India's water problem needs local solutions

Posted: 4 April 2006

Grand infrastructure schemes with dams and long-distance pipelines cannot solve India's water problems. Prudent policies must find local solutions and include wastewater recycling, says Sunita Narain.

Our political leaders tend to be myopic about most matters. They rely on bureaucrats who tell them everything is under control. Faced with a water problem, an experienced civil servant will easily convince a minister - be it at state or central level - that the problem will soon go away.

Polluted river, Delhi, India Photo: WHO/P. Virot
Polluted river, Delhi, India Photo: WHO/P. Virot
Polluted river, Delhi, India.© WHO/P. Virot
Either the problem is temporary, and will be sorted out as soon as it rains; or it is political, the opposition is fomenting trouble; or the problem is merely local.

Nonsense. India's population is growing, industry is growing and agricultural output is growing. Consequently, the demand for water is growing, too. It is doing so in rural and urban areas. What is not increasing in all likelihood is the natural supply of water. Rather, climate change may even mean there will be less water in future. It is therefore high time to draft viable policies.

So far, however, official programmes have hardly helped. One reason is that our technocrats appear to be as far-sighted as our politicians are short-sighted. They assure the government that they have a grandiose plan, drafted years ago. It should be revived. It will take money and time. The plan is to build another pipeline from even further, from where there is no water stress.

Forgotten wastewater

Sadly, both vision-distortions add up. The long-term perspective serves a short-term goal. Elections are drawing near. The grand scheme sounds good. Our leaders promise to take us to a wonderful world, with clean water flowing abundantly. Trust us, the government knows what it is doing.

Women at a waterpump, Tidi, Rajasthan,
Women at a waterpump, Tidi, Rajasthan,
Women at a waterpump, Tidi, Rajasthan, India. Photo © Kai Friese/People & the Planet.
Governments come and go; the water troubles get worse. The big schemes only deliver a fraction of what was promised, but they cause new frustrations. Farmers are angry because the expensive infrastructure does not fulfil their needs. Too much of the precious liquid is reserved for cities.

Urban people are frustrated, because they nonetheless do not get the amounts required. Protests occur and so does violence. Last summer, the police fired at a rally of farmers in Rajasthan, one of India's driest states, leaving several dead.

What is not understood is that the nation must make do with the water it has. What is ignored is the grass-root reality, which, of course, matters more than any official planning document. What is under-rated is wastewater, a resource that must not be wasted.

Unequal shares

Consider Delhi, for example. It is estimated that at least 40 per cent of the population live 'illegally', in slums and other unauthorised settlements. Official plans simply pretend that these people do not exist.

On the other hand, successive governments have accused slum-dwellers of polluting the Yamuna, the major river. Yes, their hutments look dirty. But any intelligent person should understand that the poor are not the main source of pollution. Water is polluted by those who use it. And Delhi's poor only get a very small share.

The city officially supplies 3,600 million litres of water to its people, every day. But roughly only half of it reaches households. The rest is officially accounted for as 'distribution losses'. The water that is supplied creates inequity and waste. Seventy per cent of Delhi gets less than 5 per cent of the water, while quarters where government officials and the rich reside get a staggering 400-500 litres per capita daily.

It is not known how much groundwater people or factories extract. But one can calculate the amount, working backwards from the waste generated. That is normally not done because our incompetent planners do not look at water provision and sewage disposal in one go. It is safe to assume, however, that most of the water supplied becomes wastewater.

Treatment plants

Delhi generates over 3,900 million litres daily (mld) of wastewater. That means the city probably uses some 4,400 mld of water. In other words, it has a per capita availability of 317 litres per day. Compare this to Singapore, which uses 165 litres per day and person. Who says Delhi is water-poor?

Singapore, of course, does something that Delhi does not. Singapore cleans up its wastewater, making it potable again. In principle, Delhi could do so, too. But massive investment in sewage treatment did not lead to convincing results. Once again, grand schemes prevailed over grass-roots reality. What went wrong?

A lot. For instance, treatment plants were not built where they were needed. They were built where plots were vacant. Accordingly, sewage must be transported over long distances. In the case of the largest plant, transportation costs more than treatment itself.

Moreover, investments in treatment plants did not go along with adequate spending on drains. Unsurprisingly, a report by the Central Pollution Control Board found in 2004 that 73 per cent of Delhi's treatment plants were functioning below design capacity, whereas 7 pr cent were simply defunct.

Given the under-performance of domestic authorities, one might bet on external advice. However, recent plans for Delhi made in cooperation with the World Bank had to be shelved. Rather than assessing the real need, the Bank simply promoted the principle of privatisation. Somehow things would get better, as soon as a private company was put in charge. Safe water would be available seven days a week and 24 hours a day.

Market forces

What pretended to be a rational, economic approach was really only another grand scheme in disguise. It made no difference that ideology this time stressed market forces, rather than administrative power. Again, wastewater was not considered.

Nor was there an adequate estimate of how much additional water would be needed for 24-hour service. The work-plan simply stated that the private company would reduce the 50 per cent distribution losses, and that this recovered water would make good the difference.

There was no understanding of the 'losses'. Did the Bank really believe that it would be enough to charge poor people for water presumably stolen? From what little is known, it seems water losses are mostly about leakages from underground connections. Which company, however efficient, would be able to retrofit all the underground connections?

In practice, the plan would have amounted to charging poor people more in order to provide better services to rich people. What a bizarre approach to Delhi's worries! The real issue, of course, would be to ensure supply to all, on an equitable basis. Meter the rich people, recover full costs from them and reform the sewage system.

City policies

In principle, every city can - and must - adopt a strategy based on collecting water locally, supplying it locally and treating the waste locally. Cities must look at groundwater reserves carefully and augment such reserves. They should only draw water from external sources after optimising their own.

It would also make sense to segregate waste - household waste from industrial waste - so that what is relatively less toxic can be cleaned up and then used to recharge groundwater or irrigate fields. Israel does that.

Moreover, it makes sense to reduce the water need in homes and factories. Rich Australia has passed a bill that mandates household equipment be water-efficient. In India, flush toilets still use more water than anywhere else in the world.

Moving India in the right direction will require a major change in mindset. The saddest fact is that we see frugality as an admission of our poverty. Any politician who asks for conservation becomes a herald of rationing and scarcity. Therefore, they play bold and promise grand schemes. It is, they say, what the country wants.

Source: D+C magazine and Third World Network Features.

Sunita Narain heads the non-governmental Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi and is editor of the bi-weekly journal Down to Earth.