expanding rapidly, with evident opportunities for driving pollution abatement technological innovations.

women-in-the-salt-marsh-Tamil Nadu

Sacred status

Several presentations initially provided context to the workshop. Mr. Perur Jeyaraman outlined how the Noyyal River basin has been the centre of commercial and religious activity for two millennia, highlighting the river’s ‘sacred status’ for local people.

He also described the unique phenomena of constructing ‘System Tanks’ by the ancient Chalukya Chola dynasty, in order to reduce monsoon flooding, maintain groundwater levels and water for irrigation.

He referred to how the river was depicted in ancient scripts and the pre-­existing governance of the river which was achieved through local communities and tax exemption for river and tank managers. It was argued that the wealth of the region has historically relied on the river, with everyone responsible for maintaining its health.

A non-­governmental organisation view was then given by Mr. Kalidassan of the Indian NGO OSAI Environmental Agency, who also highlighted the role of system tanks for maintaining water resources in the river basin. He explained how the links between the river and the tanks are now broken, resulting in significant pollution problems.

People living downstream of the industrial centres experience the impacts of untreated sewage water discharged into the Noyyal. Farmers also suffer from prolonged pollution from the Orathuppalayam Dam.

In response, people in the region are motivated to restore the river water quality but suitable mitigation practices must be designed in collaboration with local communities. Scientific studies on the Noyyal River basin were then presented by Prof Avudainayagam, Head of the Dept. of Environmental Sciences, TNAU.

In conclusion, several research objectives were met in support of the project aim (see above). The workshop synthesised pre-‐existing research on innovative wastewater remediation technologies, presenting it to a range of academic and non-­‐academic partners.

India-UK workshop 3


Research was presented covering the use of inter alia constructed wetland remediation, algal bioremediation, anaerobic digestion, nanoparticles and innovative solar PV approaches. The workshop adopted a collaborative approach to knowledge transfer, involving different stakeholders: scientists; practitioners; industry; NGOs; and civil society.

It was particularly important to include the views of the industry association, to demonstrate that solutions are not only a shared responsibility but also that addressing problems can present potential commercial opportunities or ‘win-­wins’.

This point then relates to the third workshop objective. Although the workshop process only initiated a broad dialogue, nascent recommendations for industrial scaling up of these technologies to support disruption of current unsustainable activities can still be forwarded.

Industry actors themselves identified the need for technological solutions that are cost-­effective and financially incentivising. In this respect, the workshop could help discursively ‘reframe’ the problem within the broader goal of sustainable development, particularly SDG 12, and the circular economy.

Here, technological recovery of pollutants, both organic and inorganic, could add value to dyeing industry production chains, domestic wastewater remediation and agricultural water uses, thereby enhancing long term commercial profitability. Several technologies presented could provide an excellent fit with this issue reframing, most notably algal bioremediation, biological methods, anaerobic digestion, nanoparticles and solar technologies.

India-UK workshop

Research priorities

Finally, an additional output of the workshop was to identify research priorities. Lack of data on pollution sources and effects, for example, was considered a significant constraint to resolving issues. Research into health impacts, collaborative governance [8], valuing natural resources and climate change would have additional value.

In particular, establishing a long-­‐term collaborative process involving key stakeholders (NGOs, industry, citizen groups, academic, government agencies) is a priority. In terms of bioremediation, the industry association would like to understand how they can move from zero liquid to zero solid discharge at CETP.

Data sharing was identified as an important first step towards the development of effective technologies. While laboratory bioremediation studies on defined compounds are important for R&D, there is a need for access to industrial samples. Research priorities included understanding the mechanism of dye detoxification in mixed consortia of microorganisms and scale up of sequential/hybridised systems.

The emphasis was also on partnering with companies who could operate pilot sites in the field to ensure in-­‐situ performance. Solar engineering research also has evident potential for addressing water pollution issues in the river basin and in other contexts. Here, research priorities include examining the commercial potential for scaling up solar electrodialysis for dye removal from wastewaters, and the development of solar technologies (PV, concentrated) for powering pollution remediation techniques, for example heavy metals or biological remediation.

While such future research can help with countering chronic industrial wastewater pollution at this river basin scale, given the parlous state of major rivers across India and access to clean water issues on a global scale, this combined research agenda could prove significant in future.

International Capacity Building Fund


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