The water situation in urban India has worsened every year. At its source is poor planning, governance and corruption. The administrators of cities think they have found the answer to the eternal question —where will water come from?— in venturing farther afield. But where there is water and human beings, there will be sewage, and cities have become huge generators of sewage, as well as huge water sinks. Planners, administrators, engineers and politicians have ignored sewage, the flipside of water supply; resultantly, cities are neck deep in their own excreta.
There are four reasons why the water crisis deepens each year. First, cities have ignored, exhausted or polluted their local water sources and have to source water from longer distances; leakages and costs increase. There are conflicts, among states as witnessed between Delhi and Haryana, and between farmers and the state, as seen in Rajasthan when the state government decided to reallocate water from the Bisalpur dam to Jaipur. Bangalore relied on shallow wells, fed by an intricate system of lakes, but now has to pump water from the Kaveri River 90 km away and 1000 m lower because its wells have dried up as the lakes have been deliberately destroyed.
Second, this leads to erratic municipal supply forcing people to use groundwater. Till just a generation ago, most used dug wells that were replenished in the monsoons but we now pump water from greater depths with a much longer regeneration period. Groundwater levels in all cities have been falling, sometimes up to 2m a year as in Gurgaon. Groundwater-rich cities face another problem — contamination by untreated sewage and industrial effluents. Thus, this resource is rapidly being exhausted even though 49% of the urban populace depends on it.
Third, cities have few, mostly useless, plans to treat sewage. Engineers and planners assume the sewage will simply disappear. But sewage sticks around, flows through unlined nallahs, enters lakes, ponds and rivers and turns them into cesspools or sewers. Hyderabad and Bhopal have met with only partial success in their attempts to clean their lakes.
India’s sewage treatment is a game of catch-as-catch-can. Old sewage systems in larger cities are in disrepair while the authorities struggle to cover the newly- developed areas. They forget sewage treatment systems are a complex network of sewers, pumps, drains and sewage treatment plants that have to be designed and built as an integrated entity to work. Bad planning results in sewage treatment plants with too much or too little sewage to treat, and sewers that are broken and leak. Sewage contaminates groundwater, which half of urban India drinks.
Fourth, urban water utilities are inept and corrupt. Unwilling to change, their engineers conjure up dreams of more investments to source water and expand supply networks, and deal with sewage. They are headed by bureaucrats with little technical understanding.
Cities have failed to maximise rainwater harvesting. Even cities where rainwater harvesting is legally mandated have a mixed record. One reason is citizens’ apathy; the government has to, and will, provide water, else they take to the streets. But there have been no popular protests to protect a lake or press for a city law on rainwater harvesting.
The other is official apathy. Investments in rainwater harvesting and lake protection are small compared to investments in pipelines and pumps. The commissions from upgrading or building a new water or sewage system are higher than from rainwater harvesting or lake protection.
Building by-laws are not enforced, leave alone those mandating rainwater harvesting. People occupying buildings made before these by-laws were introduced have not bothered with rainwater harvesting. Finally, there is a shortage of contractors and plumbers who can make and run these systems.
Nitya Jacob is programme director (water), Centre for Science and Environment
The views expressed by the author are personal