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Water Scarce(city): Closing the Water Loop

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

Water is literally at the centre of climate change. Freshwater supplies have started to dry up, rising temperatures have led to sea levels rising and altering borders, explosive population growth is straining natural resources, and unpredictable monsoons have been adversely affecting agricultural produce year after year. Water, in terms of its value as a global resource, has been described as “the next oil”.

Sustainable urban water resource management is increasingly important while planning our future cities which are expected to hold 40 per cent of India’s population by 2030. There is hence a need to provide equitable distribution of reliable water to all. The first issue is the most obvious: water scarcity. The second issue is the political implications of that scarcity. For example, in the case of Syria, the drought condition led to more people moving to the cities, rising food prices, more political tension within the country which gave rise to “climate refugees”, who travelled to other countries that have better water availability. The third main issue is that of the transboundary flow of water, in other words-water moving between countries or regions. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have had repeated disputes leading to political tension and violence over the sharing of water from the river Cauvery since the British rule.

For urban populations, the importance of water cannot be underestimated. Its management is a challenge in terms of sustainability and administration, for cities have to offer the best possible water administration, wastewater collection, rainwater harvesting, and effective water treatment without generating negative environmental, social, sanitary, or health effects. Urban water management is increasingly important, given the need to maintain water resources that comply with global and local standards of quantity and quality. The effective management of water resources requires the optimization of financial resources without forsaking social requirements.

Urban Water Crisis - The Case of Delhi

Delhi, the capital city of India and a metropolis is grappling with overburdened infrastructure and services due to an ever-increasing migratory population and strong functional linkages with surrounding satellite towns and cities. 12 per cent of India’s population is already living the ‘Day Zero’ scenario, while Delhi has fared worst in the Composite Water Management Index, released in 2018 by Niti Aayog. Delhi’s water management system, managed by the Delhi Jal Board, is facing issues at varied stages from water availability at source, its transmission, distribution, use and storage.

Delhi city loses about 1,200 MLD in leaks which is equivalent to the water expected from the Renuka Dam (built 300km away from Delhi)

Issues with the Present System of Water Supply Management:

1. Centralised Water Supply

The current Government's most ambitious and prestigious scheme-‘Nal se Jal’ water mission aims at providing piped water connection to every household in India by 2024, as opposed to only 32 per cent of Indian households having access to piped water today. About 82 per cent of households in the capital city have piped water supply, higher than any other state or union territory in India.

As per available data, the water demand-supply gap in Delhi is 323 MGD. Delhi does not receive a sufficient amount of raw surface water from its neighbouring states, and during summers, these states often curtail supply, as they have their own requirements to meet. To augment supply, the Delhi government has signed an agreement with some river-basin states for constructing three upstream storage dams—i.e., Renuka in Himachal Pradesh, and Kishau and Lakhwar Vyasi in Uttarakhand—on the river Yamuna. Additionally, according to statistics, 40 per cent of Delhi Jal Board’s supply is Non-Revenue Water (NRW) which is water lost in transition in the form of leakages, illegal connections and community taps in unauthorised colonies. The Delhi Jal Board pumps 30 million cubic meters of water a day into its pipes, but only 17 million cubic meters actually reach users, who obtain the rest of the water they need from inefficient and expensive tankers sent in to solve the problem. Therefore, the city loses about 1,200 MLD in leaks which is equivalent to the water expected from the Renuka Dam (built 300km away from Delhi). If the city can cut down its distribution losses, there will be additional water available without having to construct a dam which displaces 10,000 villages. Large quantities of freshwater are therefore wasted and never reaches the consumer due to lack of adequate or ageing infrastructure.

2. Absence of Rational Water Policies

Absence of rational water policies among other factors has led to the relentless exploitation of groundwater resources. Massive subsidies have been provided by politicians on equipment and electricity required to mine groundwater. “By far the most powerful factor, which explains why groundwater irrigation grew faster in India than elsewhere, is the regime of flat-rate tariff and power subsidies that India has introduced since the beginning of Green Revolution which has led to a drop in groundwater tables up to several metres a year in key aquifers.” a 2012 study by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) said. In Delhi, a semi-arid landscape, it is most common to see borewells being used to extract groundwater for various purposes but rarely any effort to recharge the groundwater through the rain. Moreover, a 2014-report by Delhi Parks and Gardens Society states that at least 200 among more than a 1000 water bodies in Delhi (lakes, ponds and moats that existed in the 20th century) have been encroached upon and lost due to inaction and possible collusion of multiple agencies that owned the land. The Delhi government recently started working on rejuvenation of 200 lakes with multiple stakeholders, a much-needed initiative.

3. Pricing of Water as a Resource

Pricing is a key factor affecting the water situation in India. Water services -irrigation, domestic supply, industrial water supply, and wastewater treatment are heavily subsidised by most governments, leading to more consumption and wasteful utilisation. The Delhi Jal Board does not charge anything from its domestic consumers for consumption up to 20 kilolitres (kl) per month apart from a fixed service charge. Any consumption beyond 20 kl is chargeable at the rate of 5.27 INR per kl(up to 20kl). There is an urgent need to rationalise water tariffs on the principle of ‘use more, pay more’. Once water is appropriately valued, users and producers will have incentives to conserve it and to invest in innovation. To sustainably manage the high demand for water, our government needs to account for the economic value of water as a resource.

To summarise for Delhi, the population inflow and demand is continuously growing, more resource-intensive infrastructure is being constructed which further requires water for its own construction and leaves a large carbon footprint. On the other hand, more wastewater will get generated and flow into the already dying Yamuna and its nullahs. This Take-Use-Discharge strategy is commonly adopted in the water sector but is short-sighted and unsustainable. The question is, to what point can we build dams and try to procure more of a resource which is finite?

How should water then be managed in our future cities?

In a situation like this, where the conventional method of water supply is creating more problems than it seems to solve, we need an alternative which is sustainable socially, financially and environmentally. In Delhi NCR, various stakeholders need to effectively work towards global sustainable development goals- SDG 5 (Clean Water and Sanitation) and SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) by 2030. In order to achieve that, we need to integrate the principles of circular economy with sustainable water management across its different uses i.e. agriculture, industrial, municipal and environmental. The opportunity with Circular Economy for Water is to better align the human water cycle with the natural water cycle through the following measures:

  1. Avoid Use: Through rethinking of products and services and designing out the use of water where unnecessary

  2. Reduce Use: Driving continuous improvements through water use efficiency and better resource allocation and management

  3. Reuse: Pursuing opportunities to reuse water within a closed-loop operation and for external applications within the community

  4. Recycle: Within internal operations and/or for external applications

  5. Replenish: Efficiently and effectively returning water to the natural drainage basin

While dependence on centralised systems may not entirely go away in the near future, what is required for sustainable water management is a hybrid system with a strong emphasis given to decentralised systems which reuse and recycle water. We need to treat and reuse wastewater at a building or neighbourhood level, harvest rainwater, recharge groundwater and lakes, restore historical water bodies and fix fragmented natural drainage networks among other water positive measures. It’s time for a paradigm shift, it’s time to close the water loop. *

*This article is based on group research conducted during 2017 at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi as part of the Seminar Course titled “Water Scarce(city): Delhi 2037” under the guidance of Ms Nidhi Batra.

About the Author

Kanchan Joneja (LinkedIn) is an architect, design researcher and development professional who is constantly experimenting with a design for positive social and environmental impact in both urban and rural areas. She has experience working with SEEDS on projects that strive to reduce risk from disasters by building back better and developing resilience in communities through decentralised solutions across India. She has also worked within the domain of sustainable construction practices and affordable housing. She holds an undergraduate degree in Architecture from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.

Sukriti Thukral (LinkedIn) is an architect and researcher with a deep interest in urban systems, affordable housing and conservation of natural and built heritage. She has been working on architectural projects with the belief that we need to build less and build smart, always being conscious of the natural resources we use. She is known to have a keen eye for observation of patterns in the environment and human behaviour. She is an alumnus of the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi with an undergraduate degree in Architecture.

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