Will urban India gain respite from its water woes?

Will urban India get respite from its water woes? (Image Source: Aathavan Jaffna via Wikimedia Commons)
Will urban India get respite from its water woes? (Image Source: Aathavan Jaffna via Wikimedia Commons)

The 2021-22 Union Budget has announced the launch of the Jal Jeevan Mission (Urban), an ambitious project that aims to provide potable tap water supply to 2.86 crore households by 2024. How will this work out for urban India?

And urban India is fast hurtling towards a major water crisis in the years to come. A 2020 report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has projected that 30 Indian cities will face a ‘grave water risk’ by 2050 due to overcrowding in cities. A recent Niti Aayog report too has predicted that 21 Indian cities including New Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad will run out of groundwater by 2020 affecting 100 million people.

What are the water concerns of urban areas

Taps run dry in majority of the cities

As high as 31 percent of urban households in cities, mostly those who live in unauthorised colonies and slums, do not have access to piped water or public tap water and even the existing taps run dry for most of the time. And whats more - most Indian cities cannot even meet the per capita water supply requirements of 135 litres per day as specified by the Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation!

Increasingly unable to meet the 24x7 water supply needs of the population, the public supply infrastructure continues to be marred with challenges such as ageing infrastructure, lack of operation and maintenance, low pressure in the pipes and poor revenue mobilisation mechanisms.

Majority of cities across India get water supply on an average for 6–8 hours.  This only partly fulfills household water needs and many households have to resort to procuring water from private water sources such as wells, bore wells etc. Women and children in urban slums have to walk for about 44 minutes on an average to collect water for their daily needs .

This lack of availability of piped water supply and over dependence on wells and borewells to compensate for the gap in water supply has led to over exploitation of groundwater resources in many cities. As high as 48 percent of India’s urban water supply comes from groundwater, and in seven of India’s 10 most populous cities, groundwater levels have dropped dangerously over the past two decades.

Mismanagement of water adds to the water woes

Glaring mismanagement of water in cities leaves even the water rich areas starved for water. For example, a recent analysis shows that abundance of groundwater availability in the top five cities like Ludhiana, Amritsar, Rajkot, and Vishakhapatnam does not help its residents due to increase in population and inefficient management and allocation of the available water. Bottom five cities in terms of groundwater availability include cities such as Chennai, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Dhanbad, and Ghaziabad. Water cuts across administrative boundaries makes some states  dependent on neighbouring states for water leading to water disputes.

A recent study by Observer Research Foundation authored by Biplob Chatterjee and Aparna Roy on the water situation in Indian cities such as Chennai, Bengaluru, Delhi and Coimbatore finds that while these cities are bursting to their seams with increasing population load, the water supply and sewerage infrastructure is unable to keep pace with the rising need for water and the high amounts of sewage generated. As high as 20 to 50 percent leakages due to poorly maintained infrastructure further worsen the situation. City dwellers depend on raw sources like surface water and also groundwater to meet their water needs. Around 10 to 30 percent raw water in these cities comes from groundwater.

Another working paper on the state of water in six Indian cities conducted by the Kubernein Initiative finds that in Chennai and Bengaluru, water resources are overworked and overused, not adequately replenished, and recharge areas have been destroyed due to construction and concretisation. Mumbai and Kolkata, although not water scarce, continue to face water stress due to unequal distribution of water, over dependence on monsoon and over consumption of water.

For example, while Kolkata has water hydrants to cater to the needs of the poor, they are the largest culprits of wastage in the city. The informal settlements in Mumbai suffer hugely due to lack of access to water connections while Delhi being naturally water scarce has to depend on neighbouring states for its water supply.

The working paper informs that most cities in India have poorly laid-out infrastructure plans and fluctuations in water availability increase dependence on groundwater that is depleting at dangerous levels.

Besides this, lack of proper disposal and treatment of sewage is a common problem in cities that not only leads to choking of drains and flooding, but also leads to poor quality of water due to contamination and mixing of sewage with drinking water. Besides other competing water needs, agricultural activity in the periphery of many cities also in constant battle with urban management over the sharing of water resources.

Only about 35 percent of wastewater is treated in India and the use of treated wastewater for non potable uses at the household is still largely lacking because of strong stigma associated with using treated wastewater.

The available water is of poor quality

Even the quality of supplied water in cities is of poor quality. For example, a recent survey done by BIS on the quality of water in 21 cities found that most of the samples from all cities except Mumbai failed to meet the standards prescribed by BIS. The Niti Aayog report says that nearly 70 percent of India’s water is contaminated, impacting three in four people. 

In urban India, 50 million people in 15 cities have no access to safe, affordable drinking water, reveals a UNICEF India report. Since piped water is inadequate in most of the cases, drinking water in cities is often procured from a variety of sources such as borewells, private wells, tankers or bottled water. But very little information exists on the quality of this water that is made available to the people.

And this water from major sources like tube wells and hand pumps is also found to be unsafe as they are known to be carriers of waterborne diseases. Even where piped water is available, its quality continues to be questionable. A large proportion of people do not have access to water within the house, increasing the chances of infections.

Surface water sources too are highly contaminated in India. Poor sewage disposal mechanisms lead to most of the untreated sewage being drained into rivers and lakes that serve as reservoirs of microbial contamination. Poor access to safe water sources and toilets and open defecation and poor WASH practices lead to high instances of waterborne diseases in the country.

Release of untreated industrial and pharmaceutical wastes into the surface water sources has led to dangerous levels of organic and inorganic pollutants into the surface water bodies in India, making it unfit for consumption.

Groundwater resources in the country have also been found to be highly polluted due to presence of fluoride, arsenic, nitrates, iron, heavy metals as well as due to leaching of harmful pesticide and fertiliser residues. Toxins from untreated industrial wastes and landfills as well as bacterial contaminants from the surface soil and water sources can also contaminate groundwater. Even bottled water in India continues to be unsafe for consumption.

What are the key points emerging from these studies?

  • Accessibility of water for low income communities in many of the cities continues to be a problem and needs to be addressed as these communities form an important section of the population in cities.
  • Most Indian cities do not segregate and process grey and black water discharges. A large part of wastewater is discharged into unlined stormwater channels, which leads to contamination of the  groundwater.
  • Poor water quality continues to plague most of the Indian cities
  • The water infrastructure in cities is outdated and is unable to accommodate the different levels of water, store it for future use and augment supply with alternative sources.
  • Rampant development in all these cities continues to threaten natural habitats and water bodies that help in water conservation and flood prevention, such as marshlands, wetlands, floodplains, embankments and others.
  • Lack of data and outdated infrastructure leads to huge water losses. Excessive emphasis on supply side solutions to procure water leads to poor attention being paid to demand management and exploration of alternatives
  • Lack of coordinated efforts at the policy level hinder progress

What needs to be done for the long term success of JJM?

The studies and recent analysis recommend that the strategy to meet the water crisis in urban areas should be based on the following steps: