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By Dr. Hari Haran Chandra

Is the UK Water Utilities model a pipedream that India can never hope to aspire for? Or can administrators begin to think ‘demand-side’?

“Those at the vantage of both apex water supply companies find this difficult to accept. Why can’t a ‘water supply’ company remodel itself to become a ‘water management’ company?” asks a veteran urban and development planner, Gautam Adhikari, who has spent years wrestling with the challenge that nearly every city in India suffers. “I am yet to see an administrator ‘selling’ the proposition to a minister of water resources of how saving water can be a real solution to need for water.”

Why do India’s water supply boards persist with this supply-centric approach to feeding cities? Take Chennai, for example. The city needs 200 crore liters a day, and secures about 80 crore liters from Chennai Metro Water—officially on paper, while distribution leaks in the transmissions and the Mains account for 40% ‘non-revenue water’ or over 30 crore liters every day. The balance 150 crore liters is water that is drawn from deep aquifers, with enormous abuse of the once-rich hydrology of the city. The story is not any different in every other city, barring a few exceptions. “Do we focus,” asks an ex-USAID official, “on infrastructure [and the brutality of public expenditure] and allow demand to grow exponentially, unrestricted and in many cases, wastefully?”

Chennai is looking at a spend running in thousands of crores of rupees to ‘augment’ [most water administrators love this word] supply by another 89-90 crore liters with six projects in the northwest of Chennai that hosts a rich ecosystem of headwaters or ‘Water Towers’ [watch this space for Part 3 that is soon to be featured]. Today, the city has a mere 80 crore liters of grid supply—40 percent of daily demand, and yet suffers 45 percent ‘non-revenue water’ by official admission. Asks Mr. M N Thippeswamy, one-time Chief Engineer of Bangalore’s water supply board and a tireless advocate for better water management, “Countries like Cambodia have shown that they can bring down leakages and non-revenue water to less than 10 percent. Simple schemes for better harvest of a city’s surface rainwater runoffs can be implemented with little effort if we had the resolve of the state utilities and the government.”

Says the young CEO of a start-up in Chennai, Solinas Integrity, Divanshu Kumar, “We have the technology for digitally mapping leakages across the network of distribution of water transmission lines that crisscross the city, any city. We can set protocols for early leak detection, reduction in digging time, effort and cost by pinpointing the leak to the last centimeter in the welter of pipelines that lie underground in the city. The Water Utility engineers can get this data without digging up roads. We can even offer data on which pipe lengths need to be replaced [Listen to Divanshu speaking of his solutions here].”

Adds E Nandakumar of the International Centre for Clean Water in Chennai, “Detecting these leaks digitally and getting the Utility’s staff to fix them can save any city 35-40 percent of water that is today not billed. Across India, this is called ‘Non-Revenue Water’. Such leakage is expensive; this is after having paid for its long haul from distant sources of rivers and reservoirs, and after paying for its treatment, too. The water utility pays as much as Rs 100 per 1000 liters – and they cannot bill for it. Apart from the fact that they leave massive deficits in water supply for people. Water tankers thrive, and the end-user pays a whopping price. At the apartment I live in, of over 250 flats, in Chennai, we pay over Rs 35 lac every year for water purchase alone. And our investment in every home in RO filtration systems at an average of Rs 20,000 is another wasteful cost for the overall economy. There are those who can afford now investing in Air-to-water systems at Rs 50,000, and do.”

It is a big scrum, a muddled jumble with every home and apartment a mini-water utility, each paying tons of money to make themselves water-secure. All the infrastructure that a water infrastructure company should be offering for source, storage, distribution and disposal is something every home-owner and apartment and company, hotel, hospital or industry has created over the last twenty years—a clear testimony to the complete lack of faith in the government’s capacity to supply water. Fifty percent of a city’s population do not have taps for water. And every third city-dweller, in the slums, buys drinking water in those 20-liter water bubbles that cost Rs 5—or Rs 250 per 100 liters, which is 3-6 times what the middle-class home pays depending on tariff in a city.

What should the water Boards and jal nigams across our cities do? Should they not pick a lesson from countries like the UK [See Part 1] to drive conservation among water users? It is amazing to know those UK water utilities are actually not ‘selling’ water for more cash, but are urging users to buy less water. They are managing water, and not supplying the precious liquid.

Proffers Gautam Adhikari, “Our cities don’t have the money to support the bloated, over-staffed, supply behemoths who continue to carry a mandate to supply more water, when the writing on the wall is clear: there is no more water to bring from anywhere.”

Who says fresh water should be used just once? Singapore first since 2008, and China next, since 2014, have taken to such systems of treatment and re-supply as fresh water quietly, without making a fuss about it, while keeping a careful eye on user resistance to using such recycled water for drinking, cooking or bathing or other uses [Look for Part 4 of this Series in this space].

Can our water utilities move to the demand-side of the water equation from this obsession with ‘augmenting’ supply with massive projects to bring more water from rivers that are drying up? Can we have water management boards in place of water supply boards? Simply the change in name across all these water utilities in the country will send out a powerful message to the engineers and staff, as well as to the water users.

Offers a Chennai-based water consultant who doesn’t want to be named, “A mere fraction of the amount that governments want to spend on increasing supply of water can work the miracle of bringing down demand for fresh water by 50 to 70 percent. Look at the example you have offered of the water utilities in the UK. They are sending out a message that’s crystal: We don’t need to ‘sell’ water, but manage it in ways that it is not a ‘business’ to make more financial revenues.”

Reflects another water expert from Bangalore, BK Prasad, who is a Rotarian and Chairman of the state chapter of the Indian Plumbing Association, “It will be interesting to know how the UK Government compensates these private water utilities for the effort they make to have their water-user ‘clients’ conserve. The less they sell water, the more successful they are! Very interesting model!”

The balance sheet of such a private water utility is built on the basis of the water conserved by their water users and NOT by the revenue they have made out of water sold.

Says Suresh Pai, a resident of an apartment to the north of Bangalore. “Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. We live in a section of the city that is beyond the water supply grid. We were dependent on deep borewells for all our water needs of about 13 million liters a year for the 128 homes that the apartment hosts. Our borewells were drying up. The residents huddled at a meeting about 2 years ago. We looked at the options. The first strike was at how we reuse wastewater in a way that we save yearly about 6 million liters. We mapped costs and the savings, and the period it takes to recover the investment that all members were making. It didn’t amount to more than Rs 30,000 per home, and the recovery period was no more than 2 years. We went ahead. We dropped our water costs for the year by one-half after installing. Then we got our kids at the apartment to promote aerators [See this film that presents a 10-year-old explaining the fixing of aerators]. The saving is nearly 2 percent for the apartment with this simple device.”

Pai is a chartered accountant, and with the help of the other leader-residents, guided the next steps, “It encouraged the community to take up the third such solution – rainwater harvesting. About the end of 2021, we got the first of three stages of such rainwater harvest completed. It cost us very little that I even forget the number! Today we have a million liters of water coming from rainwater, of the 13 million liters a year needed annually. We have about 7 million liters reused from the treated water we have at the apartment. The aerators save us about a million liters. Once we complete the next two stages of rainwater harvest on the other two blocks, that will be another two million liters that we plug in.”

That is nearly all the water the apartment needs as fresh water. “We have no tankers coming in with water; we have no borewells gouging water from the deep aquifer which in our parts runs at 500 meters, or nearly a half kilometer deep.”

This story of one apartment is now the narrative that about 200 apartments and about 5000 homes in Bangalore. That is not even scratching the surface of the problem—it is less than 4 percent of all such homes and apartments in Bengaluru.

Should we look at the half-empty cup and lament? Or celebrate the accomplishment of this inspiring few? Should we bemoan the fact that these are people who achieve such conservation without any help from the government, or often despite the Government?

Ganesh Shanbhag regrets, “At my house in Hubli, we achieved net-zero water. The water supply board continues to bill us the minimum tariff! I have given up trying to ‘lodge’ complaints. We just pay the minimum bill although we don’t take a drop of water from the municipal supply.”

Regulations in some cities like Bengaluru are impeccable. But implementation is caught up in the web of protocols and inaction and inertia in any govt organization – the water supply boards and the pollution control boards in our cities that for some reason are offered the mandate to govern wastewater – are toothless when it comes to getting users to abide by them.

Pleads the Member Secretary of the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board, a well-intended officer, “The city is way too large for us to police compliance. People should comply.” And he is of course right. The effort is two-sided, with water users respecting the regulations. Says Niranjan Khatri, an indefatigable evangelist, who won’t miss a chance to bring little changes, “There are apartments I know that are willing to pay the penalty to the government for violation, but not implement even if they are told that the investment return is incredibly high!”

Can India’s cities have the sort of data-led process that the UK has—to advise, counsel, and gently persuade water users to do what Suresh Pai’s apartment has done voluntarily? Can that model of a data-driven set of water counseling for water users be replicated in India? Is it for want of technology that it does not happen in our cities? This writer who has spent over 30 years on such solutions from about the 1990s, is more than just hopeful. The focus has to be on the demand side to address the problems of runaway demand and explore the opportunities to moderate it. India’s software engineers are more than capable of devising such algorithm-based solutions.

The WOW Action Forum offers a questionnaire-based survey. In less than an hour of your filling it, this not-for-profit offers an algorithm-based solutions dashboard of savings your home can make. There are no takers, though, and the struggle to get people to join the effort is just a feeble voice in the wilderness.

Barring some striking and inspiring exceptions, like Puri in Odisha which today has a 24×7 continuous water supply system led by the state-owned agency, which has, it claims, brought down distribution leakages and non-revenue to under 10 percent, are just that: exceptions. It succeeded because it had a committed set of professionals who led the initiative, with the blessings of no less than the chief minister himself.

Says another very senior industrialist, who has headed for four decades a belvedere company in pumps, “I recall a meeting of the Delhi water board some 3 years ago. The departments were hedging, hemming and hawing. The Chief Minister moved into one of the meetings and said, ‘I want this to be done.’ And action followed in a snap. The efficiency in the distribution has risen dramatically, and the cost of energy for Delhi has fallen very sharply. Having said this, I must admit that 97 percent of sales is outside of the Government. I just don’t trust the process, for decisions are not made on the basis of economic efficiency. Iron is that we make in India, and have a majority of our installations outside the country!”

India today has barely enough annual renewable water available to avert alarm. Water boards cannot remain oblivious, and the effort to shore up and strengthen the source of water in the natural ecosystems will be one of the larger efforts to be made at the start of the pipe, while people have to be nudged into adopting the right solutions to reduce the need for fresh water.

This blog is the second post in the four-part series on ‘Smart Water Practices‘ authored by Mr. Hari Haran Chandra. Click here to read Part-1. Here are Part-3 and Part-4.

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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