The true cost of water is captured when we return it back to nature at the same quality at which it was taken, feels water activist S. Vishwanath
Much of the problems we face with such issues as shortage of water or pollution of our land and rivers can be addressed by calculating the ecological cost of water and ensuring that the consumer pays for it. Of course it is necessary that the legal and institutional framework of governance should then ensure that adequate, efficient investment is made of these costs recovered. Bad pricing and lack of trust in our institutions has distorted the system terribly towards unsustainability.
Let us look at the example of Bangalore city. The forests of Wynad and Kodagu provide us with the condensation of the clouds and the release of rain into the Kabini and Cauvery which flows to our homes when we open the tap.
The consumers of water in Bangalore therefore owe it to themselves that the catchment areas of the rivers are protected so that we have water on tap. New York City offers one of the best examples of catchment protection for sustainable water availability to a city.
The city has invested and bought large chunks of the Catskill Mountains, the catchment area for water to the city. Residents can use the forests as a picnic spot but the area is protected from littering, garbage dumping and groundwater extraction, thus ensuring that the water source flows pristine and unpolluted to be made available for use in the city.
Contrast this with the management of Arkavathy river, the original source of water for Bangalore. Rampant use of groundwater, change in land use, dumping of city wastes in the catchment, sand and stone mining and the removal of forests have made the river go dry. The city would do well to systematically invest in the catchment to change the destructive practices if it hopes to obtain water from the river.
Dealing with waste-water
Windhoek in Namibia is an example of how a city can deal with its waste-water. Ecological costs mean that the city has to ensure that the waste-water is treated appropriately so that no trace of pollution remains.
Windhoek does exactly that and ensures that treated waste-water through the catchment comes back to the city as potable water. On the other hand, we release domestic and industrial effluents into our rivers such as the Vrishabhavati and the Dakshina Pinakini, rendering them unfit for use for most purposes.
It is another matter that the waste-water is used smartly by farmers for cultivation, thanks to the lack of choice that they have as regards other waters and also thanks to the nutrients available in the waste-water. A smart city would ensure that the waste-water is treated up to standards and reused for non-potable purpose. It would also ensure that the nutrient flow is captured and utilised to improve the fertility of land instead of polluting waters.
A rough calculation would indicate that if the citizens of Bangalore were to pay Rs. 46 per kilo-litre of water, it would cover the economic cost of water and waste-water treatment. Rs 50 per kilo-litre would mean that Rs. 219 crore would be available to the city annually to invest in managing catchments, managing pollution and managing lakes and tanks to ensure adequate recharge and availability. If water is bought from tankers in many places it already costs us that much.
Understanding the true cost
The question is: are our institutions ready to bite the bullet and charge us the true cost of water? Are they then willing to make the smart investment to improve our water ecological systems? Are they ready to be transparent about their expenditure so as to be accountable to the citizens?
Finally, are our citizens ready to understand the true cost of water, be willing to shoulder the responsibility to pay for it and then demand accountability for performance from our institutions? For this is the path to water wisdom.