Counted, but not served?

Water remains inaccessible to the urban poor in the city of Mumbai as it continues to focus on developing new infrastructure to meet its very high per capita water needs. Why is this so?
10 Dec 2021
0 mins read
Thirsty cities and the invisible poor  (Image Source: Aathavan Jaffna via Wikimedia Commons)
Thirsty cities and the invisible poor (Image Source: Aathavan Jaffna via Wikimedia Commons)

Indian cities are growing, and so is the demand for water in the cities. Large cities like Mumbai have focused on planning, designing, and constructing dams throughout history to meet their increasing water needs.

This growing demand has been highlighted in all the discourses on water supply needs of the city and the power of numbers has been used as a justification to meet these demands by commissioning new infrastructure to procure water argues this article titled ' Number narratives of water shortages: Delinking water resources development from water distribution in Mumbai, India' from the journal Water Alternatives.

Numbers lend power

"Numbers rarely appear in politics as naked figures but are clothed in symbols, metaphors and narratives to outline problems or potential solutions, especially in policy debates. The numbers express whether a problem is big, growing, small, or declining, including its future trends. Narratives convey the intensity of the problem through a combination of numbers and words (Tiwale, 2021)"

Mumbai is the world’s seventh-largest urban agglomeration that has expanded beyond municipal limits from 603 kms to 4419 kms, covering nine municipal corporations, eight municipal councils and 994 villages, together forming the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) with a population of 22.8 million. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) is responsible for planning of the city.

Urbanisation and industrial activities in Mumbai have put tremendous pressure on its water resources. Mumbai alone consumes around 67 percent of the MMR’s water supply at a rate of 252 lpcd. This high level of water availability is because of the  presence of a series of dams in the region, of which six were built, and are owned and operated by the MCGM.

Water needs of Mumbai, exaggerated?

This has to do with the way in which the water needs of the city were exaggerated since the British times, which continued even after the colonial times till today, informs the article. However, these numbers used to justify the high water needs of the city do not actually reflect the real need and the situation on the ground.

The post-colonial history of water supply in Mumbai is full of narratives of an increasing population, severe water shortages and the need for continuous development of new water resources. Thus, four large dams, namely, Vaitarna, Upper Vaitarna, Bhatsa (Phases I, IIand III) and Middle Vaitarna, were commissioned to meet the city’s thirst. These were justified by constructing narratives of shortages using higher per capita standards than the prevailing standards prescribed by national-level agencies for large cities.


Incremental augmentation of water resource infrastructure of Mumbai city (Image Source: Tiwale Sachin, 2021)
Image Source: Tiwale (2021) Number narratives of water shortages: Delinking water resources development from water distribution in Mumbai, India, Water Alternatives, 14(3).

A number of reports were prepared from 1967 to 1999 by nine different agencies that prescribed different values of per capita standards to be used to estimate water demand and develop water resources for Mumbai.  In 1994 the Expert Committee led by Dr Madhav Chitale estimated domestic water demand using the standard of 240 lpcd without providing an appropriate rationale. From 1994 onwards the same value was adopted by MCGM engineers to develop all subsequent water resources. This value was higher than all the earlier standards used for planning purposes!

Urban poor, invisible in the water demand discourse

Mumbai has always had adequate amount of water. However, it is distributed inequitably among the population. The urban poor and slum residents continue to suffer due to issues of poor distribution and huge leakage and losses.

However, these issues have been consistently underplayed. The estimation of water demand using the prescribed value of the per capita supply standard (calculated without any consumer survey or analysis of the distribution network) does not take into consideration issues related to  unequal access and status of water supply provisioning (i.e. coverage, pressure and supply hours) within the city, making them invisible.

For example, while estimating the domestic water demand for 1971, the World Bank experts used 158 lpcd as a standard, which was high. In 1972 the service coverage was only 80 percent and 20 percent of the city’s population was not connected to the network. However, the 20 percent was included in the city’s overall demand. Also, majority of the connected population was accessing water through standpipes, making it difficult to consume water at a rate of 158 lpcd. Even the residents of multistoreyed buildings faced access issues due to inadequate pressure. Thus, majority of the population was not able to consume the average of 158 lpcd calculated by experts.

In 1994, the Expert Committee prescribed a standard of 240 lpcd for the entire population including the slums. However,  the poor living conditions of slum residents and the low pressure and often intermittent water supply and inconvenient supply hours made it impossiblefor them  to consume so of much water. Slum residents also did not have enough space to store this water making almost half of the city’s population unable to use water.

Although consistently high per capita standards covering the entire population were used while developing water resources for Mumbai, the city administrators officially restricted access to water in slum areas, affecting almost half the population.

For example, when engineers were calculating domestic demand using standards ranging from 186 to 240 lpcd in the 1980s and 1990s, the city administrators were officially following the standard of 45 lpcd for notified slums. In 2016, the slum water supply was officially restricted to 100 lpcd and even now in the year 2021, many slum pockets are still not officially connected to the city’s supply network.

Counted, but not served!

However,  all of Mumbai’s slum residents continue to be counted when estimating demand, and water has been bought  from long distances in their names with access officially being denied to them!

Thus inefficiencies in water distribution in terms of leakages and losses and inequalities existing in water supply provisioning, are not measured, problematised and prioritised in the existing demand estimation and water resources development mechanisms. The discourse is biased towards the development of large water infrastructure while ignoring the distribution network.

This prevents any discussions on lack of access and inequitable distribution within the city and further marginalises poorly served households by not problematising and prioritising distribution network issues, argues the paper.

Posted by
Get the latest news on water, straight to your inbox
Subscribe Now
Continue reading