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By Col. Bhaskar Tatwawadi (Retd.)

Sustainable Development Goals
The Sustainable Development Goals defined by the United Nations are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address global challenges, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice. The 17 Goals are all interconnected, and in order to ensure that the entire global population is covered, it is envisaged that these are achieved by 2030. Of these goals, Goal No. 6 relates to Clean Water and Sanitation.

In India, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has targeted the problem of Sanitation in the urban and rural areas and has successfully created the Open Defecation Free (ODF) environment. On the other hand, there is a big shortfall in the area of safe drinking water supply. This gap is sought to be covered up through the mission mode titled Water on Tap under the Jal Shakti Ministry. While substantial progress has been made in increasing access to clean drinking water and sanitation in the urban sector first through the JnNURM and later the AMRUT missions, millions of people in rural areas still lack access to the safe water supply. Worldwide, one in three people do not have access to safe drinking water, two out of five people do not have a basic hand-washing facility with soap and water, and more than 673 million people still practice open defecation (UN).

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the centrality of sanitation, hygiene, and access to clean water to address the humongous challenge thrown to the world population to prevent and contain infectious diseases. In fact, the pandemic was the wake-up call for the dormant and complacent sanitation and public health sector. According to the World Health Organization, handwashing is the most effective action to reduce the spread of viral and pathogenic infections.

Another vital aspect of tackling this pandemic has been that of sewage surveillance.

Sewage Surveillance
Wastewater has proved to be a reliable indicator of the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the communities. The urban wastewater indicating infections however itself is not a source of infection. The ability to detect RNA fragments of SARS-CoV-2 in urban sewage is increasingly and independently being reported from research groups in most of the European Union, United States, Australia, Canada, Turkey, UK, and many other countries. These countries have successfully deployed sewers surveillance programs to develop sampling, testing, analytical, interpretative, and uplinking protocols for predicting the intensity of infections within communities.

The reasons are obvious. This is an opportunity to reliably track and evaluate the presence of the virus in the population in a better and more harmonized manner without direct testing of individuals. Most of the studies have detected the virus in wastewater before clinical cases were reported (up to 45 days in advance!), indicating that the approach offers the potential to form part of an early warning community public health surveillance system. This is a significant leap forward to a “life with the virus” ensuring preparedness and readiness in fighting its re-emergence.

The UN World Water Quality Alliance has joined hands in this effort in order to share the findings to assist the hotspot infected areas as well as to ensure the linking of the environmental dimension. The World Water Quality Alliance (WWQA) is a Global Community of Practice across all societal actors convened by UNEP as well as the World Health Organization. The WWQA has offered its convening power to assist, in the forthcoming weeks and months, the knowledge transfer to the international community. The aim is to provide immediate assistance to the current hotspot areas. This also includes continuous information update to regions and among partners.

Following a successful first info-exchange event, the Second Virtual Town Hall Event envisaged informing the Community of Practice and initiate steps to explore global rollout options along a new understanding linking the public health and environment in different regions and settings. The second TOWN HALL Meeting of this EU Umbrella Initiative on SARS-CoV-2 Surveillance employing sewers was co-organized with the UN World Water Quality Alliance on the 22nd of July 2020. In the event, a total of 224 participants were recorded from all over the world (including this author).

Those involved in the umbrella research program are associated with the design of a common QA/QC framework as well as to develop and deploy a “Best Practices Guide”. Since the entire process is expensive and country-specific, there is an urgent need to understand better the entailed costs. Some countries conducted tests on a commercial basis while others have performed actual cost evaluations. This information would help to develop options for rollouts and upscaling and to design capacity-building activities.

This study has led to a better understanding as well as the limitations and challenges of Sewage Surveillance. The study developed a roadmap for the rollout of complementing national and regional surveillances in and as a unique approach. As suggested by the Dutch Water Research Institute (KWR) and the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule (RWTH) and supported by EurEau and Water Europe, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and the Directorate-General Environment (with the involvement of the Directorate-General Health and Food Safety) set up a spontaneous research alliance and organized a study of about 90 wastewater treatment plants in Europe. The first results indicated the viability of the approach, and have been critically reviewed to develop a consensus on the use of generated data.

The Umbrella Study “Methodology For Assessment of SARs-Cov-2” has now been formalized in a tabular form. The aspects include the details of Raw Sewage Sampling, the Method for Preparation of Samples for Testing and Analyses, Method for RNA Extraction, SARs-Cov-2 Quantification, Reporting of Results, and the Linking of COVID-19 Infections Data to SARs-Cov-2 Quantitative Data.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, (MoHUA), Govt. of India; has recently (July 2020) published an Advisory on On-Site and Off-Site Sewage Management Practices. In the context of the current pandemic and even as a futuristic measure, it will be prudent to include a section on Raw Sewage Surveillance as a predictive tool for the pathogenic and viral infections and epidemics. The Swachh Bharat Mission – Urban may issue this as an addendum to the published advisory.

About the Author

Col. Bhaskar Tatwawadi (Retd) is the Technical Director at Tandon Urban Solutions Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai. An army veteran and a Civil Engineer from VNIT Nagpur with a Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering (with Honors) from IIT Roorkee, he has over 45 years of professional experience.

His 22 years stint in the Army, Corps of Engineers, included the construction of water treatment plants and the design of several sewerage and sewage treatment projects for military, naval, and air stations. Later, he has worked on many projects in water and wastewater management including design and execution of rural and urban water supply and sanitation schemes, the Visakhapatnam Industrial Water Supply Project (1998), construction of the BWSSB Water Treatment Plant of 300 MLD (2000 -01) and the first Chennai Metro-water Seawater Reverse Osmosis Plant of 100 MLD (2007). He has led design teams for several industrial wastewaters to recycle projects for automobiles and textiles industries.

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