Seeking to invite massive investments, India’s water unsmart cities operate in policy vacuum

unsmartBy Himanshu Thakkar*

The urban water footprint in India is increasing in multiple ways. Rapid urbanisation predicted by experts is just unfolding. Per capita demands are going up.

City water managers are looking at big storages for dependable source of water, such big storages are necessarily far off from the cities. Cities are also generating sewage equal to 80% of the water they consume. Such storages created behind big dams have huge social, environmental impacts, besides massive economic costs and increased disaster risks. There is competition for water allocation from such sources, either existing, under construction or to be constructed. Such allocations for long distance cities thus creates conflicts, and potential disruption for cities, like the ones Delhi frequently faces, including in Summer of 2018.

It is not just in arid areas that cities are looking for long distance water sources. Even Mumbai Metropolitan Region, with annual average rainfall of 2400 mm, looks for big dams and river diversions from far off areas, including even a river linking project (Damanganga-Pinjal Link).

Not one city in India is able to treat the sewage generated. Not even the national capital. This mostly untreated sewage is polluting the rivers flowing to downstream areas and even groundwater at many places.

Dysfunctional Sewage Treatment Plant in Varanasi. Photo:  Kelly Alley

Typically, the cities are unable to cater to the water demand, so many people in the cities end up using groundwater directly through their own bore wells or indirectly through tankers, the tankers typically source their water from groundwater mostly from around the borders of the city.

At the same time, cities are known to cover up or concretise the open spaces, destroy local water bodies, destroy the nearby forests (e.g. Delhi Ridge or Yamuna floodplain; Mumbai mangroves or Sanjay Gandhi National Park or Mithi and other rivers; Bangalore the lakes; Kolkata the East Kolkata wetlands). The combined effect of groundwater over use on the one hand and such cover up & destruction on the other leads to depletion of groundwater level, depriving the fall back mechanism for the water deprived people and water scarce times. The groundwater depletion can have wider implications in the surrounding areas and on rivers flowing through the cities.

Water related disaster struck in a number of cities in recent years: Mumbai (July 2005, Aug 2017, another one could be beginning as I write in June 2018), Surat (Aug 2006), Srinagar (Sept 2014)[i], Chennai (Dec 2015, Nov 2017)[ii], Shimla (Dec 2015, May-June 2018)[iii], Patna (Aug 2016), Ahmedabad (July 2017). The neglect and deterioration of wetlands, lakes, water bodies, flood plains; concretising of most of the surface reducing the water percolation, encroachment, silting up and non-maintenance of the drainage system, reduction in flood carrying capacity of the city rivers and impact of climate change means that the frequency of such events is likely to go up in coming years.

Coir Logs and Soil Bag Weir (INTACH), part of bioremediation treatment of Assi River in Varanasi

The proposal that River Front Development like what has been done in case of Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad in Gujarat[iv] is the solution for Urban Rivers is clearly misleading and misconceived. Sabarmati river has not been cleaned up or rejuvenated, the pollution has been transferred downstream of the city. The concrete channelization has killed Sabarmati as a river, what is left is just a concrete channel, not a river. The water that is seen in this channel in Ahmedabad is not Sabarmati water, but Narmada water, on which the city of Ahmedabad has no right. The encroachment of the riverbed and flood plain for real estate development in the process is clearly an invitation to disaster, the world is in fact moving towards giving room for the river. We need to rejuvenated our rivers without killing them. That is both necessary (not luxury) and possible.

Even a city like Pune with at least five rivars flowing through it is considered hugely vulnerable to floods as all the rivers are facing silting, drainage congestion, pollution and encroachments, most importantly by the government, in spite of repeated judicial orders.

At a recent meeting in Pune,[v] it was emphasised that India urgently needs a National Urban Water Policy [vi]that would guide the cities to manage the different aspects of its Urban Water components in an optimal way. India’s National Water Policy of 2012 is clearly unable to play that role, both because it lacks necessary content and also as is proved in practice. We need a policy that is focused on various aspects of Urban Water Sector and which would help us meet the considerable current and future challenges of this sector.

As the 12th Five Year Plan Working Group Report on Urban Water said in 2011 [vii] Rainwater, local water bodies, rivers, groundwater aquifers and treated sewage are key resources that need to be exhausted before any external long distance water option is considered. In this range of components, reduction of transmission and distribution losses, disallowing unjustifiable & unnecessary water intensive activities and demand side management measures will also have key role.

There is also a need for education of policy makers, decision makers including ministers and bureaucrats and all concerned that freshwater supply is limited, since a lot of people seem to believe and behave as if there is unlimited water.

A key component of the smart Urban Water Policy would be participatory, transparent, accountable Governance and also Right to water. The public health cost of the water pollution that cities leave untreated is unaccounted, massive and should be unacceptable. It is invariably borne by the poorest. Unfortunately, all the responsible get away as if discharge of untreated sewage and implied costs are something normal and nothing to worry about.

It is clear from experience of last over four decades that massive, centralised Sewage Treatment Plants that is the prevalent option is not working. We have better options in terms of decentralised sewage treatment[viii] and[ix] ecosystem friendly options of bio remediation, constructed wetlands and in-situ treatment. Such options are not only low cost, low capital and land intensive, but also help make the recycling of treated sewage feasible.

Government of India has smart cities program with massive investments, one expected it to define what is water smart city and also come up with a National Urban Water Policy that would provide road map for the cities to become water smart. But the program has no such norms or policy. The cities included in this program are unlikely to provide example of water smart city.

*South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) Contact: ht.sandrp@gmail.com

Source: . This is an edited version of this was published in Asia Times

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