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By Dr. Hari Haran Chandra

Every building and the city is first a ‘Water Economy’ – just good water management will help meet nearly 25 percent of India’s 2030 carbon reduction target.

Across India’s cities, builders and residents of existing apartments, offices, hospitals, and hotels face this serious predicament. Essentially, every city’s economy and the national economy first depend on the strength of the water economy. We often forget that the prosperity of any economy depends primarily on water availability and then upon other resources for a city or any human settlement to grow, thrive, and prosper. Every city and civilization for millennia has grown first around a river with the exception of the last century when Man chose to abuse beyond tolerable limits.

Water is not about water alone, but about the energy that is needed to long-haul water to cities from rivers, or deep-draw from borewells that were brought in only 50 years ago. Every 10 billion liters of water that a city like Bengaluru or Chennai needs every 5 days, uses up about 300,000 units of electricity. This accounts for about 350 tonnes of carbon kg emission and therefore 24 million tonnes a year.

Therefore, every 1,000 crores or 10 billion liters is about 0.3 million tons of daily carbon emissions thanks to energy for the long haul from rivers or deep draw of water. That’s about 22 million tonnes a year for a Chennai or Bangalore, and 35-40 million tonnes annually for a Delhi or Mumbai. Over ten years of a consistent reduction in freshwater demand, with an 80 percent drop in freshwater demand by the use of rainwater or reuse of treated water, India’s potential carbon reduction from just this one area of efficiency will help meet nearly 25 percent of India’s carbon reduction target for 2030.

The linkage to India’s need to achieve 2.5 billion tons of carbon emission reduction by 2030 cannot be forgotten. Check this report which says, India is targeting reducing total greenhouse gas emissions by 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes by 2030 even before COP26 in Glasgow.

Every building and every farmer has a significant role to play in helping India achieve these goals. The government in its wisdom focuses on what it can do with central solutions – PM Modi announcing the creation of 75 lakes for every district or the New Water Policy announcing the creation of STPs for treating 36 billion liters of wastewater before they enter lakes in every AMRUT city are all part of such effort to meet the Carbon reduction target of 2030. But the Government, understandably, is not focusing on demand-side management and water conservation for fear of public resistance. This does not absolve the Government, for other countries have demonstrated successfully how water utilities can bring about efficiency in the use of water and energy, with the UK’s model of water utilities being a good example of what India’s Jal Nigams and Water Supply Boards can emulate [See What India can learn from the UK, Smart Water & Waste World Magazine.]

One policy planner in the Jal Shakti ministry says, “You must understand. It is like measures to reduce population. The Government cannot legislate in a democracy the forceful measure of ‘nasbandi’, while we must bring greater education among people on the need to have fewer children.”

It is useful for facility management professionals and senior management in the industry, as well as committees of resident welfare associations across thousands of apartments in our cities, to know how to bring about such solutions that can reduce freshwater demand, reduce energy demand and therefore bring a reduction in carbon emissions in many millions of Carbon-tonnes in urban India. It is important that such a solution is understood for how it impacts a company or industry or agriculture, or an apartment, or any commercial building at the last mile. Says one citizen leader, “Government cannot force us to do rainwater harvesting or used treated wastewater. The rooftop is in our building, not owned by the government,” and then he adds with impact, “When we want a job we go and look for it, don’t we? We don’t ask the government to give us a job. It is our home, our building. We have to seek solutions and solve our own challenges at our cost. And the cost is so little with such high returns for the small investment in water solutions, that it is absurd not to do voluntarily in our own best interest, whether we are a residential block or a commercial building.”

There are over 250 companies affiliated with the CII that became signatories to the ESG protocol last year. Environmental, Social, and Governance criteria are a set of standards for a company’s behavior used by socially conscious companies; environmental criteria consider how a company safeguards the environment, including corporate policies addressing climate change. Yet, many of them internally demur, when it comes to even an ‘additional spend’ of Rs 10-12 lac on a project value of Rs 200-crore because of want of understanding at the Senior and Middle management, while the company’s Board at the top declares their allegiance to such commitment to environmental measures. In most companies, down the line managers are astoundingly ignorant, and at once all-knowing on decisions they think their management will not accept.

There is the other side of the coin. The change that India needs, and quickly, is possible only if each city utility for water and energy moves away from supply-side apologists in administration to demand-side doers drawn from water experts and those within the administration who are not focused on massive public expenditure that offers little accountability on what happens after the expenditure budget is completed. Many installations of the past, including wastewater treatment systems, are lying in disuse for want of proper maintenance, and adequately trained staff who are diligent in operations. There is then the galling truth of treated water distributed in mains and water transmission lines ‘lost’ in leakages, with such ‘non-revenue water’ being as impossibly high as 40-45 percent in cities like Chennai or Bengaluru and all cities that have long-distance, river-fed water supply systems [See Let’s Drink to the Nation, Smart Water & Waste World Magazine].

Fresh water demand can drop in cities by 70 percent in every building typology we all know. This does not require legislation; the government has little to do with this, as much as bulk water users and professionals understanding the large financial savings they secure, while they contribute to reduced groundwater exploitation from borewells use, or with treatment systems that offer them drinking water from used water, or a slew of solutions that can bring down energy use in any building by as much as 50-70 percent with investments that offer high returns on investment.

Solutions today offer IRRs of 25% and more, and so companies or RWAs or others should not demur on adopting such solutions. City water utility boards and Jal Nigams as well as the state water administrations across all cities, as stated earlier, also have to do their part in reducing the massive distribution leakages of precious fresh water from 45% in cities like Chennai or Bengaluru to a single digit. City administrations, too, have to focus on good and effective surface water management that will help every city become water-neutral or even water surplus. It takes both hands to clap: Central and State governments are today focusing on massive public expenditure on more central solutions for water treatment: instead, the shift should be for governments to balance such public expenditure, with a similar effort to secure every bulk water-user to implement such localized solutions to reduce fresh water demand by 70-80 percent in their own buildings. It is such a combination of effort by both city water utilities and bulk water users that can make the difference, both in terms of costs and the effectiveness of solutions. If these two hands clap, India can hope to set a roadmap for pulling the country from the brink of a water economy collapse that is now staring us in the face.

Groundwater use has to stop. The risk for the private sector and for the country is enormous. The threat of land subsidence due to groundwater abuse and exploitation in most parts of India is real. UP, Haryana and Punjab alone account for 60 percent of India’s total groundwater extraction. The risk of massive tracts of agricultural land subsiding and ‘sinking’ thanks to excessive use of borewells and unbridled groundwater exploitation is something we will see in this decade as a consequence of incalculable damage that has already been done. We need to stop such abuse of deep aquifers and restore shallow aquifers, so as to ensure that deep aquifers heal over the next 30-50 years of such nurturing.

There is No Want of Solutions

There are potential technologies, processes, and solutions that are available, and at very attractive economic terms. An apartment, for example, with 300,000 liters of water discharge can secure a water treatment system, beyond the regular STPs that offer tertiary water treatment that enables use for gardens and flush tanks. Practical and viable ‘NEWater systems’ (See the report cited earlier) can further treat the other half of such treated water to drinking water grade and sell it to other companies close by, if the apartment’s residents are averse to drinking this water which is better than bottled water!

A large apartment producing about two tons of wet waste a day can convert this waste with high economic viability into kitchen gas of up to the equivalent of 40 to 80 cylinders of cooking gas with investment options that offer payback within 3-4 years and a lifetime of such cooking gas yield at just the cost of maintenance.

This writer is witness to any number of hotels and manufacturing plants having reduced their energy bills by over Rs 1 crore annually, when their monthly bill was about Rs 50 lac a month! The new crop of energy and water efficiency professionals, as well as those who bring smart solutions for waste management, can quietly change the face of such use and abuse in every company and building across India.

To the specialist and the discerning expert in India today, there are many options that can enable drop in the use of freshwater by 80 percent, a drop in energy use by 60-70 percent, and complete elimination of dumping wet waste that a building generates. However, to the common bulk user of water or energy or bulk generator of waste, these solutions are hard to find because such Green Solution Providers are few and far between. But Net Zero Water, Net Zero Energy, or Net Zero Waste is the only way forward if businesses have to survive.

Going green is not simply about securing a certification that will boost the brand image of a company or offer legal compliance with PCB and other regulations. It’s about building your company’s, and the building’s, ability to battle the long-term need for a liveable option that beats the crisis around us that is growing rapidly. A green certification is only a tool that assesses the effectiveness of your building’s solutions; it is not the solution itself for achieving efficiency and cost-effectiveness which are outcomes of what you do as professionals to achieve these results.

This is the second blog in this new two-part series authored by Mr. Hari Haran Chandra. Here is the Part-1.

About the Author

Dr. Hari Haran Chandra is a Trustee at INHAF, Prem Jain Memorial Trust, AltTech Foundation; and a Senior Fellow at the Indian Green Building Council.

WOW AF is a multi-city citizen-led initiative now in action in four Indian cities of Bengaluru, Chennai, Trichy, and Hyderabad; and moving soon to four more cities in the country, and is led by water experts and citizen leaders who seek to bring water efficiency with water-users adopting solutions to meet a Mission Target of Saving 3000 Crore Liters in these cities.

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