So you thought you knew why your city has a water shortage and needs a new dam?

Nidhi Jamwal
Grist Media

Three years ago, the Majumdars bought a small row house on a 600sq ft plot in the HSR Layout area of Bangalore. Before moving in, they put in place a robust water storage system for their house, which included an underground water sump, a Sintex tank on the roof and a water-pump with an automatic sensor.

“Bangalore is infamous for water shortage during the peak summer months. If the rains are good, we receive municipal water supply every alternate day. But, in a poor rainfall year, water supply is restricted to two days in a week. The only mantra for surviving Bangalore’s water woes is to build huge storage tanks to meet daily water needs of the family,” says Kamolika Majumdar, an environment professional working with IBM and the mother of a 5-year-old girl.

Majumdar blames haphazard urban development and poor infrastructure for the city’s water woes. In the last decade, Bangalore city has spread into the hinterlands that are not served by the municipality. “Unregulated digging of borewells has led to a sharp decline in the groundwater table. We are fortunate that we receive at least some amount of municipal water supply. There are several areas that are completely dependent on private water tankers,” adds Majumdar.

Not very far from where the Majumdars live, there is a posh gated colony of over 500 flats on Sarjapur Road, on the outskirts of the city. The Sharmas (names changed) moved into this housing society a year ago when they relocated to Bangalore. “I am so happy to be living in a housing complex which is not only well-planned, but also has an ecological sense. All households segregate waste and compost it, otherwise a fine is levied. However, we do not receive even a single drop of municipal water supply. All the apartments are dependent on private water tankers, which operate more like a mafia,” laments Shikha Sharma, the mother of two school-going children.

“The quality of tanker water is very poor. We are forced to buy bottled drinking water, or use expensive water treatment appliances such as Aquaguard and Kent RO,” adds Sharma. She says that last summer, the water problem was so acute that in spite of calling water tankers, water was supplied to households for only three hours in the morning and one hour in the evening. “I am already dreading this year’s summer,” says an anxious Sharma.

Summers in Indian cities are pockmarked with water wars. While in slums the fights are over the length of the queue at water stand posts, in housing colonies bitter words are exchanged over whose water-pump sucked out excess water from the main municipal water line.

State governments and urban local bodies are responding to the growing incidence of these water wars by signing up expensive water supply projects to bring in more and more water into the cities from the hinterlands, sometimes from as far as 150-200km away. But these projects can have alarming consequences: in Maharashtra, for instance, as many as 12 dams (for domestic and industrial water supply) are in various stages of construction around Mumbai, which will require at least 22,000 hectares (ha) including 7,000ha of forest land and 765ha of protected areas, and will affect over one lakh people, the majority of whom are Adivasis and forest dwellers. 

Moreover, according to conservative estimates by experts (there is no official data on water losses in Indian cities), 20 to 50 percent of water that is pumped into the water supply system is ‘lost’ due to leakage, theft, pipeline burst, non-payment of water tax and so on. State governments and urban local bodies are yet to sit up and take notice of this non-revenue water (NRW).

“In developed countries, the focus of water supply projects is on efficiency, minimizing water losses and recycle-reuse of wastewater. But Indian cities are in fire-fighting mode to meet the ever-growing water demand. Such supply side management tactics will not work in the long run. Cities must adopt demand side management in water sector,” asserts Krishna Raj, associate professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Policy at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. Simply put, instead of increasing the supply of water to cities, the demand for water in cities must be regulated.

Raj has conducted various studies on water loss in Indian cities, including Bangalore, where almost 48 percent of water is ‘lost’ during distribution. “If the BWSSB [Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board] is able to reduce water losses from the current 48 percent to 15 percent, it can easily increase per capita water availability from 75liters per capita per day (lpcd) to 150lpcd. That will also help check the inequitable water distribution, which ranges from 28lpcd in slums to over 200lpcd in some high-end apartments,” Raj claims.

According to Jesper Goodley Dannisøe, project director (innovation and export) at the Danish Water Forum, Denmark, “The non-revenue water in Indian cities is more due to lack of metering, no systematic asset management system, inadequate operation and maintenance funds, lack of attention to visible leaks from valves, lack of replacement of old and worn out assets and low cost recovery. In addition, the policy of subsidizing water heavily removes the conscience from the value of water.” The Forum has recently completed a small pilot project to plug leakages in water supply system of Rajkot city in Gujarat, and is holding talks in another Indian city to do the same.

India is urbanizing fast. At present, some 340 million people live in cities; by 2030, this number will double. This means a direct stress on the already burdened water supply systems of urban India. On the one hand, water availability per capita is declining, leading to tussles over water in cities every summer; on the other hand, climate change (erratic weather, extreme weather events, and change in monsoon patterns) is expected to aggravate the crisis.

India is already categorized as a ‘water stressed’ country, and is expected to tumble down into the category of ‘water scarce’ by 2050. Water experts consider a country water stressed if the per capita annual water supply falls below 1,700cubic meters, and water scarce if it falls below 1,000cubic m.

There is a vast disparity in water availability per capita both within and between cities in India. A 2011 study, Sustainable Tomorrow: Harnessing ICT Potential, jointly prepared by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and the National Association of Software and Services Company (NASSCOM) reported that while the city of Triuvannamalai gets 584lpcd, Tuticorin gets only 9lpcd. Another study by the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) covering 20 major Indian cities found an average water availability of 4.3 hours per day.

The Black Hole for Water

Non-revenue water is defined as the difference between the volume of water put into the distribution system and the amount of water actually billed to customers. NRW consists of both physical losses and commercial losses. The physical losses are the “real” losses resulting from leaks in pipes and reservoirs. The commercial losses are the “apparent” losses due to illegal connections, theft, metering inaccuracies and so on.

NRW has four broad components – billed unmetered consumption (where water meters do not exist, unbilled authorized consumption (unmetered watering, firefighting etc.), apparent losses (water theft and metering inaccuracies) and real losses (leaks and bursts).

“It is often claimed that cities have high water losses because slum-dwellers steal water. However, in reality, a lot of water is illegally drawn by middle class, upper-middle class families and corporate houses. They bribe municipal officials and get illegal connections. Or else, do not pay their water bills. And this becomes non-revenue water,” claims Salahuddin Saiphy, a water management expert and programme leader (water management) with Gurgaon-based Institute of Rural Research and Development. 

Pranjal Deekshit, who is associated with Centre for Water Policy, Regulation and Governance at the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), seconds Saiphy. “In Mumbai, the top defaulters of water charges are the elite and industrial houses. If Mumbai municipal corporation manages to recover its dues from these biggies, then non-revenue water figures will drastically come down, and the money recovered can be used for operation and maintenance of the city’s water supply system,” he says.

Most Indian cities have poor water supply infrastructure that was laid decades ago and is now dilapidated. Since urban local bodies fail to collect water tariff, they are unable to upgrade or maintain their present systems.

A few days ago, the Hydraulic Engineer Department within the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) released a list of defaulters with outstanding water charges. As of March 24, it consists of 211,529 names with a total outstanding amount of Rs 11,161,952,453 including well-known names such as the architecture firm Hafeez Contractor; Tata Housing Development Co. Ltd; Binani Industries Ltd; the principal secretary, Maharashtra Vidhan Mandal; chief engineer, Mumbai Port Trust; HSBC Ltd and so on.

While most cities have a high percentage of NRW, there is no comprehensive official data on the same. The MoUD has set a benchmark value of 10-20 percent for NRW. No big Indian city has reached the benchmark of 20 percent.

In 2010, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) studied Delhi’s water supply system and claimed 40 percent of water was being lost due to leakages. Two years later, the civil engineering department of IIT-Delhi corroborated this figure and said almost 40 percent of water never reaches the consumers, as it is lost due to problems such as leakage, private tankers, illegal connections, theft and maintenance issues.

Meanwhile, the Municipal Corporation of Chandigarh pegs NRW in the city at 31 percent and is implementing a project to plug the leakages. Pune is losing anywhere between 25 percent and 40 percent of its water. TERI has studied the water supply systems of four cities in Madhya Pradesh – Indore, Bhopal, Gwalior and Jabalpur – and found NRW to be between 28 percent and 44 percent.

“The figure of 20 to 50 percent water losses in Indian cities is an absolute guesstimate because most Indian cities do not have bulk water meters [at reservoirs and water pumping stations] and consumer meters to measure how much water is actually reaching the people. And, since we don’t measure it, we cannot manage it,” says S Vishwanath, a water conservation expert and director of Bangalore-based Biome Environmental Solutions.

Vishwanath is not off the mark. The MoUD and ADB study had found that average metered connection in 20 major cities was only 25.5 percent. Worse, there is no data to confirm if the installed meters are actually functional or not. Raj says he has collected monthly water bills from some housing societies in Bangalore and found that the water tariff has remained constant for many months. “This show the meters are either faulty or rigged. And, in most cases, municipal employees are hand in glove with the consumers in the theft of water,” he says.

Tanker troubles

Most Indian cities today have a wide gap between water demand and supply. Last year, the MoUD placed data in the Lok Sabha clearly stating that 22 of India’s 32 big cities were facing acute water crisis. Mumbai’s demand is 4,200million liters daily (mld), but supply is only 3,350mld. Similarly, Delhi needs 4,158mld, but receives 3,156mld. The worst-hit is Jamshedpur, where supply is only 30 percent of the demand.

The New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), which has surveyed water and sewage systems in 71 cities in it’s 7th citizen’s report on the state of India’environment, Excreta Matters, claims that leakage losses create the real shortfall in water actually supplied. For instance, in 2005, the total demand for water in metros, class I and II cities of India was 20,996mld. The supply was 19,489mld, translating into only 8 percent shortfall in supply. However, with leakage losses of 6,877mld.

“Water is essential for living, so if governments fail to provide water for various reasons, including high water losses, people have no choice but to buy water illegally at a much higher cost,” says Saiphy. Illegal water supply systems are as organised and systematic as the formal water supplies of urban local bodies.

Saiphy has studied the private water supply system in some colonies of South Delhi such as Sangam Vihar and Tughlakabad. These colonies are not covered by the Delhi Jal Board. Hence, they are completely dependent on private piped water supply and water tankers.

“The private water supply runs like a parallel system and is very well organized. The private operators illegally dig borewells in notified areas where borewells are banned, and supply water through a systematic network of pipes. Sometimes they purposely create water scarcity forcing people to call water tankers, which are again illegally owned by them,” says Saiphy. Such illegal sale of water is one of the biggest water losses in Indian cities.

But how do private operators get away with their illegal business? “Water in India is a highly political issue. Today it is the politicians and councillors who decide how much water will be supplied where. A large number of slums are supplied water through private water suppliers who charge a very high rate. The government does not control such illegal sale of water because most of these private water supplies are owned or controlled by local councillors and politicians. They have vested interests in not addressing NRW in our cities,” alleges Deekshit.

Deekshit divides problems with NRW into two broad categories – governance and technical ones. “To my mind, fixing non-revenue water through technological solutions is not difficult. Many cities in developed and developing countries have done the same. However, in India it is more of a governance issue. State governments prefer launching big water supply projects because it helps fill their deep pockets,” adds Deekshit.

Plugging the leaks

Plugging leakages in a city’s water supply system is not rocket science. According to Dannisøe, a step-by-step procedure can be followed to address high water losses in Indian cities. The Danish Water Forum recommends a long-term water audit and leakage detection program followed by registering all connections and stopping the illegal drawing of water; installation of bulk meters and consumer meters; having an asset management system; phased replacement of pipes; immediate repair of leaking valves and other types of leaks; regular water audits and lastly, aiming for 100 per cost recovery of treated water from consumers in a phased manner, based on 100 percent metering.

Vishwanath supports Dannisøe on the metering and tariff front. “Most Indian cities have not metered their water supplies. Bangalore is possibly the only one to have installed both bulk meters and consumer meters. There are over 650,000 water meters in households of the city. The BWSSB has a fairly clear picture of its water supply system,” says Vishwanath.

BWSSB has also introduced a volumetric tariff, which is based on the ‘slab system’ and actual water consumption data. For instance, in Bangalore’s domestic sector, the water tariff for households consuming between 0 and 8,000liters a month is Rs 6 per kilo liter (kl). For those who consume between 8,000 and 25,000liters, the rate increases to Rs 9 per kl. And for above 25,000liters per month, the charge jumps to Rs 15 per kl.

In 2007, the Udupi City Municipal Council in north Karnataka also introduced the volumetric tariff. For up to 18kl of water a month, households pay Rs 75. For consumption between 18kl and 25kl, the household pays Rs 7.50 per kl. The charge increases to Rs 10 per kl when water consumption is between 25kl and 50kl. Beyond 50kl, the water tariff is Rs 15 per kl. The municipal council has also managed to meter all water connections.

Metering is part of a more basic exercise – a water audit, which Indian cities do not follow. Water auditing involves two sets of activities: those at the distribution network level, and those at the consumer end level. At the distribution network level, the city’s water distribution system is divided into innumerable smaller areas called district meter areas (DMAs). Bulk meters are installed at several strategic points in each DMA to measure the water flow at fixed timings during the day. This helps identify leaks and damages in the network.

At the consumer end, the water audit involves testing consumer meters for correct measurement, identifying unauthorized connections, monitoring water usage in each DMA and preparation of water balance charts for all DMAs.

The MCGM is currently carrying out a water audit that may take three years to complete. The city has been divided into 27 district meter zones (DMZs) and the corporation is installing meters in each zone to measure the quantity of water supplied. These zones are further sub-divided into DMAs with 4,000-5,000 connections each. The corporation aims to meter all connections in the DMAs.

In their joint study, TERI and NASSCOM have also supported the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools, such as the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system for real-time monitoring of water supply and leakages, electromagnetic flow meters and pressure transmitters to check the huge water losses in Indian cities. Their report claims that at least 15 percent NRW can be saved by use of ICT tools (such as sensors and smart meters); and full-scale implementation of ICT tools can lead to saving 50 percent of NRW in Indian cities.

Some urban local bodies have already started implementing water supply projects based on ICT tools. For instance, the Municipal Corporation of Chandigarh is implementing a Rs 20.26 crore project under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), which includes reduction in water losses. Automation of the city’s water supply is expected to bring down Chandigarh’s NRW and save the corporation Rs 425 lakh per annum.

Three years ago, the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) of Rajasthan launched a pilot project in areas of Mansarovar in Jaipur for 24x7 water supply and reduction in NRW. The results are encouraging. “Due to leakages removal, loss of water (NRW) has reduced to great extent. Water losses reduced from 63 percent to 30 percent in Mansarovar Sector 1, and 50 percent to 23 percent in Mansarovar Sector 9 areas. Water saved from leakages is the extra water generated which can be utilized to enhance supplies to other areas,” reads a June 2013 study, ‘Non revenue water reduction – A tool for achieving 24x7 water supply’, jointly authored by the Jaipur-based Malviya National Institute of Technology and PHED, Jaipur.

Water saved is water generated

At present, most Indian cities are bringing in water from distant locations and distributing it far and wide.  Excreta Matters says that most cities spend anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of their money on electricity to pump water. The cost of building and maintaining these water pipelines is also high. So while money is being pumped in to supply more and more water to city residents, less and less water eventually reaches the consumers, as a lot of it is lost during distribution. 

Environmental experts are demanding local solutions to the growing water demands of cities. “Urban centres first need to exhaust the options of reducing huge transmission and distribution losses (most cities have more than 45 percent losses on this account), rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge, protection of existing local water bodies, relocation of non essential water intensive activities (e.g. soft drinks or water bottling plants), banning water wasteful activities in deficit areas (activities like golf courses), treatment and recycle of wastewater, demand side management and participatory and democratic governance,” writes Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) in his 2012 report, Water Sector Options for India in a Changing Climate.

Thakkar claims that decentralized wastewater treatment facilities should be the norm in the cities. The decentralized systems would also be less energy intensive, less cost intensive, more efficient and are likely to lead to more recycling of the treated water. “Without achieving these objectives, the urban centres should not be allowed to bring in any water from the outside areas. Legal action should follow when a city is unable to treat its wastewater,” he proposes.

Vishwanath advocates rainwater harvesting in cities such as Mumbai that receive 140 days of good rainfall. “If this rainwater is stored/recharged and used by the city residents, it will tremendously bring down the pressure on the city’s water supply system. There may be no need to build expensive dams in tribal forested areas to quench Mumbai’s thirst.”

The CSE has been campaigning to reinvent the most modern wastewater management system that reuses every drop of water discharged. In Excreta Matters, it has documented how only 22 percent of the total wastewater generated by class I and II Indian cities is treated. “We will have to reuse every drop of sewage – turn it into drinking water with expensive technology, or re-use and recycle it in our gardens, industries or use it (after treatment) to recharge groundwater,” the report says.

Managing our water won’t be easy, Dannisøe points out: “The way towards better water management goes through better resource management, pricing/metering of water consumption, maybe with differences in prices according to income, etc. It is not an easy task and it will probably take 10-15 years to have it all on track.” But he has a question – one that could make all the difference to the fate of our cities – “Can India wait so long?”
Nidhi Jamwal is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist with over 15 years of experience in environmental journalism.