Urban pipe dreams

Urban water services in many parts of India have steadily deteriorated. Two decades ago, urban households used simple carbon filters to clean water or boiled it before drinking. With steadily declining water quality, many households now use reverse osmosis (RO) to purify water for drinking. The population in the cities has grown significantly, and the country is continuing to urbanise. Today, one would be hard pressed to find a single city where people can drink water straight from the tap without any health concerns.

To have adequate sources of water, wastewater must be collected and properly treated before being discharged into the environment. Unfortunately, there is no large Indian city where even 10 per cent of the population has access to good wastewater management. Thus, sources of drinking water are increasingly being contaminated with pollutants.

All these problems have existed for a long time, the solutions are well-known, and the country has had the financial and management capacities to solve these problems for at least the last two decades. Yet the problems persist and are worsening for most major cities. There is no realistic possibility that they will be solved in the next two decades unless the Indian public flatly refuses to accept such abysmal urban water management services.

Governments at the Central, provincial and municipal levels have offered several excuses for this unfortunate situation. It has frequently been said that India is facing a water crisis and there is not enough water to ensure its citizens 24-hour supply. This myth is now widely believed.

Let us examine the facts. For nearly all large Indian cities, leakages and theft from the systems account for 40-60 per cent of water supplied. Even after this colossal loss, the average citizen of Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata uses two and a half to three times the amount of water used by her counterparts in Hamburg and Barcelona, who receive a continuous supply of water, which can be drunk straight from the tap.

An average Indian family in an urban area does not receive a 24x7 water supply. However, they ensure uninterrupted water supply in their households by transforming them to mini-utilities. When water comes for three to four hours each day, it is collected and stored in underground tanks, and then pumped to overhead tanks. Each household has its own water treatment system, which is maintained by the private sector. The quality of the water that these systems provide cannot be ascertained. However, it is highly unlikely that it is clean and safe.

Water received from the municipalities may be free or highly subsidised, but each household pays for electricity to pump water, and then pays the private sector to operate and maintain water treatment systems as well as to clean underground and overhead tanks every few months. This is in addition to investing in the construction of the tanks and installing a pumping system. The current real water cost to an urban Indian family is quite high.

India has the expertise and resources to provide all urban centres of more than two lakh people with clean water supply on a 24x7 basis. Unfortunately, it does not have a single city with a properly functioning water department. Even Cherrapunji, one of the world´s rainiest cities, now has water problems in the summers because of poor management.

Take the Delhi Jal Board. As the city has grown, so have mismanagement of the DJB, regular political interference in its work, corruption at most levels and the lack of accountability among its top executives. The chief executive of the DJB is supposed to be an IAS officer, who may not have any knowledge of water or utilities management. The average tenure of the chief officer is 30-36 months. For the top managers to grasp how to run a utility properly, prepare plans and implement them, it would require a commitment of six to eight years. That is the practice in successful American, British and Canadian utilities.

This has to change. The senior executives of the DJB must carefully be selected for their expertise in managing a large utility, and they must be held accountable for their performance. If not, Delhi will continue to receive sub-standard water services.

There is no reason why cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai cannot have 24x7 supply of good quality water that can safely be drunk straight from the taps. If such cities had efficient and functioning utilities, each household's total water cost could be reduced by 30 to 35 per cent. That would be a boon to poor and middle-class families. Sadly, there are no signs that this is going to happen in the foreseeable future.

The writer is the founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico, and distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore

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