The scientist helping Australia and India tackle common water quality challenges
Increasing populations, expansion of urban areas, intensive agriculture, climate change, pollution and depleting natural water resources are the main drivers of water quality issues in India. All of these especially pose a threat to India’s largest river Ganges – into which some three million litres of sewage is emptied every day.
Dr Anu Kumar, Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO has been tracking pollutants in the Ganges. The environmental toxicologist and risk assessor with a career spanning 23 years says, “Both the Australian and Indian water industries face a challenge to maintain a safe and sustainable water supply in the face of increased domestic, farming and industrial discharges and climate variations.”
“In our investigations we wanted to identify and determine the impact of selected emerging contaminants discharged via sewage effluent into Indian and Australian rivers. We did this via biological and chemical assessments.”
While the project has already been delivered, the Australian research team is continuing its collaboration with Indian colleagues through workshops, conferences and joint publications. The collaborative projects include tie-ups with CSIR India, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), IITs and Indian universities, based on funding from sources such as DFAT, Australia-India Strategic Research Fund (AISRF), and World Bank.
As a child, Dr Kumar learnt about sustainability on long train journeys that her family undertook – her father’s job in the Indian Air Force required them to travel across India.
“Crossing the Mahanadi Bridge in Odisha, I would see rice paddies and ponds near each household,” she recalls. “At holidays in northern India with our grandparents and extended family, we would awake to doves and peacocks each morning.”
But this began to change when she joined Panjab University as a student. “Every monsoon, I would hear a dwindling number of frogs croaking and birds chirping.”
These small yet significant observations nudged her to pursue a career in the environmental sciences.
She arrived in Australia in 1991 with an AIDAB (Australian International Development Assistance Bureau) scholarship towards a PhD in environmental toxicology, in collaboration with NSW EPA (currently known as the NSW Department of Planning and Environment).
“I learnt a lot during my PhD on the impact of pesticides in the cotton growing areas of NSW. It contributed to the development of water quality guidelines for certain pesticides used in Australia.”
In 2002, she joined CSIRO as a scientist and assessed the impact of pesticides, pharmaceuticals and wastewater from the pulp and paper mill and sewage treatment industries. She also led projects that demonstrated how wineries in Australia could reuse their wastewater “to safely irrigate crops”.
“The nutrients and organic matter in winery wastewater can enhance soil productivity, thus increasing crop growth and yield. In a country like Australia that’s susceptible to drought conditions, it is important that we find more efficient and sustainable ways to use what can be such a scarce resource,” she says.
Her extensive experience led her to the Ganges project in India.
The Ganges project
The Indo-Australian project offered opportunities for scientific cooperation, technology transfer and capacity building. “We also shared Australia’s expertise in water quality monitoring to guide management decisions in India. While working together, we ensured the effective abatement of pollution and rejuvenation of rivers.”
But what is polluting the Ganges?
“It is hard to pinpoint a specific class of chemicals,” she clarifies. “The pollution along the river is from both diffuse and point sources. Unlike point source pollution, which enters a river course at a specific site such as a pipe discharge, diffuse pollution occurs when potentially polluting substances leach into surface waters and groundwater as a result of rainfall, soil infiltration and surface runoff.”
Pesticides seem to top this list of pollutants. According to a recent report, she says, the total usage of pesticides in Ganges basin between 2012 and 2017 was 72,741 MT, which is 27% of the country’s total usage.
Dr Kumar’s team used analytical and bioanalytical tools to detect micropollutants in the Ganges, evaluating drain discharges into it at two major cities.
“We analysed chemicals of emerging concern (CECs) in river water samples such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pesticides and pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs). Sewage was found to be the dominant source of organic micropollutants in urban drain effluents.”
What is the solution for river pollutants in the Ganges? “Tackle the source, not the symptom,” she responds. “Education and public awareness are key. Governments are running initiatives to promote safe water, but we can’t leave this solely to them. The solution is in our hands and each of us must take the responsibility of ensuring our rivers are clean.”
“Traditional knowledge and experiences along with western science should go hand in hand to tackle this issue.”
Reduce and eliminate the use of CECs, she suggests, and replace these with environmentally friendly and less toxic substances. “Industries should comply with the zero liquid discharge principle.”
The CECs she is referring to are pharmaceuticals, industrial and household chemicals, personal care products, pesticides, manufactured nanomaterials, microplastics, and their transformation products.
What can Australia and India learn from each other?
Dr Kumar says that while the environmental problems are similar in both societies, “the main difference lies in the extent of the problem.”
“In Australia, the regulatory frameworks, guidelines, monitoring, surveillance programs and public awareness help us to identify and manage these issues. In India, we have identified champions, those passionate persons who are ready to do more than what is required to make a difference. What we need is a continuity of our efforts in this area to achieve bigger outcomes for safe water and sustainable economic development for its 1.4 billion people,” she concludes.
This story originally appeared in IndianLink News and has been re-published with the author’s permission. You can read the original story on their website.
Discover Dr Kumar’s research
- Using bioanalytical tools to detect and track organic micropollutants in the Ganga River near two major cities
- Evaluating chemicals of emerging concern in the Ganga River at the two major cities Prayagraj and Varanasi through validated analytical approaches