Water priorities for urban India

The Aam Aadmi Party’s proposal of 666 litres of free water a day raises the alarming prospect of further disadvantaging the already deprived sections of Delhi who get no piped water at all

January 01, 2014 01:09 am | Updated November 16, 2021 06:07 pm IST

The Twelfth Five Year Plan has proposed a paradigm shift in water management in India. One of our key proposals relates to urban water. In many ways, it could be said that the crisis of water and sanitation in urban India is even graver than in our rural areas.

The Twelfth Plan focusses on a strategy that is both affordable and sustainable. We believe that Indian cities and industries need to find ways to grow with minimal water and minimal waste. As important as the quantum of water is the problem of its management and equitable supply. In most cities, water supply is sourced from long distances and the length of the pipeline determines the costs, including costs of pumping. In the current water supply system, there are enormous losses in the distribution system because of leakages and bad management. And equally important are the huge challenges posed by the fact that water is divided very unequally within cities.

As per the National Sample Survey (NSS) 65th round, only 47 per cent of urban households have individual water connections. Currently, it is estimated that as much as 40 to 50 per cent of the water is “lost” in the distribution system. Electricity to pump water is anywhere between 30 to 50 per cent of what most cities spend on their water supply. As the distance increases, the cost of building and then maintaining the water pipeline and its distribution network also rises. And if the network is not maintained, then water losses increase. The end result is that the government finds it impossible to subsidise the supply of water to all and, therefore, does not deliver water as needed. The poor are typically the worst affected as they have to spend a great deal of time and money to obtain water since they do not have house connections.

Contamination and costs

Even as cities worry about water, they need to focus on the waste this water will generate. Sewage invariably goes into streams, ponds, lakes and rivers of a town, polluting waterworks, and health is compromised. Alternatively, it goes into the ground, contaminating the same water used by people for drinking. It is no surprise then that surveys of groundwater are finding higher and higher levels of microbiological contamination — a sign of sewage contamination. This compounds the deadly and costly spiral. As surface water or groundwater gets contaminated, a city has no option but to hunt for newer sources of its supply. Its search becomes more extensive and as the distance increases, the cost of pumping and supply increases.

Sewerage systems and urban India

The 2011 Census reveals that only 32.7 per cent of urban Indians are connected to a piped sewerage system and 12.6 per cent — roughly 50 million urban Indians — still defecate in the open. Large parts of our cities remain unconnected to the sewerage system as they live in unauthorised or illegal areas or slums, where the state services do not reach. In this situation, it is important we invest in sewerage systems, but it is even more critical that we invest in building affordable and scalable sewerage networks, which requires a fresh look at the current technology for sewage and its treatment. If sewerage systems are not comprehensively spread across a city to collect, convey and intercept waste of all its inhabitants, then pollution will not be under control. Currently, according to estimates of the Central Pollution Control Board, the country has an installed capacity to treat only about 30 per cent of the excreta it generates. Just two cities, Delhi and Mumbai, which generate around 17 per cent of the country’s sewage, have nearly 40 per cent of the country’s installed capacity. What is worse, some of these plants do not function because of high recurring costs (electricity and chemicals) and others because they do not have enough sewage to treat. In most cities, only a small (unestimated) proportion of sewage is transported for treatment. And if the treated sewage — transported in official drains — is allowed to be mixed with the untreated sewage — transported in unofficial and open drains — then the net result is pollution.

The added problem is that the location of the hardware — the sewage treatment plant — is not designed to dispose of the treated effluent so that it actually cleans the waterbody. Most cities don’t seem to think of this factor when they build their infrastructure for sewage. They build a sewage treatment plant where there is land. The treated sewage is then disposed of, as conveniently as possible, invariably into a drain.

Reuse and recycling

Nothing less than a paradigm shift is required in the Twelfth Plan if we are to move towards sustainable solutions to urban water and waste management. Investments in water supply must focus on demand management, reducing intra-city inequity and on the quality of water supplied. This will require cities to plan to cut distribution losses through bulk water meters and efficiency drives. User charges should plan to cover increasing proportions of operation and maintenance (O&M) costs, while building in equity by providing a “lifeline” amount of water free of charge, with higher tariffs for increasing levels of use.

Each city must consider, as the first source of supply, its local waterbodies. Therefore, cities must only get funds for water projects, when they have accounted for the water supply from local waterbodies and have protected these waterbodies and their catchments. This precondition will force protection and build the infrastructure, which will supply locally and then take back sewage also locally. It will cut the length of the pipeline twice over — once to supply and the other to take back the waste.

No water scheme will be sanctioned without a sewage component. Planning for “full coverage and costs” will lead cities to look for unconventional methods of treating waste. For instance, cities would then consider treatment of sewage in open drains and treatment using alternative biological methods of wastewater treatment. Biological methods of wastewater treatment introduce contact with bacteria, which feed on the organic materials in the wastewater, thereby reducing its Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) content. Through their metabolism, the organic material is transformed into cellular mass, which is no longer in solution but can be precipitated at the bottom of a settling tank or retained as slime on solid surfaces or vegetation in the system. The water exiting the system is much clearer than the one that entered it. The principle has to be to cut the cost of building the sewerage system, cut the length of the sewerage network and then to treat the waste as a resource — turn sewage into water for irrigation or use in industry. Indian cities have the opportunity to leapfrog into new ways of dealing with excreta, which are affordable and sustainable, simply because they have not yet built the infrastructure.

Cities must plan for reuse and recycling of waste at the very beginning of their water and waste plans and not as an afterthought. It is also clear that cities must think through the plan for reuse for affordability and sustainability. The diverse options for reuse must be factored in for: use in agriculture, recharge of waterbodies, gardening, and industrial and domestic uses. In each case, the treatment plan will be different. But in all cases, the treated effluent will improve the hydrological cycle. It will return water and not waste to the environment. While a larger sewage treatment plant affords economies of scale in operation, a plant fitted to size — collecting the waste of a group of houses, an institution or even colonies — may have higher costs of operations, but there are substantial savings in the piping and pumping cost.

Free water agenda

Since groundwater is the single most important source of water in India today, the Twelfth Plan has launched an ambitious aquifer mapping and management programme. The aquifers in each city need to be mapped and participatory, while sustainable and equitable arrangements for groundwater management need to be worked out in a very location-specific manner.

In the light of this massive reform proposed in the Twelfth Plan, it is somewhat disappointing to see the zeal being shown by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to rush into the 666 litres free water agenda. Indeed, this raises the alarming prospect of further disadvantaging the already deprived sections of Delhi who get no piped water at all. The AAP manifesto itself has a much more nuanced understanding of water issues in Delhi. The manifesto clearly acknowledges that over 30 per cent of Delhi’s residents do not get tap water in their homes. It also recognises that 17 lakh households do not have access to safe sanitation. The loss of revenue from freebies to those already getting water could end up pushing the unconnected even further down the deprivation ladder. It is to be hoped that the AAP will reconsider its water priorities, taking both the Twelfth Plan and its own manifesto more seriously.

(Mihir Shah is Member, Planning Commission, Government of India.)

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