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By Poonam Sewak

The Niti Aayog Composite Water Management Index states, “54 percent of India’s groundwater wells are declining, and 21 major cities are expected to run out of groundwater as soon as 2020, affecting almost 100 million people”.

While some claim the situation is not quite so serious, such a strong statement from the leading government policy think-tank cannot be taken lightly as well; especially since it highlights that India is facing the worst water crisis in its history with millions of lives and livelihoods under threat.

Cities face a growing range of adversities and challenges in the 21st century, from the effects of increasing migrant populations to climate change, inadequate infrastructure, and pandemics. The availability of safe drinking water is prominent among them. Resilience is what enables cities to adapt and transform in the face of these challenges, helping them to prepare for both the expected and the unexpected.

In April 2018, 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), announced a formal partnership to expand collaborative resilience-building efforts in India. Safe drinking water supply is prominent among the adversities and challenges facing India, and the issue is expected to worsen.

In India, nearly 17 percent of the urban population (65 million people) live in slums and more than 50 percent of the 14 million urban poor families lack access to safe piped water supply. This gap in supply is often met by Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) through the provision of community-level standpipes or tankers. However, the quality of water from these sources is usually poor, and water supply is often available for only a few hours a day, resulting in increased costs from water-borne diseases and a lack of access for the poor.

Hence, to achieve the objective of safe water for resilient cities, Small Water Enterprises (SWEs) need to be included in India’s city planning; a more conducive policy and enabling environment and regulatory framework is needed, and the government and the private sector need enhanced collaboration and partnerships for the advancement of SWEs.

Urban Small Water Enterprises (USWEs) can address the unmet need to provide high-quality treated water, complementing the government’s piped-water efforts. These USWEs offer the dual advantage of providing reliable, safe, and affordable drinking water 24/7, as well as generating livelihoods.

Additionally, Urban SWEs require a lower investment than an alternative supplemental water supply, and also reduce incidences of waterborne disease, generate livelihoods, and prevent reliance on expensive plastic bottled water, thereby addressing the scourge of plastic pollution.

Including Small Water Enterprises (SWEs) in urban planning for the creation of resilient cities expands the options for government provision of safe water and can facilitate direct investments and development in ways that will support the Government of India’s plan, and contribute to urban growth and renewal. For a capital investment of roughly INR 4,000 crores (USD 592 million), about 15,000 USWEs can provide 35 million people, or roughly half of all urban slum dwellers in India, with sustainable access to affordable, safe drinking water.

However, there is still the need to bring Urban SWEs into the picture in a larger format. For local governments to progress to implementing USWEs, there is a need to accelerate local action by addressing supply gaps, standardizing approaches, mobilizing financing, and forming key stakeholder coalitions. This includes empowering ULBs and setting up performance standards that can provide the basis for the ULBs and other regulatory bodies to measure and monitor USWEs. Digital tools can support efficient, systematic monitoring and evaluation efforts.

Making cities safe from disaster is everybody’s business. The mayors, urban local bodies, and other government entities are the key players, responsible for delivering essential services to their citizens (water, shelter, health, education, transportation, etc.) and for lessening the risk to cities and making them resilient against the effects of climate change, burgeoning populations, and safety issues.

However, in addition to national and local governments, all institutions and citizens – including associations; international, regional, and civil society organizations; donors; the private sector; academia; and professional associations – have a role to play in reducing the risks that cities face. It will be through a collective effort by all of these key stakeholders that we will build resilient cities.

About the Author
Poonam Sewak is Vice President – Knowledge and Partnerships at Safe Water Network.

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