The Water Future Conference in Bangalore: Towards a Sustainable Water Future

The recently concluded 4 day conference in Bangalore looked at the current state of global water resource challenges & future pathways to achieve the SDGs, while ensuring equity in access to all.
Charles Vorosmarty, Chair, COMPASS Initiative, Water Future at the opening plenary on advanced water system assessments to address water security challenges of the 21st century. Charles Vorosmarty, Chair, COMPASS Initiative, Water Future at the opening plenary on advanced water system assessments to address water security challenges of the 21st century.

The Water Future Conference in Bangalore last week, saw many from the scientific community, academia, research, civil society and the media come together to discuss the state of water resources across the world and in India, as well as future pathways and scenarios, and different technological and institutional solutions to accelerate the implementation of the water SDGs and the 2030 Agenda targets, leaving no one behind.

In the wake of increasing water scarcity, widespread water pollution and rapid declines in freshwater biodiversity and ecosystems, the Water Future Conference explored different innovative frameworks, approaches and methods to determine the potential of natural and manade infrastructure investments, and their complementarities to achieve sustainable solutions. It also explored how global and regional water targets could be defined considering the inherent links between biophysical and socio-ecological processes, as well as the aesthetic, cultural and historical knowledge of water and its role in nature and society. Poverty, nutrition, health, education, gender, equity and productivity were other aspects to sustainable water management that were also covered.

At the inaugural ceremony of the conference, a strong statement was made on the need to build political consensus, in order to collaborativey manage water resources in the Indian context, while at the same time ensuring equity in access to water. Mr. Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Member of Pariliament and former Minister of State (Independent Charge), Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, referred in his remarks to the recently converged Jal Shakti Ministry at the Centre, reflecting the government's commitment to provide piped drinking water to all households in the next 5 years. 

Another interesting point made on one of the panels, was on the gap between research and practice. There was a felt need expressed throughout this conference, for the scientific community to undertake rapid prototyping and research, that responds to the ever changing ground situation when it comes to water. Water is a dynamic resource affected by many externalities - therefore research and proposed solutions must also be dynamic. Scientific research around water is needed to enable the water sector to design and implement evidence based solutions on the ground - but the gap between research, policy and practice still needs to bridged.

An institutional framework is needed for urban water body rejuvenation in India

From left to right - Ms Sonal Pareek (CDD), Dr. Veena Srinivasan (ATREE), S Vishwanath (Biome), Dr. Suresh Rohilla (CSE)A session anchored by CDD Society looked at urban water body rejuvenation in India, with much discussion on Bangalore's lakes in particular. Dr. Veena Srinivasan from ATREE stressed the need for "living labs" of sorts, to ensure that research and data reflected and considered the constantly changing ground reality of Bangalore's lakes. The panel also highlighted that there is great scope for rejuvenation of water bodies in tier 2 cities in India, and talked about Jakkur Lake - oft cited as a case study for water body rejuvenation in urban areas. Vishwanath pointed out how about 100 crore rupees was spent on reviving Jakkur Lake, of which about 80 crores was spent on the wastewater treatment plant. Despite these efforts, untreated raw sewage is also flowing into Jakkur through the stormwater drains, resulting in high toxicity in the water. So while Jakkur is full to the brim all year round - so full in fact, that it overflows into neighbouring Rachenahalli Lake - what is the water there for, if not to enable a thriving ecosystem?

Bangalore's lakes are actually manmade irrigation tanks, designed as a series of cascading structures that are interconnected throughout the city. This engineering is quite common across south India. Many of the lake revival efforts undertaken by citizen groups across the city are in small pockets, operating in silos from each other. This is counter intuitive to the entire system of lakes in the city - and does not take into account the interconnectedness of the tanks and the need to look at them as an entire unit. A city wide lake plan is what is needed to tie all the lake revivial efforts together. Vishwanath highlighted that lakes are being rejuvenated and managed right now by a bevy of stakeholders across Bangalore. A strong institutional and governance framework is needed, to look at wetalns holistically through an environmental lens, to tie all these efforts together.

Kavita Reddy, a citizen involved in the rejuvenation of Agara Lake, asked another pertinent question with respect to perceptions around water and water bodies - how do people perceive what urban water bodies should be, and how do these perceptions, in turn affect how water bodies are managed?

The Fridays for Future climate strike in Bangalore last FridayThe panel further discussed how there is no incentive for utilities like the BWSSB to provide sewerage services, because 90% of their budgets are spent on providing water - that too at a highly subsidised rate. A public consultative discussion is needed on this, on charging a sewerage cess in order to deal with this problem. There is also a larger need to engage with social movements like the Fridays for Future Climate March, and enable generational engagement as well in lake rejuvenation. Young people are coming out in droves like never before to protest the adverse effects of climate change, particularly on their futures. They are well placed to guide policy and practice in the right direction, by demanding for accountability from those in power.

Stark differences in imaginations around water in India

Sharad Jain, Director of the National Institute of Hydrology (NIH) highlighted the increasing need to be prepared for uncertain futures with regard to water. India receives most of its rain over 150 days of the year - that too concentrated over a few days in the monsoon. This nature of the Indian monsoon makes management of rainwater incredibly difficult. It was also interesting to note that water resources were discussed from a "development" perspective in this session, as opposed to a "management" and "sustainability" perspective. The use of such terminology, while seemingly harmless, is indicative of the prevailing engineering-skewed and hydrology-focussed imagination of water in India - something that has not changed in the face of growing scarcity and contamination. Mr. Jain pointed out in his presentation that because of climate change, hydrological data was no longer stationary and hence data collection and analysis tools and technologies need to adapt accordingly. He also talked about the need to increase water and land "productivity" in India.

Groundwater and irrigation

An interesting session was anchored by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), on innovations to achieve sustainable groundwater use. IWMI has launched a platform called GRIPP - to strengthen, expand and connect current groundwater initiatives, and to advance the agenda of sustainable groundwater management at a local to global level to achieve the SDGs. GRIPP aims to translate knowledge to action on the ground, and focusses on solutions to India's growing groundwater crisis.

60% of groundwater in India is used for irrigation. However, the majority of public money allocated for minor irrigation goes to surface water, interestingly enough - as pointed out by Neha Durga, a Consultant at IWMI who presented their experiments in Gujarat and Bihar with solar irrigation. It is also pertinent to note that 8 to 10% of greenhouse gas emissions come from diesel pumps used for irrigation across India. So IWMI looked at the problem from the perspective of the role that electricity plays in the depletion of groundwater, thus contributing to the water-energy-climate nexus. Electricity is also often subsidised for farmers to use diesel pumps for irrigation, which in turn gives farmers no incentive whatsoever to be mindful of how much water they are extracting. Diesel pumps are used in parts of India where there is no grid, particularly in eastern states like Bihar which have a completely monopolistic diesel pump market. 

Read more about IWMI's work in this area here.

Big data, AI and blockchain in water diagnostics and governance

This plenary at the conference presented some interesting use cases around experiments with new technologies in water supply and service delivery in different parts of the world. Nagaraja Rao Harshdeep, Global Lead for Watersheds and Disruptive Technology at the World Bank, said that Rajasthan has used blockchain for scheme implementation, and that states are open to the idea of experimenting with new technologies to make water management more sustainable and efficient. The World Bank has also recently developed a free app called Spatial Agent, which offers one-stop access to interactive maps and charts of national, regional, and global datasets. The World Bank also has a vision for an integrated hydroinformatics platform for water data and analytics (learn more here).

Venki Ramachandran, Director, Smart Infrastructure and Program Management at Xylen India did a great job of explaining the basics of blockchain. Blockchain is essentially an electronic distributed ledger that is secure and built using consensus, making it possible to trace all the way back to the first transaction. It is entirely transparent, in that no one central entity owns it. It is also not possible to change the value of any block because of the way in which blockchain is designed. The value of any block in the chain can only be changed by adding it to the end of the chain.

Xylem is using blockchain to trace the flow of water from source to tap using sensors at every point. Venki says that this brings transparency to the water flow cycle, and sources of leakage and contamination can be identified. He also talked about the next step in the potential for blockchain in water management - water credits, much like carbon credits, where a marketplace will emerge where water credits can be exchanged or purchased and sold by large consumers of water in a community or a society. Water meters are already a great tool in demand management, where users pay more to consume more water through differential pricing slabs. Blockchain could be the supply management equivalent to water meters.

Venki also talked about how Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning have great scope for applicability in water management and governance, and that they basically work in the following flow: they collect data, then they cleanse data, then models are created and trained, and then possible futures are predicted looking at past performance and data. 

Katrina Donaghy, Co-founder and co-CEO of Civic Ledger in Australia presented their fascinating work around public regulated marketplaces on water. Civic Ledger basically uses emerging technologies like blockchain and smart contracts to build open government platforms for innovation, based on the premise that the key civic trust is data governance and transparencyCivic Ledger's mission is to deliver on blockchain's potential and build viable solutions for real-use cases that improve people’s interactions with government for the longer term. 

These were just some of the stand out sessions and discussions at the Water Future Conference. Check out @indiawater on Twitter for our live tweets through the conference!

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