In the early 1990s, when I had just started going to school, I could fill my water bottle from anywhere – be it a tap or a hand pump, without it carrying the warning of germs, poisonous metals and sewage waste. Back then I read a quote from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.” What the poet Samuel Taylor imagined for the ocean is now true for my city. Like many urban dwellers, I too fear our water, air and roads. We are in constant conflict with the very amenities and resources that make up our city lives
India is rapidly becoming the epicentre for troubles linked to poor quality of drinking water. 334 million Indians still lack access to safe drinking water. Diarrhoea alone causes more than 1,600 deaths daily – with more than one child dying every minute due to consumption of pathogen-loaded drinking water. The World Bank estimates that 21 percent of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water. It is estimated that the cost of poor drinking water-related impact is about $4.2 billion or about Rs. 26,000 crores annually.
Cities are gluttonising natural resources. Delhi alone generates 3.8 billion litres of wastewater a day, of which 60 percent is let into the Yamuna river untreated. The Yamuna travels only about 22 kilometers in Delhi – 2 percent of its total length – but this short journey contributes 70 percent of the river’s total pollution load.
Less than 50 percent of urban households have drinking water sources within their premises and only 70 percent of the urban households have access to tap water, that too for limited durations. In the metropolitan cities with a population more than 1 million, like Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Pune and Allahabad, water supply is only for a few hours every day – from one to 18 hours, with the average duration being 4.3 hours. Amongst the larger cities, the longest water supply recorded was 12 hours for Chandigarh and the shortest for Rajkot at 0.3 hours per day. Thiruvananthapuram and Kota were the only two Indian cities in 2010 to have continuous water supply for 24 hours. Amongst 28 cities surveyed by the World Bank for supply water quality, none had performance indicators close to the average international standards.
Due to inadequate water supply, most households depend on at least two sources of drinking water like groundwater via boring wells or pumps. As a result, groundwater is being increasingly over-exploited even as surface water is mostly inadequately or inefficiently utilised. The quality of tap water is questionable with the presence of impurities, chemicals and heavy metals. Additionally, water supply is unmetered in most of the cities and the distribution losses of treated water range between 25 to 40 percent.
The urban poor are the worst affected by water pollution. Almost all the urban poor do not have any access to potable water and are the worst affected by water-borne diseases, ensuring they remain in poverty. At the end of 2013, the Government of India had defined the urban poor as those earning less than Rs. 32 a day. The commercial rate at which clean bottled water is available in urban areas is up to Rs. 20 per litre. With each adult requiring about two liters of drinking water per day, the urban poor in India are permanently marginalised in their access to clean drinking water.
I use the phrase “Wisdom Cities” and not “Smart Cities” for two reasons. “Smartness” reeks of elitism and non-inclusiveness. Second, “cities” limit us to big urban agglomerations and, in fact, to a small sub-segment within them. Wisdom lies in being holistic, comprehensive and solving the crises that subvert basic happiness.
First, water is scarce and needs to be treated that way. Illegal drawing needs to be restricted and falling water source levels need to be micromanaged. For instance, it has been reported that there are 10,000 illegal packaged bottling plants operating in the NCR. Such stories are common across India and need immediate attention. Water being drawn needs to be pre-treated at source as the municipal body’s responsibility.
Second, we need to fix delivery. To ensure the efficient distribution of supply water, civic authorities need to properly supervise the maintenance of the distribution and service pipes. Use of stainless steel and other non-corrosive materials for pipes prevents a significant amount of water from being lost during distribution. Additionally, it is imperative that proper measures be taken for maintenance of the water and wastewater treatment plants, pumping stations and household plumbing. This will reduce the levels of lead and chlorination byproducts in the supply water, thus reducing the risks of residual pollution (like increased risks of cancer) due to corrosion.
Third, we need to fix accountability. This includes reforming metering and monitoring. An effective solution could be the introduction of a commercial system to monitor and control the water supply and manage revenues from it. This was demonstrated in cities like Hubli, Belgaum and Gulbarga in the state of Karnataka by a private operator, which was successful in increasing the water supply from once every two days to 24 hours per day for 180,000 households of the three cities in 2006–08.
Lastly, we need to fix waste. Allowing untreated discharge of effluents into rivers is a sin that even the holiest of rivers cannot wash away. It is a form of “reverse cross-subsidy”, where heavily-polluting industries are expanding profits while slow poisoning the taps of every household.
Let us think of getting these basics right before we embark on a journey of magnificent roads and flyovers. My smart city, first become wise and give me back my glass of water. I want to drink from the tap!