Affordability of Sustainable Supply of Potable Water in Urban India

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India inhabits 17% of the global population and 15% of the livestock. Broad estimates show that about 80% of India’s surface water is polluted, thereby resulting in losses over $6 billion, annually, to waterborne diseases.1 According to a recent UN report, India is projected to add 300 million new urban residents by 2050.2 In this article, Dr Arvind Kumar discusses the various facets of the formidable water crisis.

The Looming Water Crisis

Water is a finite resource which is already becoming scarce in the wake of burgeoning population, urbanization, and industrialization coupled with the rapid depletion of groundwater, melting and shrinking of Himalayan glaciers, and the pollution of surface water resources. According to broad estimates, the annual availability of freshwater in India from rainfall, snowfall, and glacier melting in terms of volume works amounts to 4,000 billion cubic metres (bcm).

A sizeable part of this is lost through evaporation and evapo-transpiration and runoff, thereby reducing the availability of freshwater to about 1,953 bcm and usable water to 1,123 bcm. Lamentably, only less than 20% of the rainwater is used effectively and a substantial part enters the oceans via rivers. Of the 1,123 bcm usable water, 728 bcm is derived from surface water and the remaining is contributed by groundwater.31 Currently, agriculture is the biggest consumer of water followed by industry and domestic use.

There has been a phenomenal growth in water demand followed by a corresponding decline in the availability of per capita water over the years. In 2006, water consumption stood at 829 bcm which is likely to increase to 1,093 bcm in 2025. The availability of per capita water, which stood at 5,177 million cubic metres (mcm) in 1951, witnessed a drastic reduction in 2001 when it stood at 1,820 mcm per year, and by 2025, the per capita water availability is likely to be further reduced to 1,341 mcm and to 1,140 mcm by 2050.42 Dr Hegde opines that in a scenario where water is needed extensively for multiple purposes, the situation is regarded as a waterstress condition, that is, when the per capita water availability ranges from 1,000 to 1,700 mcm per year, and in the eventuality of reduction in the availability, that is 1,000 mcm or below, is considered as water scarcity. In India, water availability is contingent on wide variations in rainfall, groundwater reserves, and the proximity to river basins. This carries the potential threat of rendering most states hard pressed for water or reaching the critical water-stress condition by 2020–25. Water scarcity coupled with the uncertainties of climate change will vastly affect water security along with food security and energy security and impact the industrial and economic growth, especially in the urban areas in a considerable way.

Issues in Urban Water Supply

 In recent years, there has been substantial improvement in making water accessible to the people in the urban areas. The access to improved water sources, which stood at 72% in 1990, increased to 88% in 2008 and, as of 2015, the access to clean potable water became almost universal.4

Despite the improved accessibility to water sources, water supply in urban India is confronted with challenges, such as inadequate infrastructure, pollution of surface and groundwater resources, inadequate mechanism of recycling wastewater for reuse, lack of convergence and synergy between different departments/ ministries dealing with water, and a lack of investment. The growth of water infrastructure in India has fallen out of step with the rapid expansion of urbanization. Poor maintenance, leaky distribution networks, and theft culminate in large amounts of ‘unaccounted water’.

 In one of its 2013 audit reports, the Indian Comptroller and Auditor General of India pointed out that New Delhi was losing 60% of its water supply owing to these reasons. Concurrently, local government institutions in charge of administering and maintaining the infrastructure is falling short of fiscal resources to carry out their functions.

Figure 1: A major part of India (54%) faces high to extremely high water stress

According to one opinion, low prices are often cited as contributing to this problem, as they make it difficult for local government bodies to fund repairs and expand water infrastructure.5

 The lack of synergy between various ministries/departments at the centre and state levels dealing with the water sector is also cited as an important factor impeding urban water supply. Undoubtedly, the water policy model framed by the centre is expected to serve as the cornerstone for state governments to develop their respective state-level water policies, but such policy frameworks often fall short of the kind of synergy needed, thereby resulting in duplication of work, squandering away of fiscal resources, and emphasis on wrong priorities. Pollution of surface and groundwater resources, especially due to the discharge of untreated sewage is another issue facing the urban water supply.

According to a 2007 report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), there exists a big gap between the generation and treatment of domestic wastewater in the country and the problem is not merely confined to a lack of sufficient treatment capacity, but also that the existing treatment plants either seldom operate or are poorly maintained.6It is further pointed out in the report that the bulk of government-owned treatment plants remain closed most of the time owing to improper design or poor maintenance or lack of reliable power supply or poor management. In such an eventuality, the wastewater thus gets accumulated in the urban areas, thereby causing unhygienic conditions and releasing pollutants that leach into surface and groundwater.

 Towards Sustainability

Sustainable supply of potable water in urban areas calls for conservation and judicious use of water, recycling wastewater for reuse, rainwater harvesting, and enhancing intersectoral synergy.

In order to augment the sustainable supply of water in urban areas, it is essential to build the capacity of all stakeholders by sensitizing them to the importance of water conservation, thereby encouraging them to make discerning use of water resources and keep these resources free from pollution.

This programme—of capacity building of the stakeholders—can be better facilitated with increased involvement of civil society organizations. Water is a finite source and an increasing demand for water in different sectors has to be met through available resources. Recycling wastewater for reuse in agriculture and industry—two major consumers of water—can help reduce dependence on freshwater resources.

‘As of 2003, it estimated that only 27% of India’s wastewater was being treated, with the remainder flowing into rivers, canals, groundwater, or the sea’.7 The existing scenario of water pollution calls for urgent steps in bridging the gap between sewage generated in the country and its treatment capacity of sewage per day. New technologies in sewage treatment should be deployed.

 According to one estimate, major cities of India generate 38,354 million litres per day (MLD) of sewage, but the urban sewage treatment capacity is only 11,786 MLD,8and a bulk of this untreated sewage is discharged in numerous rivers, thereby severely polluting river water. Undoubtedly, the CPCB has established a National Water Quality Monitoring Network to monitor water quality round the year and take adequate steps to maintain the water quality;

however, there remains a need for investing more fiscal resources to upgrade and maintain the existing wastewater treatment plants and encourage reuse of recycled water, especially in agriculture and industrial sectors. There is also need for framing industrial water policy on which the India Water Foundation (IWF) has been emphasizing since 2011. Parallel attention needs to be focussed on envisaging intersectoral convergence to avoid duplication of work, bring interdepartmental coordination and cooperation in water-related issues, and save wastage of fiscal and human resources by synergizing efforts in tackling water-related issues in a sustainable manner.

The IWF has been espousing since 2009 for establishing a National Water Nodal Agency to streamline water-related issues under a single window and such a step could lead to better interstate, centre state, and intersectoral synergy in water and other related sectors.

The Way Forward

 In order to ensure affordability and sustainability of water supply in the country, some innovative approaches have been tested in India in recent years and these, inter alia, include: demand-driven approaches in rural water supply, and a public–private partnership to improve the continuity of urban water supply in Karnataka. Microcredits is another approach which is typically used to finance household water, sewage connections, bathrooms, toilets, pit latrines, rainwater harvesting tanks, or water purifiers.

9 It becomes discernible from a World Bank study carried out in 10 Indian states that Swajaldhara results in lower capital costs, lower administrative costs, and better service quality compared to the supply-driven approach. It is also revealed from this study that the average full cost of supply driven schemes is `38 per cubic metre, while it is only `26 per cubic metre for demand-driven schemes.

10The costs incurred in this approach, inter alia, include: capital, operation and maintenance costs, administrative costs, and coping costs incurred by users of malfunctioning systems. Undoubtedly, a World Bank study amply demonstrates that demand-driven approach to water supply is more affordable as compared to a supply-driven approach because the latter is fraught with many hassles; nevertheless, as of 2008, only about 10% of rural water schemes built in India used a demand driven approach. ‘

Since water users have to pay lower or no tariffs under the supply-driven approach, this discourages them to opt for a demand-driven approach, even if the likelihood of the systems operating on a sustainable basis is higher under a demand-driven approach.’

 In order to enhance the affordability of water supply in urban areas, water and sewer tariffs have been kept low and are subsidized by the government; however, a majority of the beneficiaries of these subsidies are often not the poor.

The World Bank has lamented that access to reliable, sustainable, and affordable water supply and sanitation (WSS) service is lagging behind in India. Asserting that no Indian city receives piped water 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the World Bank notes that water supply services are not environmentally sustainable as a result of which most households are forced to cope with poor water quality and supply.

Referring to urban India being at the bottom of most international measures of performance, the World Bank observes that poor managerial and financial autonomy, limited accountability, weak cost recovery, perverse incentives, and limited capacity have led to poor services to customers across the country11 and this needs serious attention.

source- GRIHA Shashwat Magazine