Although the problems in wastewater management area have been known for years, and one billion euros have been invested in its improvement over the years in the country, the audit performed by the State Audit Office has concluded that there are still unresolved issues in wastewater collector, disposal, and treatment and much to do.
It seems that the issue of decentralised sewerage systems or the part of household wastewater that does not drain into district sewerage networks but is stored in collector tanks and septic tanks of private houses has become topical as if unexpectedly almost out of the blue. This effluent also needs to be collected and discharged to treatment systems regularly, but the audit findings show that this is not the case and that this problem is not addressed for a long time.
There is no idea where up to 74% of the decentralised wastewater disappear
Although local and regional governments have implemented large-scale projects for the construction of district sewerage systems, households do not hurry to connect to the built district sewage networks and continue using their decentralised sewerage systems. In the local and regional governments inspected, the construction and expansion of district sewerage networks did not succeed in achieving even half of the planned connections. In some settlements, not a single household has connected to the new sewerage systems.
To date, wastewater generated by those households has rarely entered treatment plants. Neither local and regional governments as the organisers of wastewater management nor the Ministry of Environment and Regional Development (MEPRD) as the implementer of environmental policy have information on where up to 74% of decentralised sewerage system wastewater disappear. In 10 local and regional governments included in the audit, two-thirds of households currently use one of the decentralised sewerage systems. Only 26% of wastewater from those households drain to and are treated in municipal wastewater treatment plants.
“The results of this audit show another completely unidentified area in the country, which not only raises a number of questions for the population but also raises unpleasant hypotheses about the extent of environmental pollution, as a significant part of wastewater is not properly collected and treated. I would hate to refer the rephrased saying “After us, the flood of wastewater” to the situation, but it seems at the moment that none of the designated parties has really addressed the long-known problems. To improve the situation, state institutions, local and regional governments, and nature protection representatives should be actively involved,” admitted Auditor General Elita Krūmiņa.
Regular collector and treatment of wastewater from decentralised sewerage systems are not performed; refurbished equipment may prove to be incapable
Although the requirement specified in laws and regulations to collect and treat wastewater from private house collector tanks and septic tanks exists for a long time, it turns out that up to 64% of households deliver wastewater for treatment less than once a year or do not deliver at all. As a result, this wastewater leaks into the environment untreated by posing a risk of harming the environment and human health. If the requirement for regular discharge of sewage from decentralised sewerage systems would be complied with, there should be no problems with the release of untreated wastewater into the environment. The State Audit Office finds that neither the local and regional governments, which are each responsible for the collector and treatment of sewage in their territory, nor the MEPRD have done enough to ensure that the adopted laws and regulations would be not only an exemplary commitment but would be put into practice as well.
In many local and regional governments, new wastewater treatment plants have been built, or old ones have been updated by investing significant EU funds and the state and municipal funds. However, one has done so without taking into account the amount of wastewater not collected so far from private house collector tanks and septic tanks, so that the capacity of many wastewater treatment plants may be insufficient for larger amounts of wastewater. While modelling a situation when all households with decentralised sewerage systems would deliver their wastewater for treatment, the State Audit Office has concluded that only four of the 10 local and regional governments audited have capacity reserves for wastewater treatment.
Storm-water, sewerage sludge, and other challenges in the nearest future
The Soviet legacy of collecting and draining storm water damages the sewerage systems badly. In many settlements, the storm water drainage system does not exist at all, or the storm water is discharged directly into the sewerage system together with municipal wastewater. It overloads the treatment plants and weakens the sludge activity required for treatment resulting in the treatment plants overflowing, which also causes technological damage over time and incompletely treated wastewater entering the environment. Although the situation is well known for a long time and resolving it may require large financial investments, none of the local and regional governments included in the audit had a plan to improve it. In the opinion of the State Audit Office, continuing the “ostrich policy” and not solving this issue for longer is not permissible. One will improve the situation only by identifying the extent of the problem, determining successive steps to solve it, and state and municipal institutions seeking opportunities to attract funding jointly.
After wastewater treatment, sludge is formed when bacteria affect untreated wastewater. At present, sewerage sludge is simply collected and stored because nobody has found a solution for its future use. Sewerage sludge can be used as fertiliser in agriculture or forestry by appropriate composting. Still, the amount of sludge generated in each local and regional government is too small to be economically viable for sludge processing. Hence, the State Audit Office considers that a solution to this issue must be found at the national level, and a corresponding recommendation has been issued to the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development.
Administrative-territorial reform can help to improve the fragmented wastewater management system
The fragmented structure of wastewater service providers also poses additional challenges for efficient wastewater collection and treatment. In a situation where even nine different service providers, that is state-owned or municipal enterprises and rural district administrations, there are limited opportunities to improve the quality of services provided to the population and reduce their costs. Besides, quite objectively, there are not so many water management professionals in Latvia that local and regional governments could afford to maintain many service providers. While in cities, where a specialised state-owned enterprise provides such services mainly, wastewater management is organised in relatively high quality, then in rural areas, where rural district administrations deliver the services. Unfortunately, there are many more shortcomings, both in terms of service quality and service fees determined for the population.
A single approach to wastewater collection, discharge, and treatment throughout the administrative territory would allow improving the quality of services also in rural districts and villages with a small population, where the costs are much higher to the community. The State Audit Office hopes that the administrative-territorial reform will also serve as a good starting point for the improvement of water management in local and regional governments by enabling the combination of competencies and resources and finding solutions in wastewater collection, discharge, and treatment that will reduce environmental pollution caused by wastewater not only from district sewerage system but also from decentralised ones.