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Cape Town is running out of water. Indian cities must take heed

The crisis in Cape Town, the second-most populous urban area in South Africa after Johannesburg, did not happen overnight: It is a result of three years of low rainfall and drought, coupled with a growing population and an increase in water consumption and the fact that 60% of Cape Town residents are not saving water.

opinion Updated: Jan 19, 2018 14:49 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
water crisis,cape town,south africa
In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution system due to various reasons. (Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

Cape Town may become the first large city in the world to run out of water, said a report in The Independent. The city’s mayor Patricia De Lille said residents had until April 22 until “day zero”, when authorities have estimated the water supply will be finished if residents do not scale back their usage. To avoid such a situation, the city is implementing “level 6B water restrictions”: agricultural users need to reduce usage by 60% compared with the corresponding period in 2015; excessive water users will be penalised; no irrigation or watering with municipal drinking water allowed and water features may not use municipal drinking water, among other steps.

The crisis in Cape Town, the second-most populous urban area in South Africa after Johannesburg, did not happen overnight: It is a result of three years of low rainfall and drought, coupled with a growing population and an increase in water consumption and the fact that 60% of Cape Town residents are not saving water.

India’s cities must take note of Cape Town’s plight because they too are facing unprecedented water challenges.

In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in the distribution system due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system. The demand for water is only expected to rise as the country urbanises further.

Here are some solutions that the World Bank and other organisations working in the field of water conservation have proffered for India:

1)Address the huge losses of water, because if leaks are plugged, some 40%-70% more water will be available at no extra cost.

2) Create institutions with clearly defined roles and responsibilities between policymakers, designers, and service providers, along with clear lines of accountability.

3) Build human resources that are capable of designing, creating and managing the complexities of urban water provision. For this, a municipal cadre of dedicated professionals will be needed to provide the highest levels of service to consumers.

4) Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water.

5) Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution.

6) Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem.

7) Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach to the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in the Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders.

8) Last but not the least, as former Planning Commission member Mihir Shah, told HT, the new challenges will require a new strategy. And this strategy demands a new institutional architecture. Both the Central Water Commission and the Central Ground Water Board played a stellar role in shepherding India’s water sector over several decades. But these were institutions set up in a different era, serving a different mandate and manned by particular kind of personnel. Today there is an urgent need to strengthen, restructure and redesign these institutions so that the kind of leadership India’s water sector requires can be provided.

@kumkumdasgupta

First Published: Jan 19, 2018 12:25 IST