Monday, April 30, 2012

The Greatest Challenge

The city of Tughlaqabad, the previous incarnation of Delhi, was abandoned in the 14 {+t} {+h} century due to severe water shortage. Akbar's capital at Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned in 1585 due to paucity of water. Leading global cities like Sheba and Babel declined and subsequently disappeared because water sources had dried up. The destiny of some of the greatest cities of the world like New York, London, Paris and Rome have been shaped by water. Water is the critical resource which can enhance India's economic growth, improve the quality of life of its people and ensure environmental sustainability. Climate changes and overuse of water could mean that nearly one in every two persons will live in water-stressed areas. Households, industry and agriculture will increasingly compete for water, leaving little to sustain ecosystems.

Urbanisation will be the defining feature of India's growth in the coming years; several studies have projected that it will take place on an unprecedented scale. 350 million more of India's population will move to cities by 2030. This population will double by 2050. That is 2.5 times the size of the US's present population and would be the largest urban movement in the history of the world. This is a unique opportunity for India to create next generation infrastructure; to plan, develop and manage cities that are socially equitable and environmentally sustainable. The governance and management of water holds the key to India's future.

The problem as of now is not of availability of water. The issues are optimal management, a better distribution mechanism, reduction of high rates of leak-ages, retreating wastewater and harvesting rainwater. If these issues are not treated as utmost priorities, India will have to rely on highly expensive solutions or seriously retard its growth ambitions.

The best way to approach these problems is to adopt innovative and futuristic management techniques - minimum use of water, recycling and reusing waste water for industrial uses and ensuring a higher degree of efficiency in the management of water use in irrigation. Some other measures would be the adoption of the latest technologies such as desalination in coastal areas and recharging of the groundwater level by means of artificial aquifer recharging and recovery.

A great example of water resource management is Singapore. Because water is scarce, Singapore has built up huge efficiencies in this area. Rainwater collected from rivers, streams, canals and drains is stored in reservoirs. Water catchments provide almost half of Singapore's water needs, with housing developments boasting efficient rainwater collection. All wastewater is collected and the city has a separate drainage system to ensure it doesn't mix with run-off. This wastewater and drainage water are both recycled and put into the city's water supply.

The wastewater is purified using advanced membrane technology to produce high-grade reclaimed water. This is known as NEWater which is safe to drink - and being purer than tap water, it is ideal for industrial uses. Almost 10 million gallon of NEWater is blended with raw reservoir water to become tap water. Desalinated water using reverse osmosis technique provides 10% of the country's water needs.

On the demand management side, water charges are not lump sum but based on consumption. The water tariff has several rates for different consumption levels. The basic water tariff has increased every year since 1997. In addition, there is a water servi-cing tax and a waterborne fee to cover the wastewater treatment. The tariff system has signifi-cantly impacted water usage. The city has successfully managed to lower actual water demand while both its population and GDP have grown significantly. It has demonstrated that comprehensive water resource management is feasible given the political will and an innovative mindset.

What are the lessons for India? Firstly, setting the right price for water will encourage people to waste less and use it efficiently. Secondly, in India agriculture accounts for 82% of water use as compared to 14% in industrialised countries. The agricultural sector here gets free water supply which has encouraged wasteful water use and pollution. Countries like Korea, New Zealand and Australia have demonstrated that decreased water intake can enhance agricultural producti-vity. Australia has managed to cut irrigation water by half and yet increase agricultural output.

To follow suit - and because of overstressed groundwater in various regions - we must go for drip irrigation, low water requirement crops, recharging of groundwater through rainwater harvesting and use of treated wastewater for improvement in groundwater levels by way of artificial aquifer recharge.

And thirdly, we also need to introduce innovation in recycling and reuse of wastewater for industrial use, as well as bring in the latest technologies for desalination.

A fascinating study by the Centre for School for Science & Environment - titled 'Excreta Matters: How urban India is soaking up water, polluting rivers and drowning in its own excreta' - has shown that almost 70% of Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission allocations have gone into the creation of expensive hardware for water and sewage treatment without significant gains. The answer lies in local solutions, community participation, reviving local water bodies, better distribution and management and recycling every single drop of wastewater. India's ability to manage and govern water will determine its destiny. 

The Times of India 


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