Can India tap fresh water wisdom for "smart" cities?

by Shuriah Niazi | shuriahn@ | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 9 October 2015 09:27 GMT

Slum dwellers carry drinking water containers filled from a water tanker provided by the state-run Delhi Jal (water) Board on a hot summer day in New Delhi, India, May 11, 2015. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

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If urban areas are to cope with mushrooming populations, they'll need new ways to manage water, experts say

By Shuriah Niazi

NEW DELHI, Oct 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Shanti Kushwaha waits anxiously for the water tanker to reach the slums of Seelampur in India's capital New Delhi, bringing a scarce and fought-over essential.

Many of India's urban slums have no piped water, only getting a delivery by public tanker on alternate days. So as soon as the tanker arrives, people rush with buckets and other containers to grab their share.

"This struggle is now part of our life," said Kushwaha. "The water supplied through tankers by the municipal body in our area is not enough."

Frequent quarrels erupt between neighbours trying to get water from the tanker, with everyone wanting as much as possible. Those who lose out have to fetch water from far-off public hand-pumps, overhead tanks or wells.

Others get their water from friends and relatives who have a piped supply.

Residents in many other parts of the country face the same problem, including in Bhopal, capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, where slum dwellers wait hours for tankers.

"We really have to struggle daily for water," said Ramzan Khan, who lives in Bhopal's Banganga area, explaining that each family tries to fill up four or five buckets.

Independent environmentalist Anupam Mishra said India's cities have a much greater need for potable water than acknowledged by the government, which cannot supply enough.

"A large number of people in cities depend on groundwater, and this has led to a sharp decline in the water table in a number of places," he added.

India plans to develop 100 "smart" cities, creating modern satellite towns around existing cities.

The aim is to create urban spaces where green, high-tech initiatives bring more efficient management of resources, including water and energy, and better services to citizens.

Experts predict the number of people living in Indian cities will touch almost 850 million by 2050, up from 350 million now.

A key question is how well equipped these "smart" cities will be to handle a bigger inflow of citizens from rural to urban areas - not least when it comes to water.

GROWING WATER GAP?

According to data from India's Urban Development Ministry, at least 30 of 35 big cities have much less water than they need, leaving their inhabitants to deal with daily shortages.

The government has said it will be in a position to meet water demand by 2021, Union Minister for Drinking Water and Sanitation Ram Kripal Yadav told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But experts don't believe the government can meet this promise, saying the gap will likely increase in the coming years.

In a 2012 report looking at water needs for the next five years, the Planning Commission of India said that, in cities with a population of over 100,000, only 73 percent of people were getting sufficient water.

Nearly half the water supply was lost in distribution, as old, rusty water pipes fractured and broke, it added.

"The paradigm for water supply is to grab as much from wherever possible, while laying insufficient, leaky pipeline networks and not monitoring usage or billing," said Nitya Jacob, head of policy for WaterAid India.

"This must change to maximise supply from local resources such as surface water, rainwater and groundwater," he added.

Members of an expert panel set up by the government to suggest ways to improve urban drinking water supplies have called for clear and effective policy, arguing that official agencies rarely try to preserve precious water sources.

In a report, the panel said city officials, planners, builders and developers had ruthlessly destroyed water bodies in and around cities, despite their important role in re-charging groundwater and ensuring water security.

Protecting and restoring those water bodies was crucial to meet rising demand, the panel concluded.

DRINKING SEWAGE

In India, water is often regarded as a mere input for other activities rather than a resource to be used wisely and sustainably, experts say. Hence water management is inefficient and plagued by corruption, they argue.

In addition, around three quarters of India's surface water is polluted by domestic sewage, and the rest is unfit for human use without treatment, Jacob noted.

"Cities never plan to collect and treat sewage from unplanned colonies, slums and poor localities," he said.

Sewage treatment must be universal and high-quality, he explained, otherwise untreated sewage seeps into groundwater which is then pumped up for human consumption.

"Increasingly we will be drinking our own sewage," he warned.

India's "smart" cities will clearly need better planning for water and sanitation than is the case now.

"It is important for the government to think out of the box," said Jacob.

INCREASED INVESTMENT

Minister Kripal Yadav said individual state governments are responsible for the supply of drinking water, with funding from the central government.

Under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, which ran from 2005 to 2014, the government approved infrastructure development schemes worth around Rs 466 billion ($7.8 billion), including for drinking water, sewage and drainage.

Yet while public investment in drinking water projects has increased nine-fold over the last decade compared to the preceding two, India's cities are still thirsty.

Experts say more money is needed, but this alone will not resolve water shortages since corruption in the sector is rife.

"Transparency is necessary so that the desired results can be achieved (on the ground)," Jacob said.

One major barrier to the people of Seelampur getting a better water supply is the apathy of government officials towards impoverished slum dwellers.

"They are the ones who suffer the most (yet) officials treat them as someone who should be given the least priority," Jacob said.

(Reporting by Shuriah Niazi; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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