Turning On The Tap Might Not Always Give You Running Water
Singapore’s distribution losses today are five percent while Delhi’s are 40 percent. Why are we not doing more?
We take so much for granted. That a mere twist of a tap will yield water: Not just now, but forever. And that’s what is normal for us, indeed holds true for everyone else.
Alas! The reality of the daily struggle for water for millions of the poor in our cities today; and our collective prospects with regard to access to safe drinking water in the not so distant future, do not look very good.
A report of the Committee on Restructuring of the Central Water Commission and Central Ground Water Board (2016) suggests that if our current consumption and demand continues with inadequate remedial action, then by 2030, half of our demands will be unfulfilled.
How did we get here and how do we get out of this situation?
A poor urban family residing in a slum that is not notified, in most parts of the country, is doomed to fend for itself to access water. The uncertainty of their tenure, and the absence of property rights further leads to such families not making any investments in their housing, leave alone water storage. When reliable access to water is a challenge, quality becomes a secondary consideration. Irrespective of the legal status of habitations, the citizens residing in any settlement must have access to water.
In 2018, whilst we aspire for more lofty goals, still condemning women and adolescent girls to collect and fetch water, denying them other opportunities, must change. Piped water supply delivered at the household level has to be the norm.
India is the largest consumer of groundwater in the world, with China and the United States a distant second according to a UNESCO study from 2012.
Half of our domestic water requirements in urban areas are met by groundwater. Between 1991 and 2011, according to the Central Ground Water Board, Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab were already consuming more groundwater than was being recharged. Groundwater cannot be a private resource and this has to change. More importantly, we need to conserve more rainwater.
Water bodies and lakes, in and around our towns and cities, played a critical function in meeting the requirements for water and in recharging our aquifers. A study conducted by the Environmental Management and Policy Research Institute of water bodies in Bangalore, found that of 1,518 water bodies, more than half had disappeared. Across our towns, encroachment of water bodies and obstruction of the natural drainage into these water bodies have led to their disappearance.
Where they exist, they have become cesspools– with untreated sewage and solid waste contaminating the water.
Our inability to adequately treat our waste water and sewage leads to contamination of our rivers too. A study conducted by the TERI University in 2017 on urban water and sanitation, revealed that only seven percent of our waste water is released after treatment.
In Delhi, reports place the release of untreated sewage into the Yamuna between 40-60 percent of the total sewage of the city.
If our urban settlements are to remain habitable in the future, we need to harvest rainwater, revive our water bodies, and treat our sewage and waste water before release.
Safe water delivered to any home has its costs. It costs to treat water, to transport it, and to maintain the systems for delivery of water. If water is priced incorrectly, there will be no incentive to save or conserve it. It is the responsibility of the state to ensure that no one is denied safe water – simply because they cannot afford it.
However, our reality is that the poor in our cities probably pay more for water, if not in absolute terms, then as a proportion of their income.
We need to get our pricing of water right. A realistic pricing may well lead to those who can afford it, investing in rainwater harvesting to reduce their bills or to be more judicious with their use.
With reliable access to water on a sustained basis, the quality of water has become a secondary concern. There are pockets across the country where significant chemical and bacterial contamination is widespread. The first principle must be to get water quality tested before we decide on purification solutions, lest we invest in solutions that further contribute to waste.
The indicators with regard to water, in Delhi and Singapore, were the same in 1965. If we take just one indicator, then it’s the loss of water in distribution.
Singapore invested in storm-water storage, conservation, recycling, and reuse of water and desalination and has emerged as one of the successes of urban water supply.
India is also completely capable of doing the same. We need to start now.
(V K Madhavan is chief executive of WaterAid India. He can be reached at @vkmadhavan. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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