World Water Day: A crisis India can't ignore anymore

The world has experienced an unprecedented urban population growth with more than half of the population (54 per cent in 2014 living in urban areas. India is no exception to this trend with around 32 per cent (about 410 million) urban population as compared to less than 11 per cent (25.8 million) in 1901. Population is projected to increase to 814 million (50 per cent) by 2050 for the reason that cities are the centres of economic activities and attract millions of job-seekers, a trend likely to accelerate with urban contribution to GDP projected to rise to 75 per cent by 2021.

However, urban areas place enormous demand on resources particularly stress on water resources both in terms of increased demand for water and greater generation of urban wastewater and untreated industrial waste with almost 90 per cent of wastewater being discharged into rivers and lakes.

The growth trajectory of India will be adversely impacted unless comprehensive measures are undertaken in efficiently managing water resources. Five Indian cities namely Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad rank among the 20 most water-stressed cities of the world. The recent news of killing of fishes in Ulsoor lake, froth at Bellandur lake catching fire and the spilling of foam on roads of Varthur lake in Bangalore signal the rising threat on the fresh water ecosystems of urban areas.

The water resource risks are further intensified as the rising urban structural densification (even encroaching tanks and lakes) have reduced the infiltration rate thus aggravating the pressure on the depleting groundwater resources. The current urban planning and water resource management have proved inadequate in most urban centres. Water, having a major role in social and economic development, the high stress on availability and quality of water has direct negative implications on individual productivity that may further get exacerbated by the negative health, education and economic impacts affecting the overall quality of lives.

Water-related challenges in urban areas are worst encountered by urban poor and slum dwellers living with inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation. These growing informal settlements house nearly 40 per cent of the urban residents who provide the informal labour to the city economy and contribute to over seven per cent of cities' GDP.

They bear the brunt of severe water shortage during the dry summers (relying on informal markets paying high price for water) and the water logging/ flooding during rains. Water stress induced rising price of water will have a direct implication on industrial production and business operations, and rise in cost of living in urban centres. For example, the depth of groundwater has already exceeded 1,000ft in some parts of Bangalore thus increasing the cost of extraction of water for use which is already pinching many small- and large-scale industries.

The urban poor will also be forced to spend a significant proportion of their productive time (women bearing burden disproportionately) and income in accessing water for domestic use. Capital costs for provisioning improved water infrastructure for ameliorating impacts of urbanisation on water resources would also increase and in cities already drawing water from a distance, especially Chennai (from 200km) and Bangalore (drawing water from Cauvery that is 95km away). The problem faced by the urban water supply sector is not just of inadequate resources, but more importantly that of inadequate asset management and inefficient utilisation of water available in the systems.

The ministry of urban development of government of India initiated service-level benchmarks for water supply in 2008 which encompasses universal coverage, 135l per capita supply, 24x7 supply, 100 per cent metering, reduction of non-revenue water to 20 per cent, 100 per cent cost recovery, 90 per cent collection efficiency, 100 per cent quality of supply and minimum 80 per cent complaints redressal. Though several cities are meeting some of the criteria individually, none of the Indian cities, have met these benchmarks fully yet.

A significant portion of water is lost as unaccounted-for-water (UFW) which includes distribution losses of sourcing it from outside the city through pipelines. Another challenge of traditional operating standards is the use of potable water for non-potable usages like flushing and gardening also by urban residents, which if recycled can approximately reduce the household water requirement by at least 20 percentages.

This increases the pressure on our stressed water resources. To introduce the accountability of the urban local bodies towards these benchmarks, centrally-sponsored reform-linked initiatives like UIDSSMT (Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small & Medium Towns), JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) et al were undertaken from 2005-2014. However, the gap between the requirements and availability in this sector is still large and continued investments in the sector are ensued through the AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation ) programme of the central government.

Public-private partnerships in the water sector, which got a boost post 2005, should be further encouraged as it is a win-win combination for bringing in efficiency as well as economic development and jobs. With a business-as-usual approach, the externalities of urbanisation on water resources would reduce the economic development and creation of jobs, if policymakers do not acknowledge the urgent need for initiating comprehensive urban water planning, with increased investments, improved technologies for optimisation of water use, meaningful partnerships for sustainable use of water resources and enhanced management strategies for economic development.

As the World Water Day is observed on March 22, a serious thought towards efficient water management is required to continue India's envisioned development trajectory.