Tatsat Chronicle Magazine

Lessons in Managing Urban Water Supply

India has a long way to go before it can efficiently manage urban water supply systems
November 12, 2021
URBAN Water Supply
Water as a resource will increasingly need to be managed effectively( Photo: UNICEF.ORG)

In July, the Odisha beach town of Puri officially declared its municipal water could be drunk straight from the tap. The town of two lakh people (according to the 2011 census) with a floating population of around a lakh, especially during the annual rath yatra of Lord Jagannath, now has a 24×7 pressured water supply that meets Indian standards of potability.

Sixty-eight percent of people in urban India had piped water supply in 2017, according to the World Health Organisation’s joint monitoring report (JMP) for water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Seventy-seven percent had water available on the premises and 87% had sufficient water available for at least 12 hours. But the report is silent on the number of people who have access to safely managed water, that is, water that meets the above two criteria plus is free of faecal contamination and the presence of arsenic and fluorides. It’s likely that most of the urban water supply is contaminated. In rural India, the report says, 93% had access to improved water supply in 2015 and by 2017, 56% of it was “safely managed.”

Poor water quality takes an economic toll in terms of impaired health, medical costs, lost income and poor productivity. The JMP estimates India’s economic burden of water-borne diseases at $600 million annually.

The water that emerges from treatment plants in cities and towns across the country meets potability standards (unless their administrations are derelict). But it gets contaminated before use. Intermittent supply forces people to store water in underground or overhead tanks. Fear of running short makes them hoard – and waste it. There is an entire industry around water purification equipment for home use. People incur recurring expenses in operating them. Reverse osmosis (RO) devices also tend to waste water – as much as 80% – during purification. In 2019, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed that they should be banned in areas where the total dissolved solids (tds) in water was less than 500 mg per litre.

Treated water also gets contaminated in the course of supply. The network of pipelines, running into several thousand kilometres in large cities, takes in contaminants through perforations and faulty joints. When there is pressured supply all the time, the contaminants are kept out. It’s when the supply is interrupted that pressure in the pipes drops, and dirty water from outside is sucked in. So 24×7 pressured supply is essential for water to be drinkable directly from the tap.

The Puri administration began by scanning the network for leaks. Defective pipes were replaced. The network is now electronically monitored. There are pressure and flow sensors every few hundred metres. People seeking new connections are no longer allowed to lay the last stretch of mains to their homes on their own to prevent the system getting compromised through shoddy workmanship. They have to choose from a list of vetted contractors who follow standard practices and use approved materials.

Noticeably, rather than taking an adversarial stand on illegal connections and resorting to prosecution, the administration’s emphasis is on regularising them. Water charges are kept low to encourage compliance. Slums have been covered. In fact, one of the pilots was in Saliha Sahi, a large slum. All connections are metered to ensure accountability. The hope is that this will encourage people to save water.

Community involvement and behavioural change are necessary to sustain this initiative. The Puri administration has involved women’s self-help groups for billing and collection. They also transmit complaints and report illegal connections. These women assistants get incentives and earn between Rs 5,000 and `25,000 a month.

Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar, has also achieved similar coverage albeit partially. By 2023, Odisha intends to make tap water potable in 16 cities, covering 80% of its urban population.

Attempts to provide round-the-clock municipal water supply in India go back about two decades. In 2004, the Karnataka government in partnership with the World Bank chose five zones in three cities – Belgaum, Hubli-Dharwad and Gulbarga – to demonstrate the feasibility and assess the challenges. In all, a little over two lakh people were covered – a tenth of the population of the three cities.

The immediate challenge was to assess the potential demand. This was difficult because there were no bulk or retail water meters. No one knew how much water was being consumed. The guess was that about half the water supplied was wasted.

Private operators were selected for the three cities. They were required to upgrade the network, instal bulk and consumer meters, monitor performance and set up a system for billing and customer service. Their contract was for an initial period of two years. The tariffs would be set by the municipal corporations.

The operators discovered that the plastic pipes were too old to withstand the pressure at which water was to be supplied. So the entire network in the demo zones was replaced. This revealed illegal connections and leaky house connections. But it also made operations and maintenance easier. Bulk and consumer meters were installed, as well as devices to monitor the quality, quantity and pressure.
An awareness campaign was launched to familiarise people with the new volumetric billing. They were paying a flat rate of Rs 1,000 anually or Rs 83 monthly. Surveys showed that people were willing to pay even Rs 125 a month for assured supply. Those with homes up to 600 sq. ft were given a concessional rate, regardless of where they lived. Rs 48 was charged for a lifeline supply of 8,000 litres a month.

In Gulbarga, where volumetric billing was done a month after the changeover, high-income consumers were surprised to receive fat bills. They complained that they were being overcharged. It took several months to resolve their complaints. It was found that 77% of the billing was for actual consumption and the rest was for loss due to illegal tapping and old and leaky connections on the consumers’ premises. But the agitation delayed the introduction of volumetric billing in the other two cities.

Learning from the Gulbarga experience, Hubli-Dharwad and Belgaum continued the old flat rates for many months while also sending dummy volumetric bills based on the new tariffs. This gave time to the consumers to regulate their consumption and get used to the new charges. The changeover to the billing system, thus, did not generate friction in those cities.

A survey in 2010 showed that water consumption in the three cities had reduced, contrary to expectations. By March 2011, when the project ended, technical losses had reduced to 7%, the World Bank study said. Eighty percent of consumers were bill-payers, and the municipal corporations were able to cover O&M costs as well as recover arrears. Based on these demo projects, cities like Mysore also took up 24×7 water supply projects.

A decade later enthusiasm for 24×7 drinking water supply has petered out in the pioneering state, says V. Srinivas Chary, director of the Centre for Urban Governance, Energy and Infrastructure at Hyderabad’s Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI). He attributes this to frequent political changes in Karnataka. In Odisha, he says, there is top-level political buy-in.

In 2020, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced a plan to provide a continuous water supply to the city within five years. A consultant was appointed in September 2020. In the 2021 budget speech, the finance minister said 93% of families had been reached through a 14,500-km pipe network. He said all the 1,700 unauthorised colonies except 113 would be connected within the next two years. Nearly 3,200 bulk flow meters had been installed to track the quantity of water supplied.

Water distribution reforms in Delhi have a long history. In 1998, the World Bank gave the city’s water utility a loan of $150 million to improve water supply and sewerage. The city was to be divided into 21 zones. Private companies were to be given operational and maintenance contracts, starting with two zones in Delhi. But the project ran into headwinds after NGOs, led by Kejriwal’s Parivartan, alleged that the World Bank had forced its choice of consultant on the Delhi government and that the consultancy fees were too high. The reforms were portrayed as a move by the Sheila Dikshit government to privatise the water supply. In a research study by the Centre for Civil Society, Kejriwal is reported to have said that providing 24×7 water to Delhi was an “impossible dream”.

But Dikshit did not give up. Under her chief ministership, a French company set up a water treatment plant which was inaugurated in 2006. It was given a 10-year operations contract. Seven years later, another French company was given the contract to improve water distribution in a South Delhi neighbourhood of four lakh residents. Here the water network efficiency was just 33%, indicating there was a lot of leakages. Only 32% of the water supplied was billed. Under the 12-year contract the company was required to meter all the connections and reduce non-revenue water to 15%. The company took up a cluster of apartment blocks for 24×7 water supply to begin with. It found that it was getting 1.2 million litres per day, which translated into 650 litres for each of the 1,850 residents every day. It found that the water supplied at high pressure was leaking at a faster rate – the loss being as high as 35%.

Using the helium gas detection technique, it scanned the network for leaks and plugged them. Since the residents of the cluster were getting water on demand, they had stopped storing and wasting water. When the minister in charge of Delhi’s water utility did a review in early September, he found that average daily use had reduced to 208 litres per person. In the neighbourhood where the apartment cluster is located, the company says, there has been a 39% increase in registered connections, 70% rise in billed volume, 43% decrease in non-revenue water, a six-fold jump in revenues and a 41% decrease in water loss due to water conservation and leakages being fixed. But in some affluent colonies where 24×7 water is supplied, individual daily consumption is very high – 443 litres. The residents justify the use for gardening and car washing, saying they are paying higher charges.

The five pockets where 24×7 water supply is being demonstrated account for just 12% of the three South Delhi neighbourhoods where they are situated. But the Delhi government says it will provide water on demand by 2025. That will be a tall task.

In March, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) wound up its ambitious Water Improvement Development Programme launched in 2014 at a cost of Rs 275 crore. The French company that is implementing a similar project in Delhi filed for arbitration after its demand for additional payment was not conceded. It had also wanted the BMC to provide 30% more water than the BMC’s daily supply of 3,900 litres. The government’s auditor, the Comptroller & Auditor-General (CAG), had last year rapped the BMC for tardy progress.

The contractor was required to map the network via GIS (Geographic Information System), survey slum connections, set up a call centre for consumers, make a registry of assets, and set up a leak detection system.

In Nagpur, where a 25-year operations and maintenance contract for 24×7 water supply was given to the subsidiary of a French company in 2012, only half of the command areas have been covered. And while the supply of water has increased by a fifth, half of the water is not billed.

Continuous urban water supply projects are not easy to implement. They have to surmount financial, administrative and political hurdles. If private operators are brought in, the transfer of employees from the government departments meets with resistance.

As the Nagpur municipal commissioner said in a presentation to the housing and urban affairs ministry, engagement with the public is necessary to build trust and credibility. Tariff increases need to be sequenced so there is no shock treatment. Cost escalations must be factored in. The municipal administration should have expertise in contract monitoring. Lastly, political and administrative commitment is needed.

If the case of Delhi as the largest urban conglomerate of the country is taken as an example it will highlight the general direction that urban development has taken in India since 1947.

Poor water quality takes an economic toll in terms of impaired health, medical costs, lost income and poor productivity.

Continuous city water supply projects are not easy to implement. They have to surmount financial, administrative and political hurdles.

Rather than taking an adversarial stand on illegal connections and resorting to prosecution, the administration’s emphasis is on regularising them.

When the minister in charge of Delhi’s water utility did a review in early September, he found that average daily use had reduced to 208 litres per person.

Vivian Fernandes

He is senior journalist and columnist for several reputed publication. He was formerly with CNBC-Network18 and specializes in the agriculture sector and economy. He has written more 450 articles on agriculture alone.