Opinion

Checking a crisis, drop by drop

Nitya Jacob | Updated on December 28, 2014 Published on December 28, 2014

Book: Thirsty cities:How Indian cities canmeet their water needsAuthor:M Dinesh KumarPublisher:Oxford University PressPrice: ₹895

Despite being shy on data, the book offers insightful solutions for urban water conservation



India is urbanising fast and cities are demanding more and more water. On the upstream side, government urban per capita water norms are thrice rural norms. This means each person moving to a city is entitled to thrice as much water as he would get in a village.

On the downstream side, 80 per cent of this water leaves cities as waste, of which less than 20 per cent is treated. The rest pollutes rivers, lakes and groundwater.

To slake their thirst, cities are drawing water from increasingly greater distances raising conflicts, losses and costs. Their large supply networks are leaky, forcing people to tap groundwater. From an abundant resource available a few metres below the surface, groundwater has become scarce and cannot be had even 300 metre below ground. This adds to the costs of meeting the water needs of cities.

There is hope

But all is not lost, argues this book under view. It propounds a solution — Integrated Urban Water Management (IUWM). This, says the author M Dinesh Kumar, entails identifying interventions that ensure the ‘hydrological integrity’ of the urban water cycle while meeting current and future water needs.

In English, this means working out water available from all sources and balancing demand against it, as well as taking care of waste water; closing the water cycle, as it were.

Thus, all water sources have to be used sustainably — within limits so as not to exhaust them. One source cities have ignored and treated as a ‘nuisance’, says Kumar, is stormwater. Using this as a resource would augment local water quantities and reduce the need for treatment.

This is a non-linear approach, differing from what urban water planners are used to — source water, treat and distribute it, collect and treat sewage and dispose it — that is a once-through system. IUWM is more complex.

Kumar summarises its principles: (1) consider all parts of the water cycle — natural and construct, surface and sub-surface (2) consider all needs for water including anthropological and environmental (3) consider the local context (4) include all stakeholders and (5) strive for sustainability by balancing environmental needs with others.

This is good stuff and includes the human component. One omission in the human dimension is equity since the poor usually get less and poorer quality water than others.

Kumar’s IUWM would be more less than complete without an explicit section on ensuring equity in supply.

A workable formula

The book makes the point well embellishing the need for IUWM through various facets. It can reduce conflicts with farmers. It can improve water quantity and quality. It can bring down costs of supply.

As it also includes reducing unaccounted for water (UFW, water that either leaks out or is stolen), it can make an urban water supply more efficient. Separate chapters detail each point.

It recognises the paucity of data as one of the big problems in working out an IUWM model for a city. The datedness of data comes through in the book as well. Most data sources Kumar refers to are 4-15-years old, making readers feel there has been no quantitative work on water or waste water in the last few years.

This is curious as there have been numerous updates to notable earlier works he refers to such as a study by the National Institute of Urban Affairs in 2005 of 300 cities, but the data from these do not find mention in his book. It is as if research on water in India stopped in 2008 or thereabouts.

Despite the glaring data gap, the book has several practical guides such as working out a town-level water and sanitation vulnerability index. This takes water supply quality and quantity, sewage generation and health indicators into account.

It also has an access factor that presumably covers the poor. It does not have an indicator for access to sanitation, however, that would be crucial to understanding how many people have or lack access to toilets.

It suggests options for water supply for cities located in different climatic zones. Rainwater harvesting (stormwater) is an obvious choice for cities in all climatic zones, but more so in the drier zones where groundwater is scarce.

There are useful facts and figures about costs of rainwater harvesting and its potential in different rainfall scenarios. The book also gives a very useful comparison of different technologies for distilling seawater.

To reduce water demand, the book suggests a few waste water treatment options and water-efficient fixtures. The logic of the first is treating water for local reuse and thereby reducing the demand for fresh water.

The logic of the second is water can be saved if households use water-efficient bathroom fixtures. This is only partially true since these fixtures can reduce consumption only marginally. What Kumar usefully points out is the cost of reducing consumption and leakages is much lower than augmenting supplies.

His arguments on using pricing to reduce consumption are convoluted and inconclusive. However, he does make a clear statement that pricing is necessary for 24x7 water supply.

Holes in the bucket

Kumar usefully has a couple of chapters on urban water supply institutions and their training needs for IUWM. Most urban water utilities are ill-equipped to undertake IUWM and retraining their engineers is a mammoth task. The book touches on this issue but leaves one wishing for more.

For instance, a framework to assess the ability of staff to delivery on IUWM would be useful. Or a set of training material that could be prescribed in the Indian context; most IUWM work is being done in developed countries where data is accurate and public and citizen’s involvement is high. Neither exist in India, taking the wind out of IUWM’s sails.

Community involvement in water management exists in theory and a roundabout way through elected representatives. There is no intelligent discourse with engagement being restricted to public protests when water supplies fail rather than a consistent involvement from the problem to the delivery stages.

Further, IUWM has to be placed in a larger context of a river basin that has a completely different set of political dynamics. The book lays down the theory of this without touching on the difficult negotiations of power sharing between urban and rural populations in the same river basin.

Thirsty Cities is a useful summation of work on urban water supply but does not take the state of knowledge much further than the 7th State of India’s Environment Report: Excreta Matters, brought out by the Centre for Science and Environment in 2012. That tome was based on city data generated in the mid-2000s.

We have to wait for an agency to conduct another national survey of cities to get the current picture and make sensible suggestions on urban water supply and sewage treatment.

The reviewer is the head of policy at WaterAid India

Published on December 28, 2014
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