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How India Can Make Its Water Supply Less Dependent On Rainfall

04/08/2016 1:20 PM IST | Updated 07/08/2016 9:47 AM IST
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Amit Dave / Reuters

There are good tidings from the India Meteorological Department (IMD). Until mid-July, India has so far received 4% more rainfall than normal, with the south-west monsoon advancing to the last frontiers of the north Arabian Sea, Kutch and West Rajasthan., which had recorded a rainfall deficit of 34% and 29% respectively until 28 June too have moved up to register a surplus.

While this may be a cause to celebrate, we should not forget the parched, drought-afflicted Central India during the searing Indian summer of 2016 and its adverse impact on farmers and livestock in the region, the effects of which trickled down to every other citizen of the country. With water supply cuts, power plants being shut down and even IPL matches being shifted out of Maharashtra, the drought was a wake-up call for policy makers and citizens alike, making them understand the cost of water.

With falling groundwater levels, rising contamination and a surge in the rural and urban population, water has become a challenged resource. There is an urgent need to address the provision of clean drinking water and sanitation services in as context where modern water infrastructure is still in the nascent stages of development.

Converting wastewater into a resource through investment in high-tech alternative water solutions is the need of the hour.

Let me venture to state that the time has come for water experts to impress upon key stakeholders the need to get innovative and adopt alternative water supply solutions by leveraging advanced technologies. By doing so, we would make sustainable and reliable water supply "weather independent", so that come rain or shine, citizens and industries are assured of access to water for potable and non-potable usage.

What can India learn from other countries?

Across the world, climate change and growing population are compelling industry leaders toward a new era of collaboration and innovation. The Black & Veatch 2016 Strategic Directions: Water Industry Report, which is a compilation of quantitative data and qualitative analysis from industrywide surveys conducted across the United States and other countries, including India, gives us insights into what India can look to learn and adopt from other countries.

While Singapore has diversified its supply source to include catchment areas, desalination, imported water and reclaimed water, it is also working on treating water in a simple cost-efficient manner. China on the other hand is constructing "sponge cities", where rainwater can be naturally stored, permeated and purified; the target is the collection and utilization of 70% of the rainwater, with 20% of urban areas reaching the goal by 2020. The UK is turning to data analytics and smart water programs to chart consumption, manage assets and plan for the future to meet growing water demand amid climate and demographic changes without affecting assets' resilience

India: Ambitious plans to address complex challenges

Against this backdrop a number of government initiatives are influencing India's water sector.

National Hydrology Programme (NHP): In March 2016 the central government announced ₹3,679 crore funding for the NHP. The aim is to create a system for reliable water resource data acquisition, storage, collation and management. Unlike earlier hydrology projects, which only covered 13 states, the NHP aims to bring a more holistic approach to water management by addressing the issue at a national level.

Namami Gange Project: Aimed at restoring the holy River Ganga, this programme could help India mitigate water pollution at source – one of the most significant factors that make water a stressed resource. As much as 70-75% of the pollution in Ganga is municipal sewage, with the rest coming from domestic refuse and industrial effluents. To help address the latter sources of pollution, the Union Water Resources Ministry signed a joint memorandum of understanding (MoU), in February 2016, with seven other ministries that have a role in rejuvenating the river. The MoU's remit includes implementing zero liquid discharge systems for polluting industries such as tanneries, chemicals, pharma and textiles.

To tackle municipal sewage, 118 towns were tentatively identified for the provision of new wastewater treatment works. In light of slower than anticipated progress for these projects, the government announced a new finance model in March 2016. Hybrid Annuity-based Public Private Partnership (PPP) funding is to be used, under which part of the capital investment (up to 40%) will be paid by government through construction linked milestones, and the balance through an annuity over the contract duration of up to 20 years.

Swachh Bharat Mission: Though not directly linked to water management, this programme encompasses all aspects of waste and refuse, with a strong focus on sanitation. More homes with toilets and more community lavatories will play a significant role in reducing the amount of domestic sewage entering water bodies though direct dumping, or runoff.

Smart Cities Mission: An ambitious programme that has included adequate water supply and sanitation as key attributes of a smart city. The programme is brimming with potential for smart water solutions to India's urban water challenges. These include turning wastewater into a resource. This encompasses water reuse --when advanced treatment is used to turn wastewater streams into renewable sources of water, relieving pressures on stressed surface and ground water resources. In recognition of this the government is creating a market for treated wastewater. Generating energy from biogas is a component of many new wastewater treatment projects, thereby supporting the Smart Cities Mission's sustainability goals.

India's water challenges are large in scale and complex in nature, but the initiatives through which the government is seeking to tackle them are ambitious... change is happening.

Sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS) have a potential role to play in the sanitation and sustainability components of the Smart Cities programme by helping to mitigate flood risk and reducing the amount of pollution entering ground and surface water resources. Incorporating reed beds and wetlands even allows SuDS to filter out pollutants at source.

Smart meters also have a role in preserving strained water resources by identifying points of leakage and unauthorised connections to the distribution network. India can therefore save nearly 50% more water that gets lost in its distribution networks as non-revenue water (NRW), and thereby incentivize water utilities to invest more in infrastructure.

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India's water challenges are large in scale and complex in nature, but the initiatives through which the government is seeking to tackle them are ambitious in more ways than one. While the pace of progress can be slow, change is happening and meaningful steps towards sustainable progress are being taken.

The fact is that a Latur or a Bundelkhand could happen again. While globally, there remains a resolve to proceed with drought planning, in India, it can start with educating citizens on the cost of water, encouraging water re-use and emphasizing on the need to conserve the resource. Converting wastewater into a resource through investment in high-tech alternative water solutions is the need of the hour. After all, a single year of abundant rainfall likely won't replenish historically depleted water sources!

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