Smart cities in times of climate change, erratic rainfall: Stop seeking water security from far away sources

floodsIn a recent report, experts Parineeta Dandekar and Amruta Pradhan of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) have analyzed the Smart Cities Mission to understand how the clinching issue of water is addressed and what can be considered Water Smart for India today. Excerpts:

In April 2015, the Union Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister approved budget outlay of nearly Rs 1 lakh crore to 100 Smart Cities Mission and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). Smart Cities Mission was allocated Rs 48,000 crore, while AMRUT, which mainly includes project-wise support to  infrastructure services relating to water supply, sewerage, sewage management, storm water drains, transport and development of green spaces and parks for 500 towns with a population of 1 lakh and above, will get Rs 50,000 crore. Under the Smart Cities Mission, each selected city would get central assistance of Rs100 crore per year for five years. These are huge sums of money, by all accounts. If we include state and local body contribution (ranging from 50-66% in the Smart City Mission) the investment in these initiatives over the next 5 years would be over Rs 2 lakh crore.

If we compare this with a similar Urban Renewal Scheme of the UPA Government, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), we see that the Plan outlay for 296 JNNURM Projects for about nine years between 2005-2014 was Rs 42,900 crore, of which central assistance was Rs 36,398 crores, much less than the current gigantic schemes. However, most JNNURM schemes are incomplete today. The new government will not be supporting more than half of these schemes and more than 190 JNNURM projects are now left in limbo. The NDA government has branded JNNRUM as a failure, as a mission which “could not produce a single Model City” and which focused only on “asset creation”.

While it’s hard to digest this allegation as taxpayers’ hard-earned money has gone into this scheme, it is largely true. JNNURM did end up creating assets without the requisite governance mechanisms to ensure that right decisions are taken and created assets work as promised and it does not have a single model city to show in nine years.

But will the Smart Cities Mission and AMRUT be any different? What were the issues with JNNURM, a flagship programme of the earlier UPA government? Despite holding several conclaves, expos and meetings, there is precious little information on the details of Smart Cities available in the open domain, including the official website.

Some lessons learnt from JNNURM

Majority of JNNURM schemes dealt with water – water supply, source augmentation, riverfront development, river “improvement”, 24×7 water supply schemes etc. As many as 186 projects worth Rs 8086.45 crore typically included water related projects. Two mandatory reforms introduced were: 100% cost recovery through user charges, and implementation of 74th constitutional amendment which prescribes that ULB (urban local bodies) should take care of basic infrastructure services like water supply, sanitation and solid waste management. Three optional reforms included bye laws for Rainwater Harvesting, bye laws for Reuse of Recycled water and encouraging private participation in water supply. All of these remain half done.

Even though encouraging private participation was an optional reform, there was a spur of public private partnership (PPP) projects across the country. By year 2010 total 64 urban water supply PPP projects were sanctioned all over India.

The standalone projects taken up by various city municipal corporations largely remained delinked from the reforms which were a tool for improving the overall governance. For example, out of 39 cities audited by Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), only seven cities implemented the user charge collection mechanism for water supply. Hundred per cent cost recovery for urban water supply remained on paper. It failed at strengthening urban local bodies (ULBs) in terms of their structure, composition, financial resources, functions and powers.

Not surprisingly, 183 out of 186 projects sanctioned under JNNURM for water supply were aimed at increasing supply: refurbishment of the existing infrastructure, augmenting more raw water sources and provision of uninterrupted water supply for 24 hours. Only three projects talk about the demand side management (one project is about rain water harvesting and two projects mentioning reuse of treated sewage. Two optional reforms, namely ‘revision of bye-laws to make RWH mandatory’ and ‘bye-laws on reuse of recycled water’, were the only provision for the promoting demand side management. Monitoring their on-ground implementation was responsibility of respective state governments and did not come under purview of JNNURM delinking it from the funds disbursement.

PPP, pushed indirectly through JNNURM, resulted in weakening of the ULBs. One of the mandatory reforms under JNNURM was the implementation of the 74th Amendment in its letter and spirit, empowering urban local bodies, shifting a number of critical functions, including water supply and sewerage to ULB. Though ULBs were transferred with the responsibility of providing basic infrastructure services and were equipped with necessary legal and administrative provisions, there was no investment in enhancing the administrative, technical, financial capacities of the ULBs. Instead private participation was prompted, directly and indirectly, as a solution to these chronic problems.

In many cases, private sector has exploited the innate lack of capabilities of the local bodies for its benefit. Studying some of the PPP projects and the processes of reveals that PPPs contracts are biased and are not a win-win deal for the local bodies from the beginning. In addition, they are dominated by various political and economic interests (click HERE).

Smart Cities Mission: Repeating JNNURM mistakes

And now, without any objective assessment of the past PPP projects, Smart Cities Mission is set to attract more private investment in service provision. The Ministry of Union Urban Development (MoUD) is working on guidelines to attract private investments in proposed ‘smart cities’. MoUD secretary Shankar Agarwal has been quoted saying, “A large amount of money has to come from the private sector for the development of ‘smart cities’ for which the ministry is studying the ways and means on how to attract private investments.” High Power Expert Committee on Investment Estimates in urban infrastructure has assessed investment requirements for the services covered at Rs7 lakh crore over 20 years (Rs 35000 crore annually. Involving private players without putting in place mechanisms for ensuring access-equity-affordability of the water supply service and protection of consumer rights will be repeating the same mistake again. In fact the moot question is if there any case for any kind of privatisation or PPP model in urban water sector at all.

Smart Cities website states that 24×7 water supply has been adopted as a benchmark for the mission. It will be interesting to look at how 24X7 water supply projects have performed during JNNURM. Ten of the projects out of 186 projects funded by JNNURM explicitly mention 24×7 water supply provision. But the switching over to daily water supply in core areas and the eventual shift towards 24X7 water supply scheme could not be achieved in half the cities even in this small sample of 10.  24×7 water supply is promoted purportedly to have multiple benefits, one of the main being ‘reduced burden on water resources’. However, no assessment has been done to validate if this argument is true in Indian context. Results of the first operational project of 24×7 water supply which was implemented in Dharampeth Zone of Nagpur on pilot basis, of which the co-author was a part, are quite opposite to this claim. Domestic users of the water supply report that the daily water use has gone up after availability of 24×7 water. A number of complex factors are responsible for this.

The necessity of 24X7 has to be questioned before accepting it widely as a benchmark and further feasibility of 24 hour supply in terms of water availability, storage capacity of the water supply system etc. has to be established on case to case basis and with providing some real mechanisms for public participation. Looking at 24X7 water supply provision as a means for increased revenue may have serious impacts on the water resources, water availability, equitable distribution and efficient use of resources.

One size fits all approach for water supply projects

While planning and designing the water supply projects during preparation of CDPs (City Development Plans) and DPRs (Detailed Project Reports) of the projects ULBs have mostly opted for conventional water supply systems sourcing water from the distant surface water bodies like rivers and dams. They have not actively explored the local water supply sources, non-conventional and traditional options of integrating RWH or recycle and reuse of water into these projects. The benchmarks of the water supply service have also been standard throughout the nation. There has been no cognizance of varying availability of water supply due to the varying agro-climatic regions in which the city falls. As a result the cities have fallen short of achieving many of these standards. E.g. per capita 135 liters per capita per day (lpcd) water supply could not be achieved in any ULB in West Bengal during JNNURM. While the print media reports that the Smart Cities will be “”region-specific and not a generalized concept as practiced earlier”,[xiv] the benchmarks present the picture which is quite the opposite.

While Government of India is still prescribing 135 lpcd as a benchmark for water supply, many countries are focusing on reducing their per capita water supply and demand through cost effective measures like in the UK. Amsterdam has less than 130 lpcd water supply and less than 6% leakages. In 2004, The Netherlands made a law banning private sector provision of water supply.

After holding consultation workshops in October 2014 on Smart Cities, the MoUD prepared a concept note in December 2014. This note does not include any framework on how the Smart Cities Mission will be taken ahead, how 24×7 water supply will be ensured, how water metering will be achieved, etc. Worryingly, it does not include a word about demand management, efficient water supply, transparency in urban water governance, 100% treatment of sewage and reuse of sewage water etc. On a positive note, it does include Rainwater harvesting and 100% sewerage connectivity, but not decentralized sewage treatment.

When it comes to urban water supply or sanitation, many Indian cities have been fighting with issues like haphazardly laid network, lack of technically capable staff, dismal collection of water taxes etc. which are typically a result of weak, non-transparent and unaccountable urban governance. In fact, as our experience with JNNURM shows, it is not infrastructure, finances or technology that is per se the limiting factor for efficient and equitable water supply in India today. It is the governance which holds the key. Nothing in the open domain about Smart Cities talks of radical changes in this entrenched structure.

Official website of the programme states that Smart Cities will focus on use of Information Communication Technology (ICT) for improved service efficiency. Data from sensors, cameras, wireless devices, data centres from key infrastructure like water supply will be integrated into smart grid and fed to computers to come up with models and ways to make services efficient. While, use of technology is needed and is good, ‘smart technologies’ like sensors, cameras, wireless devices, data centres by themselves will not solve these chronic problems as their roots are in the governance of the system. In the absence of open, responsive and accountable governance, ICT is just another layer of physical infrastructure which in itself will not ensure efficiency, accountability and transparency in the governance of urban water supply.

Some suggestions

Protection to urban streams, wetlands and rivers and rivulets as natural water retention and passage systems is strongly needed. Riparian zone next to these systems is needed to be protected as green zone. No channelization, concreting and covering of urban streams and rivers can be allowed in the garb of storm water management, riverfront development, river improvement, etc.

It is good to see that Smart Cities has introduced 100% rainwater harvesting as prerequisite under storm water management. Indeed rainwater harvesting is delinked from storm water management plans of cities, which typically include only channelization and opening up of real estate close to stream, thus affecting storm water drainage. As climate change makes extreme weather events like Mumbai rains of July 26, 2005 more common, storm water drainage in Smart Cities is a critical issue and recharging rainwater could lead to significant decrease in urban runoff.

Recharge zones in urban settings are also important. In several countries, urban recharge zones are created as recreational spaces and rain gardens to recharge groundwater and arrest water logging at the same time. Concreting and channelizing urban streams, which are amazing recreational, ecological and educational grounds should not be allowed in the name of 0% water logging incidents.

At the time of climate change, when rainfall is becoming more and more erratic, urban centers can no longer seek security from far away water sources. Already, the tentacles of urban areas have extended far and wide. They need decentralized and multiple solutions which are flexible to respond to climate change. Fortunately, most cities themselves have resources like Rainwater, local tanks and water bodies, groundwater, sewage re-treatment and reuse on which they can depend for their needs to a large extent. Innovation in this field can not only solve a number of complex problems, but give a fillip to skilled employment and economy as well.

As the Working Group on Urban and Industrial Water Supply and Sanitation of the 12th Five Year plan states:

“The agenda for change requires each city to consider, as first source of supply its local water body. Unless these structures are built into the water supply infrastructure, there will be only lip service for protection and at best, efforts to ‘beautify’ the lakefront for recreational purpose, not for it’s essential life-giving service. Therefore, cities must only get funds for water projects, when they have accounted for the water supply from local water bodies. This condition is vital. It will force protection and will build the infrastructure, which will supply locally and then take back sewage – the water’s waste connection — also locally.”

Several aspects need to be included in this before cities can be allowed any additional water from far away sources, including exhausting full potential of rainwater harvesting, full treatment, recycle and reuse of treated sewage, full protection to the existing water ecosystem components, fully democratic decentralized bottom up governance, exhausting potential of demand side management, reduction in transmission and distribution (T&D) losses to below 10%, among others. Today none of them are in place. so Delhi finds it easier to demand water from Renuka Dam, Kishau Dam or Lakhwar dam or even Sharda Yamuna Link, and Mumbai finds it easier to demand dams like Kalu, Shai, Balganga or Damanganga River Link without achieving any of the norms listed above. These are disastrous options.

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