Wednesdays for Water: Urban-rural water sustainability faces multiple challenges on the ground

By Nishant Saxena1, Manisha Sharma2, Fawzia Tarannum3, Mansee Bal Bhargava4

In India, nearly 60% of rural households have drinking water facilities within their premises whereas, the figure touches 80% in the urban areas, according to the National Sample Survey. Such urban-rural disparity is evident globally also and thus calls for addressing access to water from equitable and sustainable perspectives.

Sustainable water management refers to a way of using water ensuring the current social, ecological, and economic needs are met without compromising the capabilities to meet those needs in the future. It requires stakeholders (in the government, residential, businesses, industries, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, etc.) including the water practitioners to look beyond the administrative, jurisdictional, and bureaucratic boundaries besides the immediate supply operations, managing water collaboratively while seeking resilient regional solutions that minimizes risks. It is urgent that a collaborative approach is taken by the stakeholders towards inclusive water management in order to reduce the rising water disparity induced conflicts and health concerns.

The United Nations under its goal of ‘Securing Sustainable Water for All’ through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG06) also puts stress on ensuring equitable and sustainable access to safe drinking water & sanitation by 2030. Since, agriculture is at the core of most other sectors, it is the highest consumer of water globally accounting for nearly 70% of water withdrawals. After agriculture, industry and energy sector accounts for 20% and the municipal water use for 10% of the total water demand. Further, since half the world population will be living in urban areas by 2050 and with the business as usual practices, cities will face huge challenges in meeting the water demands. The rising water demand is associated with the food demand that is expected to increase 60% more and 100% more in the developing countries by 2050. This will hugely impact the disparity and difficulty in the urban-rural water share.

Taking cognizance of the rising water disparity, the Wednesdays for Water organised a conversation on the Wednesday, 28th July 2021 on the topic, ‘Sustainable Water Management – Urban Rural Continuum’. The speakers for the sessions were, Dr Ranjana Ray Chaudhuri from the TERI-SAS and Alka Palrecha, founder of People in Centre. The session was moderated by Dr Fawzia Tarannum and the discussant for the session was Ms Manisha Sharma, who is an independently practicing Architect-Planner.

Problem Identification

Indiscriminate use of water among the competing users augmented with weak policy framework have resulted in water distress across India. The problem is getting exacerbated by the unprecedented spatial and temporal variability in rainfall due to climate change resulting in flooding and drought. Ranjana in her presentation brought out that urban flooding are human made disaster when the responsible decision makers pay little heed to the natural topography and hydro-geomorphology of land & water before proposing for any development. Many examples of mega projects can be referred to where the environmental regulations and experts’ warnings were neglected in development initiatives, and which resulted in adverse impacts within short span of time. Urban floods have increased in recent years in almost all major cities. The increasing impervious surfaces in urban areas with concretisation is negatively impacting water logging and flooding in the cities.

Alka brought out the huge implicit bias between the urban and rural water accessibility. She shared the beautiful thought of how rivers flow continuously and ensure no distinction between urban, peri-urban and rural areas. Yet, the sad fact is that on the one hand, we worship our rivers and on the other hand, dump all sorts of waste into it. The disconnect between our beliefs, culture, practices and disparity in water distribution and access to water between the urban and rural areas is a deep concern and a source of many issues including migration. She highlighted the long distance from which the water is brought for distribution in the cities, for example, Ahmedabad is served water from a distance of 400 kms., Delhi from 500 kms., etc.

Distance travelled by water in Indian Cities (Source: People in Centre)

Alka also discussed the urban-rural disparity pertaining to wastewater. For example, how cities generate more wastewater as they consume more freshwater and discharge the wastewater into the waterbodies due to lack of adequate as well as functional sewage treatment plants. Only about 35% of wastewater gets treated in India. Urban areas usually do not have ample space to treat all the wastewater and thus, it is bound to go beyond the urban limits and flow into the rural areas. Concepts like ‘zero waste discharge’ are just theoretical dispositions.

Possible Solutions

Ranjana advocated globally recognised Blue Green & Grey infrastructure to address urban flooding and building urban resilience. For example, in Delhi the increase in the impervious surface causes flash flooding (as recently also) as they decrease the rate of rainfall percolation into the ground and increase the runoff flow volume and speed during heavy downpour, which in turn results in failures of sub-surface urban concrete drainage networks. The blue, green & grey infrastructure approach capitalises on the benefits of working with urban green-spaces and naturalised water-flows. It works on the philosophy of detention, retention & infiltration methods in a catchment basin to prevent floods. Various planning and design approaches for urban blue, green & grey infrastructure that could be decentralized and multifunctional. Other benefits of it includes mitigating urban heat island effect, improved air quality, placemaking and generation of recreational spaces, wildlife protection, etc.

Blue Green & Grey infrastructure

She highlighted that a Green-Blue policy is proposed in the New Delhi Master Plan 2041 for the interdependency between the waterbodies and the land. The multiplicity of agencies however remains a major challenge which will require addressing in the future to ensure successful implementation on ground.

Alka further brought to the notice the historical importance of the ‘Sewage Farms’ in warer sustainability. The practice of using urban wastewater for rural agriculture has been age-old. The US & UK were leaders in making sewage farms and Paris was known to supply vegetables and fruits to London. The wastewater from urban areas can be smartly utilized by the farmers in rural areas for irrigation purposes. It is a win-win urban-rural water arrangement. The local municipalities will benefit by getting rid of the wastewater and even the farmers will have a more reliable source for irrigating their farms instead of waiting for rainfall. Although the contaminants in the wastewater used for farming is questionable as the health is concerned. The wastewater from the industries is much more harmful than from the domestic households.

She shared results from her studies in 5 states and 24 cities across India, where over 200 villages are using wastewater for farming and making significant savings and avoiding use of fertilizers. All these villagers have been consuming food products grown from wastewater and have not developed any health issues as they are conscious of not using water contaminated with industrial waste. For example, Phosphate found in human excreta has no substitute as a nutrient and cannot be synthesized thus, is an important building block for the humans and biodiversity. So, if not utilized in farming, it will go waste into the sea and there might be a crisis of phosphorus. Many villages are using wastewater for irrigation and benefitting from better agricultural productivity. Farmers are making significant investments in treating the wastewater at the farms as it is economic than buying treated wastewater. She concluded with a moral point that, growing food is not the sole responsibility of the farmers, the rest of the population must responsibly consume fresh water and try reusing wastewater in a decentralized fashion. Urban local bodies and other agencies also need to act conscientiously towards equity in planning and execution of water projects.

Remediation and Reuse of Sewage Water in Agriculture and its effect on Plant Health

Manisha summarised Alka and Ranjanas’s points followed by presenting few water-sensitive features incorporated in the Development Plan in Auroville. She shared the unique challenges of an urban planner in Auroville Town Development Council where the task was to bridge the gap between the conceptual vision of the Galaxy master plan given by the visionaries, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (Mirra Alfassa) and the future requirements for the town development. For example, the water and other natural resources-based planning adopted for two sectors within the residential zone of the Auroville’s city area. The drainage channels, trees, etc. were first mapped to direct the team of architects, planners and other experts towards the critical area or ‘no-go’ zones for future planning. The final proposal then contained a network of blue-green-grey infrastructure well incorporated within the sector plans. A detailed development guidelines further control the conservation and respectful use of the natural resources. Any new construction must adhere to these guidelines and the design must respect the blue-green infrastructure network proposed. Examples of decentralized water management systems from Auroville communities include rainwater harvesting and nature-based wastewater treatment are well known and a source of inspiration for many students and practicing architects-planners.

Way Forward

Some sustainable water management solutions suggested during the session include incorporating blue, green & grey infrastructure, sewage farms in rural areas utilizing the wastewater from urban areas, decentralized nature-based wastewater treatment and reuse techniques, etc. However, there are multiple challenges towards seeing these solutions operationalise on the ground in large scale. For example, since most of the industries are located at the urban fringes or the peri-urban areas, they pose a threat to this urban-rural wastewater share for irrigation, because the industrial wastewater (mostly untreated or poorly treated) gets mixed with the industrial contamination which then results in severe health impacts when used for irrigation. Another major challenge lies with the weak laws and policies that fail to address the real issue of urban-rural water disparity. They rather pass orders that harm more than benefit. For example, an order was passed by the Government of Madhya Pradesh some time back for burning all the crops irrigated with wastewater. The regulatory mechanisms adopted by the government authorities are also not stringent enough to monitor rainwater harvesting, waterbodies conservation, water pollution, etc. The ‘blue-green infrastructure’ is also being practiced in silos by certain awakened institutions and is not part of the national/state level legal codes or policies owing to cultural taboos about it.

The discussion concluded with an open question on whether we should be inclined to centralized or decentralized water and wastewater systems. Ranjana suggested decentralised wastewater system and the need for more details over its application in the various planning norms. Alka further emphasized that there is more clarity needed to actually understand the difference between centralized and decentralized systems especially among the planning and executing agencies. Decentralized systems, especially nature based require more land space and more maintenance as they deal with vegetation, and it may be very difficult to maintain the decentralized systems particularly at public spaces due to questionable ownership. Ironically, the NGT norms are yet to qualify naturally treated wastewater pure enough for reuse which is also a more cultural issue than scientific-technical. Fawzia concluded the session with emphasis on the need for robust laws and inclusion of good practices into the water policies. A positive behavioural change and greater accountability among the citizens towards consumption and conservation of water resources is crucial and urgent.

Wednesdays for Water is a think tank and communication series initiated as a Citizens Collective. The idea is to connect the water worries, wisdoms, and the warriors through dialogues/discussions/debates. The objective is to engage with policy makers, practitioner, researchers, academicians besides the youth, our future generation to explore the multi-dimensional issues associated with water problems and solutions. The Wednesdays.for.Water can be reached at wednesday.for.water@gmail.com and hello@wfor.in. Other team members of the Wednesdays for Water are: Prof. Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), Ganesh Shankar (FluxGen-Blr), Megha Sanjaliwala, Vasantha Subbiah, Shrinivas M R, Jagpreet Singh, Pooja Choudhary, Gautamee Baviskar and counting. Click Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn to reach the social media

1 Independent Practitioner and Intern at Eco Development and Research Cell Ahmedabad

2 Independent Scholar and Fellow at Eco Development and Research Cell Ahmedabad

3 Assistant Professor at TERI School of Advanced Studies, TERI-SAS New Delhi

4 Entrepreneur, Researcher, Educator, Speaker. Environmental Design Consultants Ahmedabad

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