Thirsty Cities Need Smart Solutions Like Water Reclamation

Published: 27th March 2016 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th March 2016 07:54 AM   |  A+A-

Thirsty Cities Need

This week, across cities, conscientious Indians did not use water to celebrate Holi. The unprecedented water crisis compelled the shift in social practices. Essentially, necessity acquired the cloak of virtue.

The magnitude of the crisis of thirst is illustrated by headlines from across the country. In Hyderabad, residents took away a 5,000-litre water tanker of the HMWSSB. Authorities in Latur imposed Section 144 to avoid water riots. Kochi plans to introduce permit raj to ensure water quality supplied by tankers. Navi Mumbai residents are agitated about tanker operators siphoning from pipelines for sale to housing societies. In Gurgaon, authorities warned use of water for car wash or gardens could result in FIRs. Aggrieved women in Dhenkanal, Odisha, forced engineers out of office to check tube wells. Residents of Hinjewadi and Baner—IT hubs of Smart City Pune—are hostage to the tanker mafia.

These vignettes are micro-indicators of a silent crisis.  The saga of Akali-BJP ruled Punjab denying water to BJP-ruled Haryana, the inter-state river-water disputes, and the pendency of inter-linking rivers are other elements that complete the picture of unattended chaos. Fact is, most metros cannot boast of assured—leave alone 24-hour—water supply. Levels in reservoirs which supply cities are at their lowest in a decade. Already, state governments have warned of aggravation. And summer is yet to arrive.

It would be tempting to blame the failed monsoon for the water crisis. That, however, would not explain the annual January announcements of water cuts and year-long stories of scarcity. The big picture about urban India is well illustrated. As early as in 2002 (Thirsty India, it was known that over 100 million people in 12 major cities thirst for water and residents of 35 cities were vulnerable. In 2015, five Indian metros—Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad —are listed on the world’s 20 most water-stressed cities. 

The crisis is about widening deficit—of quantity and quality. Most cities are located away from substantive sources of water and lack access to quantity. Ground water suffers from quality issues—pollutants include fluoride, nitrate lead, chromium and cadmium. There is much lament about the Ganges. Truth is, about 38,000 million litres of untreated sewage from over 800 towns and cities pollute rivers and ground water.

The Smart Cities programme does highlight the issue of water. Indeed, half a dozen of the 20 cities selected as smart cities have listed water management on their agenda. Pune has listed ICT solutions for water, Kochi lists water management and 24 hour access as priorities, Sholapur is looking at water tax and conservation, and Guwahati envisages transformation of water bodies.

The harsh reality: so far so good, so far too little. The fear is that the rate of progress will hover between political incrementalism and bureaucratic gradualism. Yes, India needs to promote rainwater harvesting, create storage for surface water, promote conservation, metering to charge users to fund facilitation, and regulate ground water use to end the free water from free power regime. Those are a given. The magnitude of the crisis demands a paradigm change in the manner in which water is managed.

The toolkit for water management in the 21st century needs a diverse approach. India has to look at the international experience and induct success stories that work for it. The ideas range from reclamation of water to desalination. There is a marquee of success stories. Water reclamation is not new. 1975 saw the creation of Water Factory 21 in California followed by the Upper Occoquan Sewage Authority project in 1978 and iconic projects like the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant in Chicago. The idea has prevailed in England, Australia, Spain, China and Egypt.

The most instructive success comes from Israel and Singapore. Israel leads in water recycling—an estimated 80 per cent of sewage is treated and reused for agriculture and public works. Singapore is another path-breaker. As early as in 1978, the Lee Kuan Yew administration experimented with water reclamation and propelled it by the Nineties when technology was robust. Used water is treated and purified using advanced technologies. NEWater currently meets 30 per cent of demand and will meet 55 per cent by 2060.

The ideas have been studied. In 2011, seven IITs produced a review of waste water reuse projects across the globe. The need is to pick up the threads to deliver India from water stress and to secure water security for India. Sure, the initiative will need funds. And herein is the opportunity to combine the Kelkar Committee’s PPP template and the biz model of the share economy. And there may be other hybrid pay-per-use models that could be leveraged. Existing initiatives—like MGNREGS, Swachh Bharat and Smart City, for instance—can be integrated to create capacity and availability.

India is at the doorstep of a colossal crisis. The coincidence of rising population and climate change demands focus on new water. Remember, in 2022, India would overtake China as the largest populated country in the world, and by the government’s own estimates, by 2050 nearly 850 million Indians would live in cities. The country is urbanising rapidly—already 3,894 census towns now under panchayats await baptism. 

The narrative of stress and distress can be altered by changing the focus of inquiry—from what is being done to what could be, but is not being, done. The crisis is an opportunity to disinvest incrementalism and invest in scalable smart solutions.

Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change

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