Will India ever get 24/7 water supply?
A few thousand years ago, India’s Harappan Civilisation was renowned for its advanced town planning, reservoirs and drainage system – when the rest of the world was still in the infancy of water management. Today, India’s urban water infrastructure is in such a state of deterioration and disarray that it has the ignominy of being one of the few countries where not even one city has 24/7 water supply.
Indian cities such as Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad have water supplies for less than 8-10 hours a day. Yet, there is no dearth of examples of Asian cities with 24/7 water supply, some of those that come to mind are: Beijing, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Male, Phnom Penh, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Tashkent and Vientiane.
The public sector water providers in most metropolitan cities of India have a poorly integrated information system and non-revenue water ranges from 18% in Mumbai to over 30% in Bangalore and Hyderabad, and 50% in Kolkata. When such large quantities of treated water are lost in leakages and illegal connections, it makes little sense to treat the water at all.
Corruption and malpractices are chipping away valuable resources which could have been used for the benefit of the common man. Thus, lower level engineers have enormous discretionary powers, cartels are formed by contractors to raise the bids for even small tenders and kickbacks are given to politicians to procure contracts. The end result is a water infrastructure, which ranks as one of the worst in the world.
According to well-known consultant Stephen Myers, continuous water supply is not an unaffordable luxury but a cheaper option for households if one considers the coping costs of large storage tanks, pumping costs and treatment costs. Most families in the upper income bracket install costly filter systems to treat tapwater. For lower income households in urban areas, intermittent supplies mean hours of waiting at trickling taps to fill buckets of water.
Intermittent supplies are often subject to contamination by sewage during periods of low pressure, when sewage gets sucked in. Also, since large amounts of water have to be pumped in short periods, the diameters of water mains need to be larger. Customers who get intermittent water of poor quality are not ready to pay for water, so there are more defaulters than in the case of continuous water supplies. It is simply a no-brainer that poor service, poor maintenance and poor collection leads to a greater cost of operating an intermittent system than a well-managed 24/7 water supply.
A pilot project to introduce continuous water supply to Delhi was met with enormous resistance by misinformed activists in the recent past. It is only hoped that the project underway in the state of Karnataka to bring 24/7 water supply to four selected cities will be completed on schedule and present a successful example to be emulated by the rest of India. Only then will the land of Harappan Civilisation redeem some of its former stature.