A concrete area with water flowing through it

Before: Wastewater flowed untreated through this neighborhood, increasing the risk of waterborne and airborne diseases. / Center for Urban and Regional Excellence

Most people are familiar with the breathtaking view of the Taj Mahal with its waterways, walking paths and topiary. Of course, this is the perspective from the south, but personally I find that the view from the north is just as moving. From there, you can see the mighty Yamuna river. The poet Rabindranath Tagore once wrote: “The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.”

But the Yamuna is not the same river it was when Tagore wrote those words or when Shah Jahan commissioned the Taj Mahal. Nowadays, the Yamuna is one of the most polluted waterways in India, putting communities at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio.

I’ve worked as a health and development professional for 22 years and arrived in India a little more than a year ago to be the Mission Director for USAID. If there is one thing my career has taught me, it is to never lose hope that every problem has a solution. That is exactly what people in a slum community in Agra achieved with the help of the local municipal body.

In 2009, this slum community near the Taj Mahal did not have access to sanitation facilities, disposal systems or waste collection. Therefore, 85 percent of residents resorted to open defecation. For the most part, the waste flowed directly into the river, from which residents—and many others—draw their water for drinking and irrigation. Needless to say, this caused high rates of sickness and even death.

The Agra Municipal Corporation — the local governing body for the city — collaborated with a USAID-supported NGO called the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence to reduce the risks of disease. The solution was to construct a wastewater treatment plant that would make the waters flowing by the mausoleum cleaner — and the more than 2,000 people living in this settlement healthier.

The wastewater treatment plant, designed by sanitation experts, was completed in 2011 and does not use polluting chemicals. Instead, it uses natural methods that required a relatively low primary investment, low power consumption and low maintenance demands, making it cost effective to build and operate.

From nearby houses, the treatment plant resembles a picturesque wetland tucked into their neighborhood.

Additionally, the treatment system is designed to channel treated water back into the community’s systems, allowing it to be reused by farmers and for toilets. The result is less water wasted and less wastewater polluting the Yamuna and the local environment.

An area of concrete with a metal grate, with water flowing on either side

After: This wastewater treatment system cleans water and channels it back into the community to be reused by farmers and for toilets. / Center for Urban and Regional Excellence

After construction was complete, USAID trained engineers and community members on the plant’s operation and maintenance. In 2017, the Agra Municipal Corporation took over all operations and committed to ensuring the plant improves residents’ lives for years to come.

One development project isn’t going to make the Yamuna river perfectly clean, but life has improved for these Agra residents living in the shade of the Taj Mahal. The community is no longer one of the many communities whose daily defecation pollutes the surrounding environment, threatening their health and the health of their neighbors. It’s also proof that a wastewater treatment system and its maintenance can be affordable.

What the Agra Municipal Corporation and our NGO partner managed to do with USAID support is impressive. Now, other municipal corporations are following Agra’s model — such as East Delhi and Rourkela. I encourage others to also follow their example.

The Government of India is working to make the entire country clean by 2019 through its Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission. At USAID, we are committed to helping in any way we can. Every step taken towards providing people with clean water and access to sanitation facilities is a step in the right direction.



A brick building with a small canal flowing past it, with plants growing alongside the canal

From nearby houses, the treatment plant resembles a picturesque wetland tucked into their neighborhood. / Center for Urban and Regional Excellence



Mark Anthony White is the Mission Director for USAID in India. Follow @usaid_india