For centuries, millions of Indians have drunk water from the rivers that have flown through its heartland. Ganga and Jamuna find a permanent place in our national anthem, and villages on our rivers have provided the setting for countless folk tales. But, today, the rivers tell a different story — one of pollution caused due to their indiscriminate use as dumping grounds.
Coliform bacteria levels in the Ganges have been tested to be at 5,500 mpn/100 ml. MPN (Most Probable Number) is a scientific number used to estimate the number of microbes in a given sample. Its level in our holy river is so high that it is unfit even for agricultural use. The acceptable risk level for total body contact recreation, which involves activities such as swimming and bathing, is 260 mpn/100ml. Recently, while chairing the third National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), PM Manmohan Singh informed that everyday, 2,900 million litres of sewage is being discharged into the Ganga, way above the capacity of the sewage treatment plants.
I went to the Technology Museum in Finland to see, as the pamphlet put it, “all the things the crazy Finns had invented”. We all know about Nokia, but there are other Finnish brands too, such as Fiskars, whose decision to combine plastic and metal in the design of scissors helped it steal a march over competitors.
However, little did I expect to find out how this nation of 5.4 million inhabitants had met its environmental responsibilities in an area we shirk from — waste water treatment.
Cleaning up its act
The museum traces the history of Helsinki, the capital of Finland, and its waste systems. The city, which is surrounded by the Gulf of Finland, was rapidly industrialised in the late 19th century, and, like many other cities of that time, industrial facilities were built close to the shores. As late as the 1940s, the city even encouraged industrial facilities to dump their waste in the coastal areas. Up until 1960s, most waste water was just let into the seas as the treatment plants were inadequate to process it all.
But the tide turned after that. Complex treatment plants began treating phosphorous in the 1970s and nitrogen began being treated from the 1990s. The bays where the treated wastewater was released were among the worst-polluted in 1960s, but today the water quality is satisfactory, and sometimes even good.
Catching your attention
“If your mobile is flushed down the toilet, do you go to the wastewater treatment plant to claim it?” Besides explaining the treatment process, it was also the aim of the museum to answer amusing questions like this one. A series of rotating cylinders, which could be turned by hand, had questions and answers, like the one above, wrapped across their surfaces.
Margarita Choulga, a student at the Russian State Hydrometeorological University, Saint-Petersburg, Russia, and a visitor at the museum, feels that such interesting kits provide a welcome relief from the serious nature of the discussion. She was also appreciative of the museum’s decision to have an entire section dedicated to the city’s cleaning operations. “Now I know how much the city cares about its role in providing waste water treatment.”
When Choulga turned the cylinder, the answer appeared — No, it’s not possible to reclaim a mobile phone at the treatment plant. Any solid waste that goes in the sewage drain is intercepted at the first stage of screening in the treatment plant. All solids are promptly sent to the incinerator.
Where’s the smell?
Locating a wastewater treatment plant in most places in the world is not too difficult — you can smell the noxious odours that the plant belches out even before you spot one. Not so in Helsinki. A decade and a half ago, the Helsinki municipalities came together, pooling resources to fund a modern, highly automated facility that would leverage economies of scale and have a minimum impact on the immediate environment.
The most radical part of the design of this plant was that it was completely built in underground caverns, created by cutting through Helsinki’s bedrock. Helsinki is well suited to rock construction because its bedrock is located near the ground surface. The plant, known as the Viikinmäki, has a state-of-the-art ventilation system that leaves no odours at the ground level. Locating the wastewater plant inside the bedrock provides stable operating conditions, for example, in terms of temperature. In winters, the temperatures in Helsinki can drop down to minus ten degrees, but the bedrock provides a moderating influence.
It is easier to imagine the harsh winter conditions in this second-most northern capital city in the world when you keep in mind that the mountain created from shovelling the snow during winter is so big that it doesn’t completely melt until the next summer.
Today, the Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority (HSY), a regional authority providing environmental services for residents and companies in the area, looks after the management of the Viikinmäki plant as well as all other waste management systems.
Putting waste to use
In a typical treatment plant, processing of the sludge generated in the waste water treatment process begins with digestion, after which the sludge is dried. Digestion produces biogas, which is useful, but how much of it is put to use depends on the architects of the process.
At the museum, the exhibits describe the strides the city has taken to fulfil its environmental obligations. In two of its treatment plants, Suomenoja and Viikinmäki, biogas is utilised to provide heat and generate electricity. Both plants are self-sufficient in terms of heat, and half their electricity comes from biogas. Using biogas as a source of energy does not increase the carbon dioxide load of the atmosphere, meaning that it is an environmentally friendly energy source.
The sludge generated at the Viikinmäki treatment plant is mixed with peat and composted in the compost fields. The process takes about six months to a year. The composted soil can be used for agricultural purposes as it is, but sand and potassium, which are scarce in the sludge, are added to the product before screening. Today, all the sludge produced by the Viikinmäki plant is successfully returned to the natural cycle.
The Viikinmäki plant was completed in 1994. In the successful operation of the treatment plants, Helsinki has set an example for others to emulate. The city is able to treat all of the 100 million cubic metres of wastewater generated every year. The treatment process removes approximately 90 per cent of the Nitrogen and 95 per cent of the Phosphorous that contaminate water systems.
According to one study, the wastewater treatment plants in Helsinki emit much less nitrogen than a natural river flowing through the city into the sea. The purification achieved surpasses the mandates set by the Finnish government and the ones set by the European Union.
The city’s experience with treatment plants carved in rock has been so encouraging that it has decided to apply the design principles to its new waste treatment plant-in-the-making. As the population of the metropolitan area continues to grow, the amount of wastewater that requires treatment is also steadily increasing. Scheduled to be operational by 2020, this new treatment plant to be built in the bedrock in Blominmäki, Espoo (a municipality bordering Helsinki) will meet the future treatment needs of residents.
The city designers have chosen to look far into the future before planning this new plant, which will process a large part of the wastewaters of the municipalities surrounding Helsinki. The capacity calculations for the new wastewater treatment plant and the objectives set are based on the estimated load in 2040.
Hard to believe, but this lovely beach stretch is situated just 3O minutes from the Helsinki city centre
The designers have planned housing on top of the rock into which the plant has been excavated. Going by their past experience, they have found that a treatment plant located inside the rock causes significantly less harm to housing and recreational use than an above-ground plant.
But it’s not as if everything is rosy. The museum’s exhibit acknowledged that greater challenges lay ahead. For instance, the Baltic sea is ailing, having suffered from years of abuse when a high load of pollutants was dumped into it. Currently, Finland and Sweden are spearheading a campaign to clean the sea.
The Technology Museum is in the city of Helsinki. FinnAir has direct flights from New Delhi to Helsinki but other carriers also provide connections from cities such as Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai via some other European city.All parts of Helsinki are well connected by trams and public buses. You can rent a cycle too!
Where to stay:
The hotels in Helsinki may seem pricey to an Indian budget traveller, but worth the comforts. Hotel Rantapuisto, about half an hour from Helsinki City centre is situated on a beach and has kayaking facilities close by. There are also options from Hostelling International (HI) starting at the reasonable price of around 20 euros per person (approx Rs 1,400). One HI hostel is located in the former Olympic stadium!
What to carry:
Dress according to the climate. In winters, temperatures are sub-zero most of the time and one must wear thermals as well as dress in layers.
Helsinki is green and warm during summers (June-August), though every season has its own beautiful colours. Even a week is not enough to soak in all the 80 plus museums and other attractions of Helsinki. Visiting a museum doesn’t mean dry and boring stuff. Try out fun museums such as the Finnish Toy Museum and the Theatre Museum where you have the opportunity to step onstage yourself and a museum full of old dolls and toy cars at Suomenlinna Island, just 20 minutes from Helsinki city centre.
In India, we have had a strange situation. Between 1985, when the Ganga Action Plan was started, and 2009, the Union Government spent Rs 916 crore to clean up the river. But the money seems to have been flushed down the drain, for it is dirtier today than it was in 1985. The problem, environmentalists say, is that polluters who let their effluents flow in the river have gone unpunished. As of April 2011, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs had approved a Rs 7,000 crore project to clean the Ganga. The Centre has also recently acquired financial assistance of US$1 billion (approx Rs 56 billion) from the World Bank, but unless there is careful planning, our wish of a clean river will remain a dream.