Things in disarray, concerns alarming in Leh

Tashi Morup. Dated: 6/24/2019 11:32:10 AM

Multi-crore project is futuristic yet challenging: Spalbar

LEH, Jun 23: Gravity of water issues in Leh is being raised at various levels. It is difficult to determine a holistic picture in the absence of studies with a multi-disciplinary approach. As of now, things are in disarray and concerns related to water are real and alarming.
Ministry of Finance, Government of India under Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small & Medium Towns (UIDSSMT) and Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) sanctioned Rs. 217.35 Cr for the Leh Beautification Project as a part of State Annual Plan 2013-14. Under this, sub projects dealing with water supply and sewerage system together accounted worth Rs 129.87 Cr. Rest of the amount is for waste management and road improvement.
In the process, Leh Bazaar was pedestrianized on the pattern of Gangtok market, Sikkim designed by Rajesh Pradhan, Joint Chief Town Planner, Urban Development & Housing Department Gangtok, who was deputed by Sikkim government to do similar design for Leh also on request of LAHDC Leh led by Chairman Rigzin Spalbar.
LAHDC Leh chairman Rigzin Spalbar called it “a dream project to make Leh a futuristic town,” but he has also admitted the challenges in carrying out such a mega task and considering the winter temperature that dips below 20 degree Celsius and other geographical constraints of the region.
Even as this multi-crore drinking water supply and sewerage project in Leh is underway, it is coloured by both real and imagined problems. The augmentation and re-organisation of the Drinking Water Project means improving or adding more to the existing Indus-lift scheme and supplying water through newly introduced Ductile Iron (insulated) pipes to every household and/or commercial building. It also means a tax on water will be strictly implemented.
The intertwining network of sewerage pipes also lies buried deep almost everywhere in the town to carry the toilet waste. Problems like clogging, leakage and spill-over are already surfacing. The Sewerage Treatment Plant (STP) at Agling is still in a limbo. Sustainability is another core issue in view of shortage of water and fluctuating temperatures between summer and winter.
STP is not ready yet and sewer pipes are in use for almost two years now. This is causing a major problem of sewer spills and foul smell. Latest being in the main bazaar itself. The sewer pit in front of Samsung showroom in the main bazaar has brimmed and is spilling over with bad smell around. Lundup, who runs an outlet nearby, said, “It’s been a week since this is leaking, and tourist cover their noses when they pass by.”
Similarly, in the old town in a lane near Delight cinema hall residents suffered severe overspills of sewerage, especially, at the end of winter when melting of frozen drains started. They gave a written complaint also to the LAHDC administration. “To our shock and dismay even toilet waste flowed out in open,” one of the residents said. A manhole just below a stupa gate continuously spilled, she added and said that this matter was brought to the notice of LBA also by those living in Stago philog area.
It was nice the old way in old town with dry toilets in place, an elderly resident Mariam Didi said. Improvising and making them functional would have been a wise step in this heritage town, and moreover narrow labyrinths of alleyways crisscrossing here makes it very difficult to lay underground drain pipes compared to open areas, she said.
There are few fundamental issues concerning this mega project. It comes a full circle. There are two pipes being laid. One is to supply drinking water and the other to carry sewer discharge. A major water source for drinking water is the Indus riverbank. This water will be supplied through ductile pipes to every household. The sewerage pipes will eventually bring back contaminated effluent water into the STP, which is close to the Indus. In case of any leakage into the river will defeat the purpose of having clean drinking water. It can also have severe impact on the Indus ecology.
Agling land allotted for STP envisages the treatment of approximately sewerage of three million litres per day. This, according to Tashi Dorje Assistant Executive Engineer (AEE), Sewerage wing of PHE department, “is relatively low as compared to other major cities of the country.” He believes that the treated water will not be contaminated. However, he admits, “A major challenge that can be foreseen is that of the climate. The extremely cold winter months may call for certain additional means to effectively operate the STP. A greenhouse cover over the STP may be a possible solution to avoid freezing of STP machineries.”
Of even greater concern is the potential threat of damages that may occur in the pipes (ductile and hume) running parallel to each other with a maximum 2.5 feet gap. Complaints about laying of pipes in haphazard manner by unskilled labourers are common across areas. The two pipes run parallel with a gap of 2.5 feet maximum. Any damage or leakage can potentially cause havoc. “If the sewer flow mixes with drinking water, it can cause an epidemic,” shares a resident of Leh.
Tashi however refutes this and asserts, “No pipe has been laid without my supervision and to prevent leakages I got every valve-joint cemented. The scepticism is unfounded.” He adds, “The sewer sludge will also help in blocking the edges.”
A sewer overspill in the main bazaar in June last year turned the public berserk. One of the major challenges in execution was that people began to use the sewer pipelines even before they were complete and ready for use. Lack of proper instructions and awareness among the masses disturbed the entire process of laying these pipes. The Wazwaan restaurant in the main market was penalized for having caused the clogging. MC official Tundup said, they found big lumps of flour, vegetable waste and even spoons while clearing the sewer chamber.
In absence of STP, the sewer generated in few areas had to be led somewhere. A makeshift septic tank was constructed towards the end of Old Road as a temporary arrangement. This filled up immediately. They had to resort to diverting the sewer flow into a stream nearby. The residents along this stream have been complaining of a foul smell and polluted water ever since. Such hit and trial methods being adopted until the STP is constructed and becomes operational are alarming.
It is hard to believe that the sewerage wing of PHE, manned by one Assistant Executive Engineer (AEE), three Junior Engineers (JE) and four hired supervisors are executing and performing such a mammoth task. Tashi says, “His team had to spend sleepless nights in laying the pipes. We had to deal with public outcries and misuse despite meagre manpower.” One JE said, “I paid from my own pocket to clear the blockage of a manhole in Old Town.” She further adds, “We found plastic containers, diapers thrown into the manhole although the sewer is only meant for toilet drains, not even kitchen waste.”
With a resounding confidence, Tashi expresses hope of success for the project, yet, he admits, “that such a project is not suitable for a place like Leh, which still bears rural characteristics. The nature of topography in Leh has positive gradient, which will support the flow of sewerage due to added advantage of gravity.” But he complains that, “our job is to execute, however, we often find ourselves dealing with the public complaints and misuse which ideally should have been delegated to a separate department like the Notified Area Committee (NAC).” He presumes that eventually NAC is going to take over the sewerage wing. Currently the sewerage is wholly looked after by a small team, which is carved out of PHE on a temporary basis. On the other hand, NAC was adamant on their stand of taking over the responsibility only after the project completion, according to official sources.
For the maintenance of these sewerage pipelines in future, it is imperative that NAC is manned by highly skilled and professional team of engineers and technicians along the several kilometres long sewer lines with about 2,500 manholes spread over entire Leh valley. This will also require high maintenance costs. As of now, the small team has already dealt with too many loopholes. There have been multiple instances where they had to use their own indigenous skills and improvise on many occasions. The distance between two manholes is 30 metres, which is problematic in case of clogging. Tashi got labourers to squeeze in blockage from both sides to the centre where he carved out another manhole in three cases so far. This is reflective of a design fault in the project. It is quite a risk also to send a man into the manhole. This violates national and international human right laws. So these operational hiccups are here to stay and may exacerbate in the future. Thus ensuring its effective functioning is a major impending challenge.
The major reason for this lopsided execution, where pipes were laid even before the STP p. was constructed was because the STP project was held up by a court case. Eventually the state High Court ruled in favour of the project and now it is awaited. Meanwhile the sewer water levels are rising in the temporary tanks, naturally, because you cannot stop the gravity!
(Courtesy: BORDA – LEDeG)



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