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India’s water dilemma January 18, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Noor, Habeeb , trackback

Habeeb Noor

This article first appeared in the Charitiarian, Third Edition, June 2010.

One problem arising out of India fast-paced process of urbanization is the lack of sufficient, clean water for all. India is highly vulnerable to the inefficiencies in the water sector. A report by the McKinsey Global Institute highlights just this problem and raises the red flags on India’s blind approach to managing its growth.

Experts warn that the world’s population will face severe water shortages within the next twenty years. India’s water problem, however, is already manifesting itself in its cities and villages, where faucets run dry much too often during the year. The country is still heavily dependent on the monsoons to replenish its supply of water and the intermittent disruption of this cycle often proves costly for farmers, manufacturers and end users alike. Already under pressure, this poses a heavier burden on India’s ailing water infrastructure.

This is no doubt that the specific issue of water scarcity, which is compounded by urbanization, is a complex issue, as the nature of the problem varies from state to state and city to city. So in that sense, it is prudent to ask if water scarcity – a problem central to daily life in India – is purely a resource issue, or a political management problem? In many cases it amounts to both.

At the recent Global Water Summit in Paris, the Organization for Economic and Development (OECD) and emerging economies decided on the need for a global hike in water prices. What would this mean for India? And is simply raising the price of water a sufficient solution?

Water, in India, is a heavily subsidized product – in a city like Bangalore an average of 1 kilolitre costs merely 15 rupees.  Or, take the case of Mumbai where 1 kilolitre is 3.50 rupees. Thus, against an average requirement of 135 litres per capita per day (LPCD), Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) actually supplies only 90 LPCD because of the acute water shortage. In a system where market principals have become the governing testament, financial deregulation may be the one way to instil greater level of conservation and improve water supply.

But the crisis is deeper than meets the eye. Most of the rural population does not have the privileged access to water that is available to many in the urban space. And what of India’s cities, where although many households have a water connection, the urban poor uniformly face water shortages? Thus, to find a more plausible solution to the water issue in India one needs to think beyond just the ‘economic price’ of water.

The water crisis is a layered problem in India. And the issue extends beyond the segmented consumer base. On the one hand, although some consumers in the urban space may accommodate a price increase for ‘quality’ water, there is substantial political opposition in favour of keeping prices low so as to appeal to the interest of the masses. In rural India the problem runs a different course: years of negligence from the government have pushed some end users to employ their own means to provide for themselves. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that there are no laws to regulate the exploitation of groundwater by individuals or the construction of bore wells.

Secondly, there is the ‘farce of participation’ by local stakeholders in projects implemented by successive governments. Usually, policies and plans are drawn up by the State governments and foreign consultants to implement large infrastructure projects as the only viable solutions, ignoring local knowledge. Most public sector institutions have relied on a thinking that amounts to ‘build, transfer and exit’; not much work is being done to provide people, villages or even communities with indigenous, self-evolved, long-term solutions.

The transformational changes we seek aren’t always implemented with alacrity and the judiciousness required; local institutions – municipalities and community groups – are part of the larger answer. These, after all, represent the local communities and best understand the most viable solutions. Methodologies that aim at building consensus amongst people, and driving demand by educating and creating awareness on water solutions is fundamental. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) has done well to lend municipalities financial support to improve their efficiency and supply systems.

There are precedents which have urged the local municipalities to restructure the water supply systems and reduce their dependence on non-sustainable methodologies. One such precedent is the case of Kundapura, a coastal town in Udupi district, Karnataka. Although surface water was available abundantly, unrestrained utilization of ground water, which served as the primary source of water supply, led to the water levels drying up quickly. The water used was largely untreated; during the summer months, when well water levels went low there was also the problem of saline water seeping into the ground water systems from the sea.

The Town Municipal Corporation (TMC), acknowledging the limited means of their water infrastructure, took advantage of the availability of surface water which ran about 12 km from the town. It installed a water treatment plant, urged people to apply for metered connections, which it could assist to monitor and audit water and energy usage and it segregated residential and commercial use of water. Now, about 2 million litres per day (MLD) of water is supplied to the town, with the facility to scale up usage to 7.5 MLD. Even during the summer, the town has an assured supply of 135 LPCD.  The municipality has significantly diminished its water loss or ‘non-revenue water,’ lost due to leakages or precipitation, from 81 per cent to 13 per cent during 2004–2008. The TMC embarked on a sustainable yet affordable solution that will meet the town’s demand until 2026.

India is in the midst of a water crisis. Its economic developments options may quickly become limited if the damage from this crisis is not curtailed. The need to empower grass roots level centres may amount to old rhetoric. However, successful precedents such as Kundapura reveal the need for a dissolved approach to governance, such that municipalities or local town authorities are empowered to apply available, innovative solutions and manage their resources more efficiently.


1. VivKay - February 6, 2011

The UN should be making sure that the health and education of women includes family planning. The shortages of water are being made worse by population growth. The elephant in the room is trampling and screeching “overpopulation” but no body is listening.